Film reviews

Descent into devastation
The Assassination of Richard Nixon, dir. Niel Mueller.

Sean Penn is a great actor. Perhaps too great. How so? you ask. Well, the truth is that a film is rarely a vehicle for a single body, and Penn’s performances burn so brightly that they have the ability to consume everything around them. In The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Penn plays Sam Bicke (yes, it does sound like Travis Bickle, and the similarities to Taxi Driver don’t stop there)—furniture salesman, ex-husband, and would-be assassin.

Based on a true story (inspired by the story of Samuel Byck, who, in 1974, attempted to hijack a commercial airliner and crash it into the White House), Assassination traces a year in the life of a very unhappy man. A man who feels the weight of social injustice with such personal vehemence that life becomes an impossible burden. Penn leaves no doubt as to the strength of his character’s feelings. When Bicke pushes buttons on a TV remote control, you imagine he might be blowing up a building—which is an extraordinary feat of performance, but ultimately cripples the film. Or at least gives it a limp.

As a portrait of a devastated man, The Assassination of Richard Nixon is nearly flawless. It tackles the inextricable and frightening mix of personal and public disappointments that can misshape a life. Beaten by circumstance and insecurity, Bicke sees everything around him as dishonesty and opportunities denied—everything from little lies in furniture sales to big lies in the White House.

Bicke chronicles his disappointments with life and the elusive American Dream by recording his thoughts on tape—it’s like a self-improvement course in personal destruction.

Contrasted with these are actual self-improvement tapes given to him by his boss (Jack Thompson), full of truisms and corporate garbage: ‘The salesman who believes ... is the salesman who receives.’
This structural trick works handsomely, further darkening the hole Bicke has dug himself. In reality (and in the film) Bicke sent the tapes to Leonard Bernstein, a man he thought of as representing a rare purity. What Bernstein made of them would be interesting to know.

The difference between a good man and a bad man can be so very slight: a loan application denied, watching a particular news report, access to a gun. While Assassination doesn’t pretend its protagonist isn’t descending rapidly into extreme paranoia, it does suggest the system is partially to blame.
The Assassination of Richard Nixon attempts to wrangle with some very serious issues—rampant misery and disaffection of the many and the hypocrisy of the ruling few. And to a large degree, it works. But for my money, the script isn’t strong enough to support the weight of Penn’s performance.

Siobhan Jackson

An old story with new heart
Ae Fond Kiss, dir. Ken Loach.

Ken Loach is certainly a big name in British film. His very particular brand of social realism has driven all his work and has had admirable political impact (most notably a change to homeless laws after a series of docudramas he made in the ’60s). But Loach is not all about the art of political change. He is also a very skilled storyteller, with a real sense of the bigness of little stories.

Ae Fond Kiss is the story of two lovers. Casim (Atta Yaqub) and Roisin (Eva Birthistle) are a young couple living in Glasgow. Intelligent, open-minded, good-looking. But Roisin is Catholic and Casim is Muslim. There is a problem. At least for others. Most notably Casim’s family.

There is nothing new in the basic story of Ae Fond Kiss. The story of lovers overcoming family hurdles is even older than Romeo and Juliet. But it’s always worth having a look at a standard through the eyes of a director with the direct humanity of Loach. There are few who can depict the complexities of real people’s real lives with as much grace. He achieves this in part by employing mostly non-actors but also by working from deceptively simple scripts (this one, and many other Loach films, written by Paul Laverty) which weave stories that are painfully particular and rarely fall on generalisations to make a point. The characters sweat and stumble, have a mixture of small and big ideas, make silly decisions for good reasons and fall in love when they should probably just be ‘good’ sons. Loach doesn’t go looking for big narrative conflicts; he just puts loving children in houses with their loving parents, and voila!

Ae Fond Kiss is full of delightful humour. Watching Casim’s father (played by Ahmed Riaz with a perfect mix of pride and humour) mark out the foundations of an extension to their family home is quite simply hysterical—a Glaswegian Pakistani treading on his wife’s flowerbeds with the local gormless builders looking on. Not to mention the incident with the dog and the car battery (you really have to see that one).
This is by no means Loach’s most important film, but its frankness about love, cultural clashes, religion, sex and families is very moving. And there isn’t a whiff of the love-conquers-all claptrap that taints so many stories of this ilk. Casim and Roisin don’t know if they will be in love forever; they just want the freedom to explore the possibility.

Like the Robert Burns poem says:

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee!

Siobhan Jackson

Lost in time
2046, dir. Wong Kar Wai.

Wong Kar Wai is one of my favourite film-makers, and his last film, In the Mood for Love, is one of my favourite films. So I was rather looking forward to seeing 2046. Wong is a notoriously
unhurried film-maker, often liking to go into production without a finished script, writing and rewriting as he goes, but even by his standards it’s been a long wait. Work has been going on and off for the four years since In the Mood for Love came out; the film had its ‘première’ at Cannes in May last year, having had its screening slot shifted three times as the production team raced to complete the computer-generated effects.

The film then went immediately back to the editing room for more work. (Wong’s advice to film-makers working with computer-generated images? It’s easier if you have a script!) Tony Leung Chiu Wai, who plays the film’s central character, Chow Mo Wan, heard rumours of more reshooting, and immediately shaved off his character’s trademark moustache. ‘You just can’t go on shooting like that; you have to stop,’ he said. ‘The last two weeks of 2046: nightmare, nightmare.’

Once you see the film, it’s not hard to imagine why it might have been a difficult project to work out how to end, let alone how to give a sense of unity and coherence. It is fragmentary and elliptical, constantly throwing out threads to the future and the past, to the real and the imagined, to memory and the stories we make of it and that we hold on to long after memory has faded. 2046 is the number of the room in which Chow and Su Li-Zhen (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk) used to meet in In the Mood for Love; it is the number of the room next to the one in which Chow now lives and writes, where his landlord’s daughter rehearses all the things she should have said to her Japanese lover when he asked her to elope with him; it is 49 years from the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong in 1997, when (in reality, not in the film), they promised, nothing would change for 50 years.

It is also the title of the one thing Chow still seems to have any passion for: a science-fiction novel called 2046. In the novel, there is a train that goes to a place called 2046: ‘Everyone who goes there has the same intention ... to recapture their lost memories. It was said that in 2046, nothing ever changed. Nobody knew for sure if it was true, because nobody who went there had ever come back.’

The film flits back and forth between different moments in Chow’s life throughout the sixties, through various affairs and involvements, slips in and out of the sci-fi world of his novel, which in turn mirrors different parts and people from his life. Both Chow and Wong, it seems, wish to bring forth the impossible: to grab hold of the past before it slips from their hands and becomes memory; to have a past which never changes, in a present which does nothing but. Sadly, beautiful though the film is, Wong isn’t quite able to bring 2046 to bear all this weight of metaphor and overdetermined allusion. For all his leaps backwards and forwards in time, all the ghosts of previous films and places and times that he summons up, the film, like Chow, can offer us little more than a cold heart, lost in the memory of a long-distant mood … for love.

Allan James Thomas



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