In October 1975, the obscure little Portuguese colony of East Timor was given independence after 400 years of European rule. A mixed Melanesian/Polynesian population was sitting on rich mineral and fossil fuel potential and surrounded on three sides by the region’s powerhouse, Indonesia (with Australia to the south). After only nine days of independence, Indonesia invaded in one of the most cynical and brutal land grabs in modern history.
The Indonesian armed forces, knowing that an invasion was a gross breach of international law, wore plain clothes and did everything they could to extinguish evidence and witnesses. The most celebrated victims of the atrocity were the Balibo 5, young Australian television journalists who were stranded in the border town of Balibo as the invasion began. Without the benefit of modern-day communications, they simply disappeared and the Australian government, who (along with the US) gave tacit approval to the entire horrible exercise.
The theme for the week seems to be romance and some of the finest love stories of recent (or in fact any) year have just made their way to our screens. Firstly, The Young Victoria where Emily Blunt (Sunshine Cleaning, The Devil Wears Prada) deservedly takes centre stage for the first time as the eponymous royal. Even reviewers are entitled to a little prejudice, and I wasn’t expecting much from this going in, but I left the cinema full of admiration for an intelligent script, perfectly-pitched direction and consistently able performances from expected and unexpected quarters.
Blunt’s Victoria is a headstrong teenager, frustrated by the competing political interests that push and pull her. Only Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (whose suit was instigated by yet more euro-intrigue) seems to see the real Victoria and offers the new Queen support and independence. The relationship between Blunt’s Victoria and Rupert Friend’s initially nervous but ultimately self-assured Albert is charming, natural and moving and the background of political intrigue and machinations provide necessary (but not overwhelming) context. The Young Victoria is a film that, and I hope this makes sense, is perfectly balanced.
In 1997 two young hotshots stunned the film world by winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for their first produced script. Since then, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have suffered cruel mutterings ever since: that they couldn’t possibly have written such a good film by themselves and that if they did why haven’t they written anything else? Added to the indignity is the constant rumour that Hollywood script guru William Goldman netted a million dollars for three weeks work punching up Good Will Hunting on condition that he would forever deny it (which he denies).
In the 11 years since that win the career trajectories of Affleck and Damon have been public. Starring roles in blockbuster successes, high-profile romantic liaisons and (in the case of Affleck) a little bit of rehab. But there has been precious little original creative output from either party until the release of Gone Baby Gone, Affleck’s directorial debut (also co-written), which reached Wellington this week.
Directing is a real test of a filmmaker’s chops. Unlike a fudged writing credit you can’t fake being on a set (although a great crew, DP and editor can often cover a multitude of sins) but I’m thrilled to report that Affleck has produced a work of genuine lasting quality.
Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, Gone Baby Gone is set in the same Boston mean streets that Will (from Good Will Hunting) grew up in. If you saw Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River (also from a Lehane story) or Scorsese’s The Departed you’ll be familiar with the geographical territory, but Affleck’s eye is even more highly tuned to the neighborhood than those masters.
Four year old Amanda has been snatched from her home while her young single mother (sensational Amy Ryan) was getting stoned at a bar. The Police led by Morgan Freeman (himself suffering the loss of a child) are struggling to get traction from a community suspicious of uniforms. Young private investigator Patrick (Casey Affleck) and his partner Angie (Michelle Monaghan) are enlisted by the family to try and tease out some clues that would be unavailable to law enforcement.
And that’s when it gets really interesting – because Affleck chooses to downplay the thriller (or procedural) aspects of the piece in favour of character study and the unveiling of a terrible moral dilemma. And its a dilemma that remains perfectly balanced right to the end where, like Bogart’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, our honourable private eye is virtually alone, forced to live with the unending pain of doing the right thing.
The production line of asian-horror-remakes is still chugging along. The Eye (remake of a Hong Kong thriller) will be reviewed next week while Shutter (based on a Thai film called Shutter) has already been around a week or so. I find these things to be dreadfully tiresome for the most part, formulaic and predictable. In Shutter a newlywed American couple in Japan (Joshua Jackson and Rachael Taylor) find strange shadows appearing in their holiday snaps. It turns out there’s a spirit following them around, sneaking into their frames, spoiling their compositions. Well, their photography is about to be the least of their worries. Shutter is laughable for the first two-thirds but rescued by a well-manufactured dénouement so I ended up not hating it totally.
Owen Wilson has been in the news more for his mental health issues than his acting in recent months but it is worthwhile to be reminded that he remains one of the most watch-able actors of modern times and the pleasant enough comedy Drillbit Taylor comes to life whenever he is on the screen. He plays the eponymous Taylor, a military deserter and bum who takes on the job of protecting three nerdy kids from high school bullies. The kids are pretty funny too – like the kids from Superbad, only a few years younger.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 2 April, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: This is the first all-Readings edition of the weekly review since it commenced back in October 2006.
This week’s illustrated Capital Times film review: 28 Weeks Later (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo); The Host (Joon-ho Bong); Man of the Year (Barry Levinson); Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing (Barbara Kopple & Cecilia Peck); Go For Zucker (Dani Levy); The Flying Scotsman (Douglas Mackinnon). Phew.