Rabbit-Proof Fence


Took the children away.

Took the children away.

(2002) True-Life Drama (Miramax) Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan, Kenneth Branagh, Ningali Lawford, Myarn Lawford, David Gulpilil, Deborah Mailman, Jason Clarke, Natasha Wanganeen, Garry McDonald, Roy Billing, Lorna Leslie, Celine O’Leary, Kate Roberts. Directed by Phillip Noyce

Some stories are so unbelievable, so outlandish that they can only be true. Rabbit-Proof Fence is, sadly, one of those cases. I say sadly simply because of the hardships endured in this movie by a woman who was blameless of anything but of having a white father and an aboriginal mother.

Molly Craig (Sampi), her sister Daisy (Sansbury) and cousin Gracie (Monaghan) live with Molly’s mother (N. Lawford) and grandmother (M. Lawford) in Jigalong, an Aboriginal community in the desert outback of Australia.

In the 1930s, Australia had a policy for half-caste children. Led by Minister of Aboriginal Affairs A.O. Neville (Branagh), the idea was to take the children out of their aboriginal homes and train them as domestic or slave labor. There they would join the white culture, marry and have children with white mates, and eventually breed the black out of them, as is graphically illustrated during a scene early in the movie when Neville explains the policy to a women’s group, using slides.

The order goes out to round up the children, and the three young girls are taken from their homes in an emotionally wrenching scene and transported to the Moore River Native Settlement, some 1,500 miles away – roughly the same distance as Minneapolis, Minnesota is from Orlando, Florida. The girls spend some time there, long enough to decide for themselves that what is being done to them is wrong and that their only hope is to escape and walk back home.

Escape they do, chased by a taciturn tracker named Moodoo (David Gulpilil), whose heart may or may not be in his work, and also by the Australian police. The girls’ odyssey becomes a media sensation in Australia; sightings of the runaways keep the story alive, and the vast distance they are covering, with no food, no water and no shelter make survival a real problem.

What’s worse is that the girls don’t really know where their home is. They only know that their home is alongside the great ”Rabbit-Proof Fence” – the longest fence in the world, built to keep rabbits from destroying the crops of the fertile farmland nearby. If they can find the fence, it will lead them home.

The story is simple enough, but powerful. Director Phillip (Dead Calm) Noyce wisely uses powerful cinematography to convey the vastness of the Outback, and the land itself emerges as a character in the film; unforgiving, but bountiful enough when respected. The three children survive their ordeal mainly because of the tutelage of their grandmother, who taught them how to live off the land. The music of Peter Gabriel further enhances the vast expanse.

The three girls who play the main characters are not actresses, although Everlyn Sampi certainly has a future in it if she chooses. They can’t really conceive of how impossible is the task before them; they are just walking home, as naturally as if they were walking 1 mile instead of 1,500. Certainly, they get frightened, they get depressed, their feet ache, but Molly’s strength holds them together. At the end of the journey, when only two of the children reach their destination (one is entrapped by the police), Molly weeps in her grandmother’s arms because she had not brought them all back. It is a powerful moment, one that will affect even the most stone-hearted moviegoer.

The Australians call the children who were taken in this manner The Stolen Generation, and it is not a period in their history of which they are particularly proud. That it lasted until 1970 is mind-boggling. A large percentage of their aboriginal population were affected by these events, and remains so today – singer Archie Roach made a wonderful CD about it, Charcoal Lane, with the powerful ”Took the Children Away” – and it remains a sore subject in Australia today, one which their government has refused to recognize or to apologize for until 2008.

Rabbit-Proof Fence is as a powerful testament to the human side of this issue. It’s hard to imagine anyone seeing this movie and not being deeply affected. Here in North America, our treatment of the aboriginal peoples of the continent has been shameful as well. The experience of seeing this movie got me thinking about my own attitudes not only towards the American Indian culture but also about my attitudes towards other ethnic groups. We are all human beneath the skin and what color that skin is makes no difference any more than the color of the wrapping paper makes any difference towards the gift inside. Rabbit-Proof Fence celebrates this. It’s a movie everyone should see.

WHY RENT THIS: Powerful issue that is a celebration of life. Terrific performance by Everlyn Sampi. Moving and wrenching.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Might be too wrenching for those who have lost children.

FAMILY MATTERS: The themes of the movie bring out some very intense emotions; may be too intense for children and those who are sensitive to the taking of children from their parents.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The premiere of the film was held in an outdoor venue in Jigalong where the descendents of the children still live. The real Molly Craig appears in the last shot of the film although her health was so frail that the decision was made to shoot that scene first.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The Making-Of feature is far from standard, giving a look at the history behind the events of the film. The commentary track similarly veers from typical fashion, including author Doris Pilkington, daughter of the real Molly Craig and whose book the film is based on. Her recounting of her own experiences and those her mother shared with her are heartbreaking.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.2M on a $6M production budget; the movie was a modest hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Way Back

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Breaking Upwards

The Bone Collector


The Bone Collector

Angelina Jolie had apparently never seen an African-American before...

(1999) Thriller (Universal) Denzel Washington, Angelina Jolie, Queen Latifah, Michael Rooker, Mike McGlone, Luis Guzman, Leland Orser, John Benjamin Hickey, Bobby Cannavale, Ed O’Neill, Richard Zeman, Olivia Burkelund, Gary Swanson. Directed by Phillip Noyce

I like thrillers. I like mysteries. I really like Denzel Washington. So, as far as The Bone Collector goes, what’s not to like?

It’s a tad on the predictable side, for one. Washington plays Lincoln Rhyme, the New York Police Department’s top forensic investigator. He’s written textbooks that are the standard at the academy, as well as best-sellers for the general public. He’s decorated, respected and on top of the world – and he loses it all in a moment when his spine is crushed by a falling beam at a crime scene. Now, four years later, he is reduced to a man counting the days to his own demise, able to use only his shoulder and one finger, paralyzed from the neck down. To further complicate matters, he is susceptible to seizures, any one of which could render him a vegetable.

Naturally, a psychotic serial killer comes into the picture. Patrolman Amelia Donaghy (Jolie, who seems to be appearing in every third movie made since 2005) discovers the first grisly murder, and her quick thinking saves the crime scene from contamination. This gets the attention of her superiors, as well as Rhyme, who is, in a way, looking for a successor, someone to take his place when he dies. Pretty soon, half the forensics lab has moved into Rhyme brownstone, including the reluctant Donaghy who has some pretty serious issues.

There’s the usual supporting cast for this sort of movie: The ex-partner who’d walk through Hell for his buddy, the incompetent bureaucrat who sees the murder as an opportunity to advance his own career, the nurse with a maternal aspect a mile wide and teeth and claws to match, a Latino technician who’s irreverent as well as being the best there is. Did I miss anyone? Oh yeah, the killer – but you won’t. I had him pegged way early on. If you need help, just pick the one guy who has no reason for being in the movie except for being the killer.

Is there a smarter actor in Hollywood than Denzel Washington? Even in the really bad movies he’s done (and he’s done plenty – just rent Virtuosity if you don’t believe me), he always elevates the material. I’d see him in an ABC Family Channel movie – and you know how those kinds of movies fail to float my boat. He does a terrific job here which considering he’s confined to a bed the entire movie is impressive. His Lincoln Rhymes is intelligent, articulate and passionate – qualities that are virtually trademarked by Denzel. Even now, more than a decade after this was made I will go out of my way to see a movie just because he’s appearing in it.

For both Jolie and Latifah (the maternal nurse for those who are wondering) this marked an early milestone to their careers and it is interesting to catch them when they were both on the rise before they became bankable stars – in Latifah’s case, she was essentially still moonlighting as an actress while maintaining her career as one of the pioneers of rap.

This was based on the first novel in the Lincoln Rhyme series by Jeffery Deaver, probably with the intention of turning it into a film franchise, a plan which sadly never materialized owing, no doubt, to the fact that the main character is bed-ridden. American audiences like their heroes to be more action-oriented rather than thinkers. Shoot first and ask questions…oh, just shoot first. That’s pretty much the American attitude. However, the fact that it didn’t really set the box office on fire may have had a lot to do with it as well.

There are some very tense moments in The Bone Collector, and some great camera work. New York City is an unsung star here, providing some wonderful locations. There is enough viscera to annoy the squeamish, enough plot twists to keep the movie flowing along. On the downside it’s cliché and predictable enough to be occasionally annoying. I suspect the filmmakers spent a bit too much time watching Se7en, a movie that has proven annoyingly influential in the thriller business lately so keep that in mind when you add this to your Netflix list. A mild thumbs up for this one.

WHY RENT THIS: Denzel Washington is one of the most watchable stars in Hollywood. It’s a hoot to watch Latifah and Jolie before they were huge stars.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is rife with thriller clichés, and the identity of the killer is sadly simple to suss out.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are some grisly images that are definitely not for the squeamish, and some occasionally foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Jolie shot a nude scene for the movie that was later cut from the final print because the director thought it too distracting.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $151.5M on a $73M production budget;  the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Our Idiot Brother

Salt


Salt

Do you get the feeling Angelina Jolie is watching an entirely different movie?

(Columbia) Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Daniel Olbrychski, August Diehl, Andre Braugher, Hunt Block, Olek Krupa, Daniel Pearce, Cassidy Hinkle, Yara Shahidi, Jordan Lage, Vladislav Koulikov, Olya Zueva. Directed by Phillip Noyce

It is somewhat emblematic of the flaccid crop of movies this summer that this movie is one of the best reviewed of the season, with some critics heaping critical praises on it that it scarcely deserves. Let’s get to the salient facts.

Evelyn Salt (Jolie) is a spy; let’s get that straight first off. It’s not much of a spoiler, since the trailer tells you she is. She is evidently not a very good spy, because when we first meet her she’s been captured and is being tortured by the North Koreans.

She is eventually released and returns back to the CIA – or at least the petrochemical company that fronts for the CIA – and is preparing for an anniversary dinner for her arachnologist husband (Diehl), complete with intricately folded napkins. Nothing says romance more than linen folded into origami after all. However, dinner is going to have to wait; a Russian defector has walked into the CIA front building – apparently the CIA isn’t very good at hiding in plain sight either – and it is up to Evelyn to interrogate the guy since, well, nobody else in the CIA can do it, right?

Her boss Ted Winter (Schreiber) is eager to catch a plane, she wants to get to her anniversary dinner and the by-the-book agent Peabody (Ejiofor) just wants to take over because he apparently is the special agent in charge of Russian defections. Unfortunately, their plans are all thrown for a loop when Orlov (Olbrychski), the defector in question, informs them that a sleeper agent is planning to murder the Russian president on U.S. soil at the funeral of the Vice President the very next day. The name of the sleeper agent? Evelyn Salt.

All Jason Bourne breaks out right about then. Salt, knowing that her husband is going to be targeted – apparently this has happened before – decides she doesn’t have time to wait around to be interrogated and escapes. Orlov, channeling Rosa Klebb of From Russia with Love, boots himself out of an elevator. This would be the perfect time for a car chase, don’t you think?

There is certainly plenty of action here, some of it pretty nifty. Noyce, who directed the two Harrison Ford Jack Ryan movies, has a steady hand when it comes to action sequences, and while he doesn’t reinvent the wheel here, the action comes at you thick and fast, with Jolie leaping out of moving vehicles, out of helicopters and onto moving trucks and vans. She beats up everybody she can get her hands on, and a few that she can’t.

My problem with the movie isn’t so much the action but what lies between. I was never able to connect to Salt and there’s a reason for it. The whole is-she-or-isn’t-she theme of the movie only works if you aren’t sure if she is or she isn’t, and so she has to be enigmatic by definition, which makes it difficult for us to relate to her. Quite frankly, it should be fairly obvious early on whether she is or isn’t, and those who aren’t sure, look to the extraneous characters to help you figure it out. You know the ones; they only exist for a specific plot point that will become critical later in the film. These are the kinds of characters that are usually found in bad movies.

I know I’m being a bit harsh on Salt and I should temper it by saying that there are a lot of things in the positive column. Jolie, for one thing, is a terrific action hero, maybe the best female action hero not named Sigourney Weaver. Reportedly, she did a lot of her own stunts, which would make her one kickass broad, based on what I saw here. Certainly some of her parkour-like fighting moves were spectacular.

I never really was able to fall in love with the movie, and I was kind of hoping to. I am fond of action movies in general, but I felt like this was Jason Bourne with boobs channeling James Bond, only without being able to capture my rooting interest. It’s really not an awful movie, but it isn’t a great one either.

Sometimes, you can distill your feelings for a movie down to a single word. Concerning my feelings for Salt, that word would be meh.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the action sequences are breathtaking.

REASONS TO STAY: You never get a reason to care about any of this; they’re so busy making Salt a cipher that she never connects with the audience.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence, a smattering of bad language and some implied sexuality, but nothing the average videogame wouldn’t pack in.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The lead role was originally written for a male; when Tom Cruise was attached to the movie, it was titled The Mystery of Edwin Salt but when Cruised bowed out to do Knight and Day, Jolie stepped in and the part was substantially rewritten.

HOME OR THEATER: I will have to admit some of the action sequences would be enhanced by the theatrical experience.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Kids Are All Right