Thursday, March 10, 2005

IN MY COUNTRY: A Film Review

Should a film get a critical pass because it is about a highly important social topic? In a recent review I wrote on HOTEL RWANDA, I emphatically said “yes.” Well, that little personal rule is about to meet its enemy, stinging exception. Director John Boorman’s (DELIVERANCE, EXCALIBUR, TAILOR OF PANAMA) heart is in the right place, setting his latest film, IN MY COUNTRY, amidst South Africa’s real-life Truth & Reconciliation hearings; an attempt by that country’s government to right the wrongs of apartheid by trying those who doled out the persecution. Unfortunately, however, it’s his filmmaking mind that leaves the film’s events feeling thin and undercooked.

Based on the novel COUNTRY OF MY SKULL by Antjie Krog, IN MY COUNTRY stars French ingĂ©nue Juliette Binoche as Anna, a native white South African poet, who is covering the hearings for national radio. Outraged and shocked by the testimony she hears, Anna is nonetheless treated as one of “them” by Washington Post reporter Langston Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson). The debate about whether blame for such atrocities lies with the most powerful few, the soldiers they charge with orders or the populace who may or may not know of the goings-on is the most glowing and interesting theme in the film. Similar deliberation constructs the crux of Stanley Kramer’s classic, JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBURG, with Nazism in place of apartheid. But while it is the focus of the latter film, it is only a few of the pixels that comprise the blurry total image of IN MY COUNTRY.

As Anna and Langston get past the associations their skin pigments bring to the fray and find the individuals underneath, they have an affair. But a quick glimpse of a kiss and a shorter moment of edited passion betrays a kid-glove treatment to what may have been a compelling storyline. What you’ve already read might have been enough to effectively fill 104 minutes, but IN MY COUNTRY grows grossly overweight on a myriad of sub-plots. For example, the effect of Anna’s affair on her husband and family; Anna’s mother admitting to a past affair with an African-American; oddly placed intermittent pace-killing inserts of Whitfield interviewing De Jager (Brendan Gleeson), a former ringleader of barbarity; a needless sub-plot regarding the involvement of Anna and Langston’s guide, another involving a caretaker from Anna’s youth; Whitfield’s anger over the American press’s disregard for the proceedings; and, most lukewarm and needless, the glossed over suicide and funeral of Anna’s brother. While full treatment of these pieces – and others, not named - would have resulted in a three-hour epic long puzzle, inclusion of some would have sufficed here. Admittedly, I did not read the book, but it is quite plain to see that the filmmakers wanted to stuff every last bit of it and then some into its cinematic adaptation.

It is indeed a fallacy to believe that any film that tackles weighty social issues should be perceived as “important” (JAKOB THE LIAR, anyone?) Sometimes, as in the case of IN MY COUNTRY, the movie gets in the way and serves itself instead of the substantial cause that originally inspired it.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Gun To Your Head: Read My HOSTAGE Review

“Typecasting” is as dirty a word to Hollywood actors as “it” is to the Knights of Nee. Why else is Robert Davi cast a villain in all of his movies? But typecasting is not always a bad thing. Often it provides the nectar of comfortable familiarity to soothe the expectations of an eager audience. Higher-up on that scale, type can cast a perpetual shiny veneer of iconography to a select group of actors; where type becomes archetype. Thus, John Wayne will always be remembered as the rough and tumble cowboy, Edward G. Robinson as the hard-boiled gangster. With Florent Emilio Siri’s HOSTAGE, Bruce Willis officially offers his archetype candidacy as the hardened, blue-collar cop in dire need of redemption.

One of the keys to ascension to archetype status is durability and adaptability over time. Starting famously with DIE HARD in 1988, Willis’s John McClane was a perfect masculine American answer to continued post-Vietnam frailties and the xenophobic fears of Japanese fiscal superiority that dominated the day’s headlines. Likewise, in 2005, Willis’s Jeff Talley arrives amidst contemporary fears of terrorism and a faceless enemy. In both cases, these characters’ broken family histories and desire for salvation make them an easily identifiable pill for an audience to swallow. Likewise, it assures us that we can sleep safer and easier (for two hours, at least) knowing that these last boy scouts are on watch.

HOSTAGE opens with Talley acting on task as Los Angeles’s top hostage negotiator. Things go awry quickly, as a chilling turn of events leaves him feeling responsible for the doomed fates of a woman and her young son at the hands of a crazed psychopath. Leaving that harsh spotlight, Talley resurfaces a year later as the police chief in a small, quiet California town in Ventura County. Small and quiet turns big, loud and ugly when three no-good teenagers attempt to car-jack Walter Smith (Kevin Pollack), a rich accountant and his teenaged daughter and younger son. Things go awry (again!) and the delinquents are forced to hold the family hostage inside their own impenetrable fortress of a home. Further complicating matters, a shadowy organization will stop at nothing to get inside and steal a DVD tha contains vital shadowy organization financial information. When his own family is brought into the fray, Talley must spring back into action.

Forget for a moment that Columbine seems to have taught Hollywood that white teenagers are evil, or that light is never shed on the whos or whys behind said shadowy organization (I’m an American, I want the truth!), or that what starts out as an interesting suspense thriller premise literally goes up in the flames of convention and bombast. There is a highly redemptive thought on HOSTAGE that the kindness of retrospect has granted me. Consider the Smiths’ compound, outfitted with the very latest in security technology as analagous to our own pre-9/11 notion that our national boundaries were impassable. Allow then that the three measly truants were able to penetrate the compound and wreak havoc much as a small band of terrorists did on that fateful day. The faceless, nameless “shadowy organization” can then be compared to the intangible yet fully real resulting fears of terrorism that still paralyze us to this day. Finally, it is up to Talley, the blue-collar cop, the strong American patriarch, the face for our own armed forces and protective law enforcement, to restore order, to fight for and save us.

Is this too simplistic? Perhaps. But remember that art is always directly influenced by the surrounding times it was created in, whether its creators are conscious of it or not. It is thus strangely comforting in today’s pop culture environment, where Wayne’s cowboys have long gone out to pasture and nerdy scientists rescue the world from CGI mayhem, that Willis’s characters stand watch to do the real dirty work.