Thursday, January 31, 2013

Rabbit-Proof Fence

Rabbit-Proof Fence
Director: Phillip Noyce
Starring: Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan, Kenneth Branagh

Although I am by no means an expert on Australian cinema, nor have I seen tons upon tons of this country’s films, I *will* say that there is a certain sensibility to many of the films from Australia I’ve seen that I really enjoy.  Rabbit-Proof Fence continues in the tradition of Walkabout, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave, My Brilliant Career, and yes, even a bit of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, in terms of pitting man (or in this case, girls) against nature and drawing on just a hint of otherworldliness along the way. 

Three “half-caste” (re: half Aboriginal, half white) children, Molly (Sampi), Daisy (Sansbury), and Gracie (Monaghan), are taken away from their mothers in 1930s Australia as part of A.O. Neville’s (Branagh) plan to “breed the dark out of them.”  The white population was in total control of the Aboriginal population and felt it their duty to provide a traditionally white upbringing to these “half-caste” children.  Molly, though, is having none of it; she is a clever girl, and escapes the settlement in order to return to her mother, bringing her sister and cousin with her.  This involves a journey of 1200 miles on foot, following the eponymous fence, which runs for thousands of miles across Australia back to Molly’s mother’s home.

The tension of this film is based on racial prejudices: the whites have cordoned off the Aborigines.  This theme has been seen too many times around the world, but here in the States, we don’t hear about many of these tales as often as we should.  We only vaguely know about the struggles of the indigenous peoples in Australia; it’s good to see a movie like Rabbit-Proof Fence in order to be made more aware.  Although the concept of “The Stolen Generation” is still apparently debated in Australia (by conservatives, so take that for what you will), what is not up for debate is the racial prejudice behind such an idea.  Watching Molly, Daisy, and Gracie being ripped from the arms of their mothers at the opening of film is rough.

Given that racial prejudices lead to such vile hatred, what sets the prejudices in Rabbit-Proof Fence apart is the lack of outright hatred we see on the screen.  This is personified by Branagh’s portrayal of Neville, the man responsible for the concept of separating children from their parents in order to “raise them correctly.”  Neville is clearly the chief antagonist, the man who plots and schemes to keep the girls in their settlement and away from their mothers.  But he is also completely convinced that he is acting in the girls’ best interest by doing so.  Here is a man so utterly committed to his ideology that he honestly does not realize how morally reprehensible it is.  It’s interesting, then; Neville is not so much hateful as he has an awful case of tunnel-vision.  It’s rather like Tommy Lee Jones’ character in The Fugitive – not chasing Harrison Ford because he hates him, but because it is his job, it is what he is supposed to do.  This is mirrored by the nurse at the settlement: she is stern, but also a little kind.  She honestly thinks she is helping these children.  It’s an interesting concept of evil.

Necessarily filmed mostly in exteriors, we get lovely, awesome, sweeping landscapes of Australia throughout the film.  Very few scenes are indoors – in fact, most of the indoor scenes are those involving Neville.  This lends his character a kind of claustrophobia, underlining how unaware or insensitive he is of the larger world around him.  Furthermore, what’s nice about the scenery in Rabbit-Proof Fence is that the exteriors are varied.  It’s not simply barren red desert for every scene.  The girls are making a voyage of over 1200 miles; naturally, their landscape would alter along the way. 

The soundtrack to Rabbit-Proof Fence is very good, and one that I noticed right away in my first viewing.  Peter Gabriel composed it, but he doesn’t go hog wild synthesizer cheesetastic (as he is sometimes wont to do).  There’s a restraint that builds a haunting sense of isolation.  Naturally he uses many native Australian instruments (take a shot every time you hear a didgeridoo), and he can’t help but sneak some synthesizer in there a little, but he focuses on percussion.  The beats, the rhythms are the important aspects in this score, not a melodic theme.  The score provides the heartbeat of the film.

He's one badass mofo.

I smiled so broadly when David Gulpilil first appeared onscreen.  Given that I like many of the Australian films I’ve seen, and referring to those specifically mentioned in my opening paragraph, casting Gulpilil is not only awesome, but it feels right, almost necessary.  Gulpilil, in all his awesomeness, plays Moodoo, the crackerjack tracker Neville sets on the girls.  Moodoo never fails to return a runaway, and he can read the landscape like a pro.  Molly knows this, and she is immensely clever in her planning and her trek; she must be, in order to outwit Moodoo.  What I found enjoyable was watching Moodoo’s respect for his prey grow throughout the film.  Indeed, in some scenes, I was uncertain whether or not Moodoo knew exactly where the girls were, but refused to say.  Gulpilil is an actor whose performance comes from his presence rather than his words.  He can be a bit stilted reciting dialogue, but he’s awesome with piercing stares and otherworldly charisma.  In the making-of documentary on the DVD, the three girls who played the leads were shown Walkabout prior to their meeting Gulpilil (I wonder if they were shown the end).  There is a sense, especially if you consider Walkabout, of the torch being passed between generations of Aboriginal actors.

Ultimately, though, Rabbit-Proof Fence is a tense and dramatic film that makes for good watching.  It easily pulled me in and got me emotionally invested in the plight of these girls.  Cracking good yarn!

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Three Kings

Three Kings
Director: David O. Russell
Starring: George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, Spike Jonze

I have never been to war.  Shocking, I know.  Sometimes when I watch a war film, especially one made in the last thirty to forty years, I wonder if it’s realistic.  Obviously, I have no way of knowing.  Parts of Three Kings really felt realistic to me; I, as a total and complete outsider, watched it and couldn’t help but wonder if that was what parts of Gulf War I were really like.  But then, of course, I remember that I have no frame of reference, so I’m basically talking out of my ass.

It’s the end of Gulf War I, 1991.  Saddam Hussein has signed a treaty ending the war and starting a cease fire.  Soldier Troy Barlow (Wahlberg) finds a surrendering Iraqi who has a map hidden up his butt.  Taking it to his friend Conrad (Jonze) and superior Elgin (do I just say Cube here?), they are joined by Special Forces soldier Archie Gates (Clooney) as they pursue what they believe to be stolen Kuwaiti treasure.  What was originally meant to be a half-day excursion to find some gold turns into something more when the foursome becomes more deeply embroiled in the ongoing conflict between Saddam’s Republican Army and the rebel uprisings. 

Three Kings came out in an interesting time in America’s relationship with Iraq – more than half a dozen years since the end of Gulf War I, but only a few years away from Gulf War II.  Given that this is still a conflict that upsets the American political landscape to this day, this was possibly one of the only windows in which such a film could have been released.  The public would have been willing to listen to a story that has many sympathetic Iraqi characters in 1999; I doubt, even today, that most of the American public would be incapable of “sitting through” such a tale.  To me, that’s Three Kings greatest success.  The politics of America in the Middle East has become incredibly complicated, and there is a great deal of negative feelings that still exist.  To watch a film that shows empathy from American soldiers towards Iraqi people is heartening (even if, to my cynical self, it does seem a bit fairy tale).  To take characters that start as naïve, superficial, and greedy, and give them a compassionate heart against a politically charged background is a very fulfilling emotional journey to undergo.

Having said that, however, I don’t think Three Kings is entirely successful as a film.  It feels chaotic.  Now, before you go yelling at me that ‘but it’s war and war is chaotic!’ let me explain what I mean.  Yes, the battle sequences feel chaotic, but rightly so.  That is a chaos that works, mostly achieved through gritty handheld camera work and smart editing.  But Three Kings has a problem with split focus that keeps all its myriad components from gelling as well as they should.  The opening half hour is played for fairly broad, black comedy, painted so right from the get-go with Wahlberg’s question of “So are we shooting or what?” when encountering a surrendering soldier who may or may not be hostile.  This humor continues to pop up throughout the film, usually when least expected.  It’s funny, but when you contrast it with a scene where truly horrible things are happening and the film is trying to underline a serious moral message, the comedy feels out of place.   If anything, the constant humor took away the gravitas that the ending so desperately aspired to.  I couldn’t buy into the emotional heft as much as I wanted to because the movie had been too zany prior to that point.  More than that, the film takes its damn time establishing said emotional heft.  We don’t really start to understand the everyday implications the Gulf War has had on Iraqi citizens until about halfway through the film, and that leaves our main characters only the last third to quarter of the film to process the information and perform a moral 180; not much time at all. 

Additionally, Three Kings was a bit of a tease.  There were threads and stories that I found compelling that were not developed as much as I would have preferred.  Of course, that’s most likely a matter of personal taste, but of all the events in Three Kings, I was most interested in the sequence where Wahlberg’s character, taken hostage by members of the Republican Army, is interrogated and tortured.  Slowly, he begins to realize just what price the war has had on Iraqi citizens as his torturer tells him how his young wife and child were killed in a bombing.  I found the connection between Wahlberg’s Troy Barlow and his Iraqi counterpart fascinating.  It was one of the strongest psychological angles of the film, pitting enemies against one another only to have them find common ground.  But then, as soon as Barlow had started to realize this, as soon as I felt we were getting to some really meaty, interesting issues, it was over.  Wait, what happened there?  Perhaps it’s simply an issue I have with most dramedies in general.  By dividing overall focus, I end up feeling satisfied with neither the drama nor the comedy.  There are certainly a few exceptions to this rule, but not many.

The acting performances are all good.  George Clooney was still shooting ER when Three Kings was made, and apparently split his work week between the two projects: four days on the film, three days on the television show.  Clooney is an actor I was incredibly skeptical of when he started off as Dr. Doug Ross on ER, mostly because of all the ridiculous hype he got because he’s “dreamy.”  Three Kings was a transition project for him, his attempt to prove that he could hack it in films just as well as TV.  He’s largely successful as a leading man in Three Kings, and his Archie Gates here as many shades of Danny Ocean from Ocean’s Eleven (heck, they’re both heist movies), which was only two years after this film.  I like George Clooney a great deal now because I respect him; I think he chooses smart projects that fit his acting talent very well.  I do not think he’s the most talented actor who’s ever lived, and I maintain that in most of his roles, he’s essentially playing slightly different versions of the same role, but the thing is, he does it well.  He’s very much the new Cary Grant, another actor who I believe simply played variations on the same character, but was very smart in that he played that character very well.  (Plus they share the suave thing in spades.)  Anyway, in Three Kings, we have one of the first examples that Clooney is capable of carrying a film as the leading man.  Wahlberg and Cube (it amuses me to call him simply “Cube”) shed their singer backgrounds in a big way by proving themselves capable of playing soldiers who have to make a real emotional journey.  Spike Jonze, however, is possibly most impressive as Conrad, a noob and a dim-wit who idolizes Barlow.  In his first acting role in film, Jonze impresses, flat-out.  If anything, I wish his character was given a bit more scope in the second half.

There was a preface to the film on the DVD I watched – which, I must add, looked like a very old DVD, printed at the very beginning of DVD technology.  It explained that the director used alternate editing techniques and amped up color palettes in order to heighten the emotional experience of the film.  It honestly made me snort with laughter.  Has film technique altered so much in the last fifteen years ago that, back in 1999, the director had to actually explain to his audience that the bleach-drenched colors or slow-motion sequences or handheld camerawork or cutting to fantasy or flashback sequences was done on purpose and for cinematic effect?  Three Kings still feels fresh today thanks to these effects; if anything, Russell was ahead of the curve (apparently).  If anything, such a message feels like a modern day version of audiences becoming frightened when Justus D. Barnes fires his gun straight to camera in The Great Train Robbery in 1903 while the theater owner shouts at them that it’s not real. 

I will also one more little tidbit about watching Three Kings.  I mention above that I had an old DVD (from Netflix).  The DVD was incapable of playing about 8 minutes of the film approximately half an hour in, in the scene where our four soldiers discover the bunker down the well.  I had to skip most of that scene, picking up when they were leaving that village.  I had little choice, as the DVD was completely freezing up, but I know I missed some important stuff there.  So, take what I say with the proverbial grain of salt.  And I will report the problem to Netflix.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10.  Three Kings is a good film, but it is not great.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Sting

The Sting
Director: George Roy Hill
Starring: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Shaw

A movie like The Sting provides me another great reason to be a part of Squish’s 1001 Movies Blog Club.  Technically I had seen The Sting before.  But I say “technically” because I’m pretty sure my previous viewing was over 15 years ago, and this was the sum total of my memory of it: 1) it’s about con men, 2) there’s a scene on a train, and 3) Paul Newman and Robert Redford wear tuxedos.  Yep, that’s all I had.  I do believe I owed the film another viewing.

Johnny Hooker (Redford) is a con artist working the streets of 1930s Joliet, Illinois.  When he and his partner Luther hit upon a huge payday, they can’t believe their luck.  Problem is, they just unwittingly stole from mean as nails gangster Doyle Lonnegan (Shaw) who will stop at nothing for revenge.  When Luther is killed, Hooker goes on the run and teams up with con man extraordinaire Henry Gondorff (Newman).  The two must delicately work a long con in order to get Lonnegan off their backs – and simultaneously take him for everything he’s got.

The Sting is a lot of fun.  That’s its greatest hook.  It’s not world-changing, it’s not an expose, it doesn’t attempt to bring horrible issues to your awareness.  Nope, it’s just pure entertainment.  Goodness knows we all need that in a film every now and then.  Dark intense dramas are all well and good, and certainly some of my favorites, but every now and then I want to turn my brain off.  I’d categorize The Sting as an extremely well-crafted “turn your brain off” movie.  It’s a fun romp, and really, nothing more.

Where is the fun?  Mostly Newman and Redford.  The director had paired them up previously in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and it’s not hard to understand why he wanted to pair them up again.  Once more, younger rough and tumble Redford is there to learn from older, more world-weary Newman.  Those two have fantastic screen chemistry.  I want to believe that they were best friends in real life because they seem like they’re having so much fun together onscreen.  This feeling of camaraderie translates to the overall film.

Where else?  Much of the film is about the long con that Hooker and Gondorff pull on Lonnegan, and it’s definitely amusing watching them set up the con, recruit players, build sets, and work their magic.  A basement dump is transformed into a slick bookie’s office that has to be convincing enough to trick skeptical mobsters. 

The music is fun too.  The credits open with Scott Joplin’s famous “The Entertainer,” and much of the scored is adapted from Joplin’s other rags, which helps contribute to the film’s old-timey feel good vibe.  Granted, Joplin’s music wasn’t written in the 1930s (more like the 1900s), but it works.

I enjoyed the costumes a great deal as well.  When Hooker opens the film by unexpectedly stealing thousands of dollars, he goes right out and buys the most lurid zoot suit he can possibly find.  Watching Redford strut his stuff in a very loud brown suit with bright blue pinstripes was pretty damn funny; this is contrasted with the greater sophistication of Newman’s Gondorff, even though that character makes his entrance in a wife-beater and overalls.  Lonnegan’s wardrobe is fantastic, full of the extremes of thirties clothing; the plus fours he wears while practicing putting at his club are great.  There aren’t as many female roles in the film, so the focus on men’s fashion is actually refreshing.

Additionally, I liked the setting of the movie.  Most movies set in the Great Depression either completely ignore the tough times (The Thin Man, Top Hat), or are completely about the tough times (Grapes of Wrath, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town).  The Sting does neither.  It is not about the tough times, but it doesn’t ignore them either.  Hooker is chased by a cop through a ramshackle camp of homeless people.  There are many people out on the streets, and times certainly seem tough.  We see the reality without being bogged down by it.

Unfortunately for The Sting, however, its biggest draw was also its biggest weakness.  The main appeal of The Sting is the novelty of “the con” and just how amusing that is.  However, I am well aware of con story tricks.  Ocean’s 11, the new one, is one of my favorite fun films.  I really like the television show Leverage.  White Collar, all about a con artist, is one of my favorite new shows.  When you watch enough of these things, you start to realize how all con stories play out.  This really hurt my recent viewing of The Sting.  Despite the fact that I couldn’t remember how it ended, I could tell what was going to happen about 45 minutes out from the end of the film.  What makes con movies so great is that it is you, the audience, who is really conned.  The movie tricks you into thinking one thing, when really, something else entirely is going on.  That surprise is what gives you most of the fun.  Given that I knew this from my experience with other con stories, I just plain was not tricked by The Sting.  Audiences back in the seventies must have loved this trick that was pulled on them, and I can totally understand why they ate this movie up.  Back then, the concept of pulling the long con was fresh and new, something fairly novel to audiences.  But now, with the set of movies and TV shows I’ve already seen, if I want to watch a good con, I’d rather see something a bit more slick and modern.  Props to The Sting for originating – or at least, popularizing – the idea in such an awesome, fun way, but I feel no compunction to see it over and over again.

This is one of my parents’ favorite films, and I understand why.  It’s charming and diverting and fun.  Moreover, I like that this won Best Picture at the Oscars – rarely do we have such a crowd-pleasing flick win that particular prize.  However, it doesn’t really do all that much for me.  It’s nice, it’s fun, it’s a frothy little romp, and Redford and Newman are terrific.  But it stirs no grand passion for me. 

Arbitrary rating: 7/10