Film reviews

Opportunity lost

Monster
dir. Patty Jenkins.

Aileen Wuornos, like many other women who have murdered, has now been inflated into myth. In an Academy Award-accelerated process, the much abused prostitute who killed men on Florida’s desolate motorways and who was executed by lethal injection in 2002, has been anatomised and dramatised. But the woman herself seems to have given us the slip.

Watching Jenkins’ sympathetic version of Wuornos in Monster, I kept thinking that maybe Shakespeare’s King Duncan was right about Macbeth: there is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face. Certainly, much art was expended to give actor (‘the beautiful’, ‘the brave’) Charlize Theron the face and body of Aileen Wuornos. Yes, the makeup job (by Tony G) was spectacular. Yes, Theron bulked up for the role. Yes, her acting is arresting: she struts and swears like a cowboy, and she has range (surely a legitimate expectation from an actor, even a beautiful one?). But she has no mystery. By film’s end I still had no clearer sense of Wuornos herself, or why she did what she did. A problem, perhaps, of quasi-documentary filmmaking: the audience will have expectations that a feature film, with its narrative imperative, can’t meet. And there is the further, perennial problem of the dramatisation of evil. Film can do violence—easy. But evil needs a script, and a director, and actor, of something like genius.

Director Patty Jenkins, who wrote the script as well as directing, is modest in her claims. ‘Based on a true story’ the credits declare. Jenkins quite deliberately limits her focus to a particular episode in Wuornos’ life, a time when she met and fell in love with a young woman, Selby Wall (Christina Ricci), who had been sent south by her father, to ‘cure’ her of homosexuality. Jenkins’ script does justice to the neediness of both women, and to Selby’s sad, banal betrayal of Wuornos. Jenkins is also restrained—and thus more disturbing—in her treatment of the killings. And, in intermittent dialogue, she provides a sketch of extenuating cause and effect. The ‘monster’ out there on the motorway is a monster of tabloid creation. Her Wuornos is a tall scrag of a woman, crouched in profile, alone on a steep verge above the relentless Florida traffic.

Yet she killed, over and over. The film only begins to penetrate the horror of that fact—and its psychology.


Oddly, the mute face of onetime US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, caught so powerfully by Errol Morris’ documentary camera at the end of The Fog of War, is more terrifying than anything Charlize Theron or her director could conjure. The mind’s construction—just out of reach.

Morag Fraser

Seuss slayer

The Cat In The Hat
 dir. Bo Welch.

Dr Seuss was a great mind: clear, concise, unconventional, decided and utterly insane. The creator of ill-coloured breakfast dishes, politically inspired worker turtles, perfect word contortions and beasts that could balance a cup of tea on a blade of grass in a rain storm, changed everything about literature for children. He is responsible for a whole genre of word and line manipulation that has tied tongues and saturated minds entirely—infant and ancient alike. Important national events might be all the more harmonious if we banged out a rousing chorus of ‘I do not like Green Eggs and Ham, I do not like them Sam-I-Am!’ rather than stuttering about with girt, toil and abounds (in fact a few Australian football codes would do well to replace Advance Australia Fair with The Cat In the Hat’s more edifying anthem, ‘It’s fun to have fun but you have to know how’).

But while it is true Dr Seuss may be good for many things, it is equally true cinema should leave many good things alone. Dr Seuss is one of them. The beauty of his books is found in the electrifying instability of the drawings and their delightful brevity. They ain’t epic novels for long train journeys anymore than they are the shells for feature film scripts. They are quick fixes—verbal gymnastics for hungry little minds.

The film of The Cat In The Hat fails its namesake in so many ways. While the book pings around your mind like a rubber band the film lumbers under the weight of so much commercial spit and polish you can almost see the executive producers reflected in the whites of your eyes.

And why, oh why, does every second Hollywood breath have to reek of clever-dick-ironic-self-aware commentary on American suburbia. We know strange things happen behind picket fences—The Simpson’s is on TV ten trillion times a week. We GET IT already.

What I don’t get is what Mike Myers (the Cat) found funny about this flabby script and how he settled on that ridiculous walk for the hatted cat? Where is the rickety genius of Wayne’s World or the cumbersome sexiness of Austin Powers? There is no doubt he is the cleverest comic in the picture, but what a waste.

Alec Baldwin is gross and despicable in a false teeth kind of way, but his character adds nothing to cinema’s growing canon of false suitors. The children (Dakota Fanning and Spencer Breslin) pass muster and single Mom (Kelly Preston) could almost certainly have acted the buttons off her twin suit if given half a script.

I didn’t expect The Cat in the Hat to be Shakespeare but should they, would they, couldn’t they ... have failed attempting something at least a little closer to Seuss.


Siobhan Jackson

Mature art

The Barbarian Invasions (Les invasions barbares)
dir. Denys Arcand


The film industry is full of clever people. Armies of smarty-pants, making vast sums of money investigating the post-modern ironies of 70s TV or the engineering subtleties required to successfully flip a car over a baby pram but under a truck chassis. I do not jest. There is quite clearly an excess of cleverness in the film industry. But how grown up is it?

Arcand’s new film, The Barbarian Invasions, is certainly clever, but not via any gee-whizz-bangery, but because it is serious about the life and death of the people it puts on the screen. It is grown up.

Cars may drive at the speed limit but The Barbarian Invasions puts more at risk, emotionally and physically, than you are likely to experience in most picture theatres this year.

Remy (Remy Girard) is dying of cancer. Arcand surrounds him with friends and family and simply lets them talk. They talk about everything—love, fear, betrayal, death, marriage, futures markets, terrorism, US imperialism, health care, video games, heroin ...

Witty, wise dialogue (a little too witty at times to be frank) provides the backbone of this picture, but Arcand is also a master of story structure. Barbarians unfolds with a pace so human and unimposing it takes your breath away. When the simple device of fading to black at the end of a scene can pull a tear, you feel pretty humbled by the beauty of the art.

All the performances are spotless. When Remy’s daughter (who is sailing in the Pacific) sends a video/e-mail farewell to her father, the emotion is so perfectly raw, you are shocked.

There were also things about this film that drove me mad. But it was all complex anger that I would choose to experience again and again. Like a family Christmas argument, it made me crave life just that little bit more, by making it that little bit harder.


Siobhan Jackson

Still life

Capturing the Friedmans
 dir. Andrew Jarecki

Andrew Jarecki’s documentary is an extraordinary, and extraordinarily troubling film, on many levels. Arnold Friedman and his son Jesse both pleaded guilty to several hundred cases of child abuse in 1988. Arnold died in jail (an overdose of antidepressants, possibly suicide), while Jesse was released in 2001 after 13 years in prison. Jesse now claims that these crimes did not occur, and has filed a motion to overturn his conviction, to a large extent based on information uncovered by Jarecki’s film. In essence, the basis for Jesse’s motion is that the investigative methods used by the police have since been proven to produce unsafe or untrue testimony (for example, interrogating a child fifteen times, until they provide the ‘right’ answers). Jarecki certainly gives the viewer cause to wonder about the facts of the case. He by no means sets out to exonerate the Friedmans—which would indeed be a difficult task, given Arnold’s collection of child pornography, and his admission that he was indeed a paedophile who had abused children on other occasions—but not those for which he was charged along with his son.

It is the level of doubt that the film generates in the viewer’s mind that is so troubling, and so gripping. Various reviewers have claimed that the film ‘proves’ their guilt, their innocence, and everything in between. For me, the film cast an overwhelming shadow of doubt over everything, and everyone, it touched. Even the incredibly voyeuristic, and compelling, home video footage taken by the Friedman sons as their family implode offers nothing but a window into a family wracked by conflicting doubts, loyalties, and convictions. (The scenes where the sons turn viciously on their mother for not unquestioningly supporting her husband, despite his admitted paedophilia, are quite horrifying). What was most disturbing for me is that one is left doubting even the film itself. The DVD version apparently contains material omitted from the film which provides much stronger support for Jesse’s claims of unsafe conviction. The filmmakers cut this in order to produce a more ‘balanced’, and therefore believable (and possibly more dramatic) film. The ethical implications of such a decision are troubling at best.

Allan James Thomas

 

 

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