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Posts Tagged ‘Sam Neill’

I find myself once again on the threshold of a moment which feels self-indulgent and somewhat pointless, for I am about to devote time and energy to writing about a film which, on average, nobody in the world is likely going to see. What can I say; I like the physical act of going to the cinema, and at the moment the vast majority of films I have either paid to see or would have to be paid to see. So, after a thorough search of the Oxford listings, and having briefly contemplated going to see a revival of The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, I ended up trundling along to the one and only local screening of Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country (NB: title may be ironic).

This is a reasonable example of what I always think of as a Sou’western; which is to say that it does a very good job of having much of the atmosphere and imagery of a Western, but is actually set in Australia. Warwick Thornton is, apparently, a respected Australian film-maker, whose special area of concern is the treatment of the indigenous people of the continent. If this leads you to conclude that there are not a lot of laughs in Sweet Country, you are, as they say, bang on the money.

The film is set in the 1920s, in an outback so vividly presented you can almost taste the dust and smell the sweat. Sam Neill plays Fred Smith, a tolerant and pious landowner, who is asked a favour by his neighbour Harry March (Ewen Leslie). March is a troubled man, very likely suffering from PTSD following his experiences in France with (one presumes) the Anzacs – not that there was much understanding of such things at the time. Living alone is not helping him to cope, and he requests the assistance of Smith’s indigenous farmhand Sam (Hamilton Morris) for a day or so.

Well, let’s just say that March’s casual racism does not get in the way of some bad stuff going down between him and Sam’s wife, although Sam is not aware of this. But she is left in terror of March, which has serious consequences a few days later. Drunk and in pursuit of a young boy he suspects of stealing, an almost-unhinged March resorts to shooting up the cabin that Sam and his wife are in. Fearing for both their lives, Sam grabs a gun and shoots back, killing March.

It’s clearly justified self-defence, but Sam is wise enough to understand that he is very unlikely to get justice from the courts of the whitefella, and he and his wife take flight into the outback. Sure enough, an armed party is soon in pursuit of the duo, led by the local sergeant (Bryan Brown), with Smith along to try and ensure that some semblance of due process is observed…

As I say, you could quite easily rewrite this script so the story was relocated to somewhere in the wide open spaces of America in the late 19th century, instead of the Australian outback fifty years later. (I am aware that saying this will doubtless incense Warwick Thornton. Sorry.) There is the occasional moment which starkly reminds you of the location of the story, however – at one point the posse encounters a group of unwesternised indigenous Australians, who are not pleased to see them, and in a startling moment the film makes graphically clear that boomerangs are not toys or joke weapons. Later on there is a slightly surreal alfresco trial sequence, with most of the participants sitting in deckchairs. In the end, though, it is not really the subject matter of the story that keeps this from being a full-on western (or sou’western), but the way it is handled. It is a western in the same way that You Were Never Really Here is an action thriller: which is to say that it’s not, but it uses the raw material of this kind of story to create a much more considered, thoughtful and frequently non-naturalistic narrative.

The fact that this kind of film is getting any kind of major international release must be at least partly due to the presence in it of Bryan Brown and Sam Neill. Brown is one of those actors you’d probably recognise from somewhere, even if you didn’t remember his name, while it’s not that many years since Sam Neill was heading up genuine first-rank Hollywood blockbusters. These days his star has waned a bit, of course: quite apart from his cameo in The Commuter, we must speak of the last film to which both he and Brown contributed, the unspeakable you-know-what (Brown had a tiny voice part as Mr Rabbit). Both their performances here are sufficiently exemplary for me to be minded to forgive them their role in the lapine calamity, though: this is a solid enough movie, but those moments where it really sparks into life are mostly due to its two big names.

That said, this is a movie which seems to be content to keep its characters at arms’ length, presenting them dispassionately. We are not encouraged to identify with the well-meaning but ineffectual Smith, or the police sergeant. Sam in particular, whom you would most expect to be a sympathetic character, remains essentially inscrutable and enigmatic for most of the movie. The narrative remains engaging, and there is never any doubt as to where the director’s sympathies lie, but the nature of the story means that this is hardly light viewing, nor is it really intended as entertainment.

For the most part the film sticks to the truism that the kind of racist oppression suffered by the indigenous people of Australia debases and degrades the white boss-class as much as their victims (not that this in any way lets them off the hook). But there’s also interesting subtext about a kind of generational dysfunction. The film is filled with adults unwilling or unable to acknowledge their biological children, or at least have a proper parental relationship with them; the result is a kind of pervasive familial angst, born of the casual belief in the inequality of European colonists and indigenous people. It’s very difficult to find signs of optimism anywhere in Sweet Country: ‘What hope has this country got?’ cries a despairing Fred Smith in the closing moments of the film.

On one level Sweet Country is about the relationship between violence and justice, the stuff of many a conventional movie, but the uncompromising starkness of this movie, and its occasional more impressionistic touches – there are brief, soundless flash-backs and flash-forwards scattered throughout it – mean it is much more a piece of political art than something you would ever watch for pleasure. The skill with which it has been made, not to mention the incredible beauty of the Australian landscape, means it is a rewarding film on many levels, but conventionally enjoyable? I would strongly doubt it.

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It is with some relief that I turn to a new-ish Hollywood film which doesn’t appear to be trying to make a point about any significant topical issues, political, cultural, social, sexual, or diversity-related at all – at least not deliberately, anyway. Could this be the reason why Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Commuter has been completely overlooked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in this year’s Oscars? Well, could be.

Or it could be that The Commuter is just another one of those slightly dubious action movies starring someone old enough to know better – in this case, Liam Neeson – which operate somewhere in the theoretical space between One Foot in the Grave and Death Wish. My personal shorthand for this sort of thing is that they are Bus Pass Badass films. Or, in the case of The Commuter, a Senior Citizen’s Railcard Badass film.

Liam Neeson even makes running to catch the train look macho.

Neeson plays Mike MacCauley, rugged ex-cop turned life insurance salesman, and all-around caring and devoted family man – which means, yes, he doesn’t have money, but what he does have is a very particular set of skills, which he has acquired over a very long career… and so on. But we’ll come to that. Neeson’s quotidian existence gets badly derailed (no pun intended) when he is laid off from the insurance company by the contemptible suit who runs the place, for no other reason than that his benefits package is too expensive.

Home he heads in a bit of a strop, wondering how he’s going to pay either of his mortgages, let alone his son’s college fees, only for the usual train ride out to the suburbs of New York to take an unexpected turn. He is approached by a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) who offers him a hundred grand if he’ll just do one little job for her – locate a particular person on the train, before it reaches the end of the line…

Of course, this deal is not quite as sweet as it sounds, for Farmiga is working for the bad guys and has wicked things in mind for her target once Neeson has run them to ground. Neeson, of course, is no eejit and quickly figures out what’s going on, but by this point his family are in the sights of the bad guys, leaving him with little choice but to play along and wait for his moment to whirl into action – inasmuch as a six-foot-four 65-year-old can do any sort of whirling, anyway.

Well, if nothing else, it is nice to see a film which just seems to be about regular guys doing regular guy things – going to work, having a beer together, playing cards, beating much younger people senseless, hurling them off moving trains, and so on. And it does initially seem like The Commuter is going to be another one of those films about mid-level middle-age rage, as Neeson finds himself screwed and discarded by the system and left with nothing. If you didn’t know better, you could almost imagine this turning into an update of Falling Down – but of course it doesn’t, and instead it ends up as another of those more-than-slightly ridiculous high concept thrillers, set in a confined space, with one man against the world. There are shades of rather good films like Speed here, but it’s also a bit like Non-Stop, which was Neeson and Collet-Serra’s last film together: these things do have a habit of getting very silly very quickly.

Of course, there’s also a sense in which these films, with their delicate little formal requirements and tropes, are virtually a raid on Hitchcock – you could easily imagine the great director, were he still with us, knocking out this sort of thing with great verve and wit two or three times a year. Jaume Collet-Serra, it’s safe to say, is not in Hitchcock’s league, but he keeps this thing moving along breezily enough, with enough invention for it to feel relatively fresh, and enough pace to distract you from realising the plot has the unshakable structural integrity of a soap bubble – or, if not distract you, at least make you not worry about it too much.

He’s helped by a script which just about ticks all the necessary boxes – there’s a delicate balance and a lot of plate-spinning involved, in that you have to keep throwing plot twists and developments at the audience so swiftly that they don’t have time to realise none of it makes sense, but still somehow ensure they have a reasonable grasp of what’s going on at any given moment in the story. Another major plus is a cast which, to be perfectly honest, is rather better than this sort of film really deserves. Elizabeth McGovern is in it, quite briefly, as is Sam Neill. Also on the train is the wonderful Florence Pugh, whom one hopes will soon be a big enough star not to have to appear in this sort of nonsense, and Shazad Latif, perhaps most famous currently for playing a Klingon warlord trapped in the body of Clem Fandango.

And, above all else, it has Liam Neeson. It is customary to bemoan the fact that Neeson’s work ethic and questionable script choices result in him turning up in quite so many Bus Pass Badass movies, but it’s not as if he doesn’t still do the odd quality picture – he gave a tremendous performance in Silence last year, after all – and they’re still going to carry on making tosh regardless. The Commuter is a better film for having Liam Neeson in it, even if he does plough his way through on autopilot.

It is, I would say, important to distinguish between those films which are utterly bonkers and those which are merely wildly implausible. The Commuter is definitely the latter and thus less of a joy than it could have been. It is a silly film. It is a trivial film. It somehow manages to be both completely far-fetched and yet also deeply predictable. It will fade from your memory within a couple of days of your watching it. But a bad film? I can’t quite bring myself to say so, even though I probably should.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 14th 2004:

Pop-quiz, everyone: if you had a film to release about the Wimbledon tennis tournament, which happens every June, when do you think would be the best time to release it in order to cash in on its popularity? Would it be a) early summer b) Christmas or c) the back-end of September?

Well, anyway, I expect the makers of Wimbledon (directed by Richard Loncraine) have their reasons because it’s out at the moment. The ever-watchable Paul Bettany plays Peter Colt, an ageing British tennis player coming up to his last Wimbledon as a wild card. Retirement beckons, something he’s not keen on. However, a chance encounter with top American player Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst) leads to sparks a-sizzling and a certain steely quality appearing in Peter’s forehand. Before you know it he’s thundering into the second week. However, Lizzie’s dad (the equally watchable Sam Neill) takes the quite reasonable view that all this soft-focus fumbling to a David Gray soundtrack is putting his daughter off her game. But if she can’t win if they’re together, he can’t win while they’re apart… so what’s a boy to do?

I normally try and avoid spoilers in this column but I don’t think I’ll be ruining anyone’s day by revealing that Bettany wins Wimbledon and ends up with Dunst. This is of course a rom-com, possibly the most predictable genre at the movies, where the conclusion is never really in doubt, and the film’s success or failure is mainly determined by how entertained you are along the way. And, to be fair, Wimbledon does a pretty good job. For all that he’s second-billed, this is largely down to an engaging performance from Bettany. He’s not the most obvious choice of romcom lead (and, let’s face it, were a certain floppy-haired performer whose name rhymes with Lou Brant ten years younger he’d be the obvious star of this film) but he does a very solid job, bringing an appropriately fraught quality to the less romcommy elements of the story. Dunst is fine as his love interest, but never quite manages to bring her character to life. There’s a rather distinguished supporting cast (Neill, Eleanor Bron, Bernard Hill, Jon Favreau) but none of them really gets very much to do, which I suppose is a shame.

At the risk of sounding fatuously obvious, the main thing about Wimbledon that distinguishes it from all the other Working Title Brit-boy-courts-imported-American-star pictures is the tennis. The tennis sequences themselves look fine, thanks no doubt to the input of Pat Cash and some unobtrusive CGI, but more interestingly the film in passing makes some interesting and genuine-sounding points about the realities of tour life for the various pros. This more than makes up for the sense one gets that the writers were given a tick-list of Wimbledon cliches to include in their script – rain delays, strawberries and cream, dodgy line-calls, mad dads, lesbianism, etc.

Wimbledon is good-natured and entertaining fun, with a nice central performance, inventive direction, and some originality to its background. It’s not quite as funny or as convincingly romantic as it would probably like to be, but if nothing else it presents us with the sight of an Englishman winning the mens’ singles title – so it has novelty value as well. Worth a look.

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