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Three Dollars (2005)
a non-Australian (and puzzled) response
I found this film, despite the very attractive performance by David Wenham, to be quite puzzling, as it was difficult to decipher precisely what the filmmaker was up to. Was it a moral fable, divorced from the real world? (Thus Amanda, the dogs, and so on, not to speak of the very poor return that the main character got on his acts of kindness which seemed a bit obsessive.) Or did it have a social theme? If so, does not Australia have some minimum social programs, like unemployment insurance, wrongful dismissal labour tribunals or, at the very minimum, the dole? Chemical engineer to dumpster diver in 24 hours does seem a bit hard to swallow.
cold, disturbing film that offers the viewer little solace
I saw this film at the Montreal International Film Festival, where it has been well received. I have a feeling that it will not play as well inside the US, because it resolutely, disturbingly refuses to explain the behaviour of the teen-age killers, and also resolutely refuses to blame politics, economics, "society," or even the NRA (pace Michael Moore) for what appears to an act motivated by the fact of being sixteen. Van Sant's steadicam follows the principles (all non-professional actors) through the attractive, wide, clean halls of a large US high school, shooting them largely from behind. They walk, do normal things, greet one another, and are dead by lunch time. The killers spend the morning awaiting the delivery of the last item in their arsenal, playing Beethoven and a pared down video game, exchanging a kiss in the shower, and watching the Rise of Hitler on the History channel with half an eye. "Is that one Hitler?" one asks the other. "Yeah." The experience is hypnotic and perhaps the audience becomes as hypnotized as the young killers are by their own act. Whatever the source of the strength of this film, I find it hard to shake.
Road to Perdition (2002)
Beautiful and Empty
As was true of American Beauty, the press reviews were almost wholly laudatory. As was true of American Beauty, I found it hard to see what the fuss was about. This film is beautifully filmed, extremely stylish (probably a little too stylish -- the balletic slaughter toward the end is absurd) and utterly without content. What is this film about? That even if your father is a mass murderer (he does in maybe 26 folks in six weeks alone, let alone whom he might have killed previously) he's still your father? Oh. The film is clearly intended as some sort of morality play (it certainly isn't realistic gangster fare), but what's the moral? Law enforcement does not exist, not a single siren ever sounds, the violence takes place in a vacuum, barely observed by the larger society. What is all this? If violence is so encapsulated that it does not affect the larger society, who cares if these guys off each other? Where is Sam Pekinpaugh when you really need him?
The Deep End (2001)
outdated homophobic attitudes show through
Like a number of other commentators on this site, I too came out of the film puzzled at the almost uniformly excellent reviews it received. Whereas G. Bennett has pointed out the film's strengths and has provided a most sympathetic reading of the character played by Tilda Swinton, it should be pointed out that the novel credited as the basis of the script, The Blank Wall, by Elisabeth S. Holding, was published in 1947, at a time when the mere fact of homosexuality itself was sufficient cause for the over-reaction of the mother in this film. Underlying the whole story is the stubborn idea that the son has been preyed upon by the evil chicken hawk (whose pursuit of the lad around the boat-house is ludicrous) and if he can but be sent off to a good Christian college like Wesleyan, he will be saved. Once these attitudes are taken into account, the whole plot (which has holes you can drive a truck through) falls into place. The blackmailer with a heart of gold is explained, because he too, presumably, is under the spell of the evil Nagle, who, I guess, is also gay. When he sees photos of a happy family life (sans a husband), he might be imagining himself in the "normal" role he never enjoyed. Thus his conversion to the good (and straight). The difficulties of reading the ending also begin to make some sense from this perspective. In the end, I am fairly certain that remakes of 40's novels about homosexuality are probably doomed to failure, unless they are done as period pieces. If this had been, incidentally, it would have sunk without a trace.
A very French interpretation of an English novel
Ruth Rendell's novel, A Tree of Hands, was, as most of her work is, brooding, obsessive, and menacing. In Claude Miller's hands, the book has become altogether expatriated. It is now chic, extremely clever, and quite amoral. In short, very French. Briefly, the lives of a successful novelist, bereft of her only child who has just died in a fall, and her mad mother, intersect with those of another mother, a barmaid, who neglects and abuses her child, another little boy, and her taciturn boyfriend. The film cuts briskly back and forth between these two worlds, from the novelist's lovely house in a wealthy Paris suburb, to the bar-resto, hangout for pimps and dealers, where the other woman is employed. It is driven by the mad logic of the novelist's mother and Miller's strength is the insidious way he inveigles the audience into accepting that logic as sane. This is certainly not Rendell, but it is a lot of fun--think a tighter, tauter, altogether more stylish Talented Mr Ripley. The three actresses who play the three mothers jointly won "Best Actress" award at the Montreal Film Festival where the film had its North American premiere.
Leo und Claire (2001)
a solid, well-made, moving film based on actual events
I saw this at the Montreal Film Festival, which this year is showcasing German cinema. Leo und Claire is based on a real story, the account of a German Jewish manufacturer who was tried and executed for having sexual relations with a young Aryan woman. But this is really a love story, and the new title, which focuses on the relationship between the man and his wife, Claire, puts the emphasis in the right place. Although Leo was innocent of the charge, he was certainly guilty of being Jewish in Nazi Germany and the film has the courage to deal with the complicity of "ordinary Germans" in the persecution and destruction of the Jews. As well, although the viewer's emotions are gripped by Leo's trial and sentence, no one watching the film will overlook the irony that in some terrible way, he got off lucky compared to what probably happened to his wife and those of his family who were still in Germany, of which nothing specific is known. The participation of Leo's daughter, Lilo, now an old woman resident in Israel, where she lived through the war years, makes the film that much more immediate.
Moulin Rouge! (2001)
Considering the hype, I was not surprised at how poor this flick was, but it did get respectable reviews, so off I went. The opening sequence did not bode well; altogether too high energy to build on, it left the eye with nowhere to rest and, oddly, nothing to look at. It all went downhill from there. There is a limited amount of pleasure one can get from soft pop rock put to anachronistic purposes; less from camera work that never ceases its frenetic, but ultimately repetitive action. On the second reprise of The Show Must Go On, I became afraid that it would and left.
Wo hu cang long (2000)
Absolutely bloody marvellous
First, I should say that I am not a martial arts fan nor a devotee of Kung Fu movies. I've seen maybe two Bruce Lees and that's about it. But I was encouraged to see this film from the reviews and I will probably see it again. I am told that its plotline is a common KungFu story, but it reminded me of Maxine Hong Kingston's semi-autobiographical The Woman Warrior, in which the daughter of Chinese immigrants to the US seeks refuge from her family's attempts to control her fate in her fantasy of becoming a character from Chinese myth, the woman warrior who saves her family by learning the martial arts as a mystical discipline. This film too is altogether women-centred--the first thing I noticed as the film opened was that none of the women's feet were bound, although they would have been at almost any period in Chinese history. So this is not history, but myth, myth in which a young woman (ZiYi Zhang) seeks to avoid a forced marriage by becoming, clandestinely, a powerful warrior. That she must do so outside the discipline of the training school leads, inevitably, to complications and excesses, but never are we led to condemn her search. It is an utterly beautiful movie, more a ballet than anything else, and the fight scene in the tree tops is absolutely not to be missed. The film is playing here in an IMax version as well, and while I haven't seen it, people I know who have were less enthusiastic about it than I: apparently the effects are so spectacular in this format that they overwhelm the film. I am, however, puzzled by the PG 13 rating for violence. The violence in this film is notional; I can remember only one splash of blood and there are very few apparent deaths. Younger children might have difficulty with a subtitled film and they might find some of the exposition a bit slow, but they certainly would not be harmed by seeing it.
Joe Gould's Secret (2000)
first-class acting, direction, setting
Joe Gould's Secret, based on the story of the relationship between Joseph Mitchell of the New Yorker and a familiar figure on Greenwich Village Bohemian scene, when there still was a Bohemia in the Village, marvellously evokes a time long gone when there was a community of artists, poets, and writers who recognized one another as comrades in a struggle against conformity and what they would call Philistinism. Joe Gould, who claimed to speak the language of seagulls and to be writing the "Oral History of the World" was maintained for years by this community though he never published a word. Ian Holm's portrayal is absolutely convincing as is Stanley Tucci's Mitchell, the New Yorker writer who found his life altered absolutely by his involvement with Gould. The Village looks pretty good too. For younger viewers who may have heard about the Greenwich Village art scene but who cannot imagine what all the fuss was about, this film is must viewing.
Cradle Will Rock (1999)
excellent cast; splendid finale
Cradle is not quite a docudrama, though based on actual events during the Depression, when the Federal Theater Project was trying to bring theatre to ordinary Americans(and succeeeding). Robbins has chosen to present the aborted production of Marc Blitzstein's Cradle Will Rock in a 1930's agit-prop style (with some allowances for contemporary irony)that takes a little indulgence on the viewer's part. But the cast is marvellous, especially Bill Murray as a drunken ventriloquist, Vanessa Redgrave doing a star turn as an OTT parlour pink, and John Turturro as a working-class Italian actor. Susan Sarandon is pretty good too, though the accent needs some work. Whatever shortcomings the middle of the film may have (like almost all films, it is too long), the ending is smashing, beginning with the Dies committee hearings and ending with the wild-cat production of Blitzstein's Cradle. Robbins wants to remind us what real theatre can do; the wide shot at the end, pulling away to modern Broadway, reminds us of what it doesn't.