Archive for January, 2003

Rabbit-Proof Fence

Monday, January 27th, 2003


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Australian director Phillip Noyce, the helmer behind such wastes of time as “Sliver,” “The Saint,” and “The Bone Collector,” has practically erased the bad memories of his recent Hollywood sludge with the masterstroke of making two prestige art films in a single year. Along with an updating of Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American,” Noyce has directed “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” an emotionally wrenching historical drama that turns its mostly unflinching gaze on the Australian government’s disgusting, decades-long policy of removing “half-caste” Aboriginal children from their mothers in the name of “saving them from themselves.”

Set in 1931, “Rabbit-Proof Fence” uses its titular symbol – the series of transcontinental dividers designed to protect farm crops from voracious rabbits – as a reflection of the centuries-long cultural clash between white European “settlers” and the country’s indigenous population. To this day, the Australian government struggles with the nasty shadows of eugenics, racism, and even genocide, but seventy years ago, administrators like A.O. Neville (played in the film by Kenneth Branagh) crowed about the benefits of “breeding” the unenlightened blood out of the “primitive” population in order to give the Aboriginal people opportunities in society (read: jobs as servants and laborers).

The idea of forcibly taking children away from their mothers is nightmarish, and the scenes of Molly (age 14), Gracie (age 10), and Daisy (age 8) – two sisters and a cousin – being hauled off to a government-run school/boarding house/slave camp will turn the stomach of all but the most hardened misanthrope. Molly (Everlyn Sampi), Gracie (Laura Monaghan), and Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) are all played by non-actors, and Noyce’s results with the trio are consistently impressive. While Branagh is saddled with the thankless task of bringing to life a misguided and ignorant antagonist, Noyce thankfully spends most of the film’s time with the three little girls, observing many of the awesome details of their odyssey.

It takes Molly only one day at the government dormitory to figure out that she needs to leave. Taking Daisy and Gracie with her, she sneaks away under cover of heavy rain (so as to frustrate the efforts of preternaturally gifted tracker Moodoo, played by David Gulpilil, from the outback classic “Walkabout”), and begins a journey of some 1200 miles, in order to be reunited with her mother. The arduous trek, which the girls made entirely on foot, took them more than two months, and the entire quest was fraught with the triple threat of eluding recapture by government trackers, finding enough food to sustain them, and avoiding detection by farmers who might potentially contact Neville’s office.

Shot by ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle, “Rabbit-Proof Fence” tempers the girls’ unrelenting endurance and determination with the otherworldly beauty of the stark and haunting Australian landscape. It is uncertain how many details of the girls’ flight were concocted specifically for the film (Christine Olsen’s screenplay was based on an account by Molly’s daughter Doris Pilkington), but the essential facts remain stunning regardless of dramatic flourish. Seeing footage of the real, 85-year-old Molly and the 79-year-old Daisy, who appear at the conclusion of the film, is a powerful exclamation point to all that has come before, but hearing Molly tell what happened to them after their 1931 adventure is a genuinely tragic, thoroughly astonishing coda.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/27/03.

Real Women Have Curves

Monday, January 20th, 2003


Movie review by Greg Carlson

After picking up the Audience Award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, it is easy to see why “Real Women Have Curves” is popular with moviegoers.  Alternately working the timeworn traditions of a mother-daughter generation gap struggle and the rites-of-passage, coming-of-age awakenings of a young high-school graduate, the film sparkles with a sense of its own hearty universality.  “Real Women Have Curves,” as its clever title suggests, also adds to its mix the running theme of weight and self-image – a central issue addressed in virtually every scene in the film.  This story has been told before, but the winning performances of the entire cast, and the measured composure of the script, help make the movie a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Set in the working class sunshine of East Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights, “Real Women Have Curves” begins on 18-year-old Ana Garcia’s (America Ferrera) final day of classes at Beverly Hills High School (Ana’s bus ride from East L.A. to get to BHHS immediately sets up the cultural divide between the working class and the wealthy, and reminds the audience that Ana has already pushed herself hard in order to be able to go to school in Beverly Hills).  Ana’s compassionate teacher, Mr. Guzman (George Lopez), recognizes the young woman’s intelligence and potential, and has taken steps to help Ana apply to NYC’s Columbia University.

Naturally, Ana’s traditional, tightly-knit family expects her to help out at older sister Estela’s (Ingrid Oliu) small, sweltering dress-making business.  Matriarch Carmen (stalwart favorite Lupe Ontiveros) goes one better, insisting that Ana lose weight in order to lure a husband.  Even though Ana wants none of this – especially her mother’s unwelcome meddling – she begrudgingly accepts a job at Estela’s little factory, ironing dresses in sauna-like conditions.  Rebellious and bitter at first, Ana soon begins to realize how hard her family works, and discovers that she is torn between going to college and obeying the wishes of her family.

First-time director Patricia Cardoso, working from a screenplay by George LaVoo and Josefina Lopez (that has been adapted from Lopez’s play), filters the narrative through the eyes of Ana, and Ferrera is perfectly cast, capturing the delicate balance of assertiveness and apprehension that can seem overwhelming to young people caught between childhood and adulthood.  Cardoso also recognizes that Ontiveros is a seasoned veteran with expertise and personality to spare, and makes sure that the radiant actress is given plenty of opportunities to craft a character of enormous depth (equally manipulative and tender, Ontiveros is an absolutely hilarious when she claims to be pregnant).

“Real Women Have Curves” occasionally suffers from its own earnestness, but Ontiveros and Ferrera are abetted by strong supporting players, including Oliu, whose Estela is intriguing enough for her own movie.  Obviously, the film’s focus is fixed on the female characters, but Jorge Cervera Jr. and Felipe de Alba, as Ana’s father and grandfather, are marvelous in their smaller roles, projecting the warmth and compassion needed to temper some of the more outrageous and exasperating shenanigans of Carmen.  While it would have been welcome to explore more of Ana’s internal thoughts, “Real Women Have Curves” maintains an energy and liveliness to match its sincerity.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/20/03. 


Monday, January 13th, 2003


Movie review by Greg Carlson

A Norwegian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at last year’s Academy Awards, Petter Naess’ comic “Elling” is a typical, familiar “Odd Couple” tale of two mentally ill men who must learn to cope in the world in spite of their status as social misfits. Fortunately, “Elling” surpasses the majority of feel-good movies trading in this narrowly-defined subject matter by remaining refreshingly light on the obligatory life lessons so often preached in fare like “Rain Man and “Awakenings.” Naess works hard to overcome the obvious limitations of the static, location-bound script (“Elling” was a successful stage play prior to becoming a film), and finds an unsentimental tone that should please most audiences.

Based on a novel by Ingvar Ambjornsen, both the stage and screen versions of “Elling” focus on the relationship of the title character to his unsophisticated roommate (and eventual best friend). Per Christian Ellefsen plays Elling, a slim, fussy, agoraphobic who was looked after by his mother until her death landed him in a state psychiatric institution. Kjell Bjarne (Sven Nordin) – as practically required in this sort of comedy – is the polar opposite of Elling. Kjell Bjarne (comically, Elling always refers to him by first and last name) is a giant, loutish, bear of a man who rarely bathes and spends most of his time lusting after beautiful young women. Once their term in the hospital is complete, the men are moved into a small apartment in Oslo, assigned a social worker, and expected to essentially take care of themselves.

In the early parts of the film, Naess sticks to the formulaic game plan: Elling and Kjell Bjarne must learn to answer the telephone, buy their own groceries, cook and clean for themselves, and stick to their modest welfare budget (social worker Frank Asli, played by Jorgen Langhelle, is surprisingly understanding when the boys ring up a hefty phone bill for calls to a sex line). Even though the apartment has two bedrooms, the men prefer to share a room just like they did in the institution. Their debate over what to do with the leftover space (library versus workshop) generates a clever motif that is periodically revisited.

Of course, some larger conflicts are needed to propel the action forward, and Elling’s world is shaken up when Kjell Bjarne takes a shine to the pregnant, single, upstairs neighbor Reidun (Marit Pia Jacobsen). Reidun returns Kjell Bjarne’s affections, effectively shutting out Elling, who in many ways has come to depend on his friend as much as he did on his mother. Angry and frustrated, Elling talks himself into attending a poetry reading, where he unknowingly makes the acquaintance of a once-famous writer named Alfons Jorgensen (Per Christensen). Before you know it, all four characters have come together for one of those required road trip-outings that finds them spending a weekend at Alfons’ lake cabin.

While much of the humor in “Elling” is derived from the superficial differences between Elling and Kjell Bjarne, the actors inhabit their roles with considerable charm and impressive depth. Both performers worked together on the stage version, and their rapport translates easily to celluloid. Naess’ collaborator, screenwriter Axel Hellstenius, also worked with the director on both the stage and screen versions of the story, and their intimate familiarity with all the details of the comedy has allowed them to tweak favorite moments (like Kjell Bjarne’s frequent head-butting, or Elling’s sly transformation into the “Sauerkraut Poet” as soon as he puts on a pair of oversized sunglasses) to perfection. Remake rights to “Elling” have already been sold, and an American version is reportedly in the works.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/13/03.

Far from Heaven

Monday, January 6th, 2003


Movie review by Greg Carlson

His most accomplished film to date, director Todd Haynes’ “Far from Heaven” is certainly one of 2002’s strongest American movies, and is likely to bring an Academy Award nomination to actress Julianne Moore. Lavishly, meticulously recreating the mise-en-scene of 1950s Technicolor melodramas, Haynes aestheticizes and fetishizes his raw materials, from the stilted, overly formal dialogue that masks and clouds the intended meaning of the words his characters speak to the lavender-hued scarf that blows down from the crimson-leaved treetops. Haynes has self-consciously filtered every detail of his movie through the lens of artifice, and the result is a compelling portrait that shows just how little things have changed over the last forty-five years or so.

“Far from Heaven” is essentially a reworking of a handful of Douglas Sirk movies, particularly “All That Heaven Allows,” in which forty-something widow Jane Wyman faces social ostracism for dating her gardener, played by Rock Hudson, a man some fifteen years her junior. Haynes shrewdly rethinks a handful of the story’s underlying thematic engines, making his central character a young wife to a closeted homosexual (Dennis Quaid) rather than a widow. The gardener with whom she finds comforting kinship and support is an African-American (Dennis Haysbert). Fortunately, the director also chose to align himself with Sirk’s incomparable appreciation for subtext.

“Far from Heaven” takes place in 1957 in a suburb of Hartford, Connecticut, where Cathy and Frank Whitaker radiate the values of Eisenhower-era contentment as “Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech” – a title referring to Frank’s job as an executive with a TV industry firm, bestowed upon the pair by the gossipy local society pages. On the surface, Cathy appears to be the model of the happy homemaker, but one night she takes dinner to Frank’s office and discovers him kissing another man. Frightened, confused, and shattered, Cathy internalizes and represses her feelings, putting on a brave face in order to maintain the illusion of the perfect family and the perfect life.

Meanwhile, Cathy begins to grow close to her gardener, a widower with an eleven-year-old daughter. His name is Raymond Deagan, and because his skin is not the same color as Cathy’s, tongues start to wag as soon as the two are seen talking to one another. Haynes is masterful in sketching (with Sirkian precision and skill) the kind of oppressive nexus of homophobia, racism, and classism that continues to choke American society, and with a few reaction shots here and a few well-selected lines of dialogue there, we share in Cathy’s misery and frustration over how things can become so messed up so quickly. Haynes never comes close to allowing Cathy to act on any physical desire for Raymond – despite the intensity of their relationship – and her emotional disintegration as a result of this is palpable.

“Far from Heaven” succeeds because Haynes loves his characters, and lets them lead the action (the director conceded that he was worried about how audiences might misinterpret his emotional sincerity). Quaid and Haysbert are fantastic, but Moore is magnificent, and turns in one of the finest performances of her already impressive career. Her Cathy is an unusual and surprising creation, a woman who does everything she can to loosen the shackles of her existence even as she recognizes the inevitability of her failure. It is tragic to contemplate Cathy’s fate, especially after all of the bold actions she takes to avert the cruelty of her circumstances, but it is precisely the fierceness of her struggle that makes her so great.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/6/03.