There are an alarming number of mediocre movies that have grand designs on educating moviegoers about important historical events. As a critic, I'm put in a weird situation in which I'm obligated to point out a picture's weaknesses, but do so at the risk of incurring the wrath of readers for whom whatever real-life event depicted in the film holds a special place. Take We Were Soldiers, for example. It was a dull flick, but it was also the first one to depict the Landing Zone X-Ray Operation. 'Nam vets took me to task for not gushing over the film, simply because it was the first to tell "their story."
Call me crazy, but I'd rather see a historically erroneous, yet excitingly made, film than one that's completely accurate but boring as all get-out. I'm not sure I'd put Phillip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence (opens Wednesday, December 25, at the Little) into the latter category, but it's much closer to that than it is the former. Fence is set in 1931 Australia, which was about 30 years into an odd policy that allowed the government to take half-caste children (meaning Aboriginal youngsters who weren't of pure descent) away from their families and assimilate them into the white community. In other words, the kids would be educated just enough to become servants to wealthy, white families. The government claimed to be doing this for the protection of the children. Like the Armenian genocide depicted in Atom Egoyan's upcoming Ararat, the Australian government still pretty much shrugs its collective shoulders when approached about this strange procedure, which continued into the late '60s.
Fence is told through the eyes of 14-year-old Molly (Everlyn Sampi), who, along with sister Daisy (Tianna Sansbury), and cousin Gracie (Laura Monaghan), was yanked out of her mother's arms and transported 1,500 miles across the country into a near-barbaric, minimum-security school. The bulk of the film is about the three young ladies escaping from the school and walking across the outback to get home. The only way Molly et al. were able to find their way was to follow the enormous titular fence, a barrier constructed across the country lengthwise to keep bunnies away from farms. They walk, and they walk, and they walk. And then they walk some more. Meanwhile, the cartoonish, calculating overseer of the whole half-caste kidnapping program (Kenneth Branagh) spares no expense in trying to track down and capture the girls, just to make an example of them.
Is Fence an amazing story? Yes. Is it an important story? You bet. Is the film beautiful? Absolutely. Is it tedious? You ain't kidding. Maybe it would have been more enjoyable as a documentary, like the High Falls Film Festival entry Daughter From Danang, which told a similarly unknown story about kids being pried away from their bawling mothers to live with white families. Maybe it would have been better if the three little leads had a background in acting, so they could have, you know, had dialogue or something (the loooong walk takes place in near silence).
Despite the slagging, I have my fingers crossed that Fence will be an Oscar contender. Not for Best Picture or anything, though --- the score, written and performed by Peter Gabriel, is a keeper, and the always reliable Christopher Doyle's photography is among the year's best (he also worked with Noyce on his upcoming Oscar contender The Quiet American). Honestly, if it weren't for those two aspects of the film, I would have been out like a light. Does that make me a bad person? I wanted to like Fence more, especially when I found out the film was based on a book written by Doris Pilkington, who turns out to be Molly's daughter in real life, but I just couldn't get past the tedium.
Angry Aboriginals, please feel free to send your venomous diatribes to firstname.lastname@example.org.
By definition alone, I'm starting to dislike movies based on true stories (or those based on "actual events," the term that seems to be getting more and more prevalent) that were previously unfamiliar to me. I might have liked A Beautiful Mind a lot more if I hadn't learned about the numerous negative aspects of John Forbes Nash, Jr.'s life that the film carefully sidestepped. Ditto for Frida and the upcoming Evelyn. If I have to sit through a formulaic biopic, the last thing I want to discover is that the filmmakers have sugarcoated things to make their protagonist more likable --- which, one would imagine, also makes their job as storytellers a whole lot easier. Auto Focus is the only recent flick I can think of that faithfully depicted its subject, warts and all.
I have no idea if any warts have been removed from Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can, but I can tell you I don't care if the film received a Ron Howard-esque saccharine shellacking, simply because it isn't a by-the-numbers bore. You know you're in for a treat when the usually tiresome John Williams provides an appropriately upbeat, '60s-influenced score over the '60s-influenced credits, before Can drops us into the audience of television's To Tell the Truth. The three contestants each claim to be Frank Abagnale, Jr., the world's youngest and most successful con artist, but, of course, only one is being honest.
Our real Abagnale is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who we see via two separate flashback threads --- one presenting him as a young teen in New Rochelle, the other showing him in a Marseilles prison, right after he's been nabbed by an FBI agent named Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). The former depicts Abagnale in his innocent, formative years, where, by chance, the bust-up of his parental units (Christopher Walken and Nathalie Baye) happens to coincide with his 16th birthday and, more importantly, the receipt of his very own checking account. From there, it's off to the races, as Abagnale quickly begins a spree of what would eventually become six years of forgery, bank fraud, and various career impersonations that will make you think of those "No, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night" television ads.
Can really has it all: from super-spy/fox Jennifer Garner's appearance as a high-end hooker, to both of the candidates from this year's presidential election (Martin Sheen and James Brolin), to a somewhat obscure comic book reference that, sadly, is ultimately revealed to viewers. The acting is solid across the board, and Spielberg's usual behind-the-camera crew assemble another very enjoyable technical package that is highlighted by the wonderful period sets. Still, the real highlight here is the story, which deftly plays off the unusual cat-and-mouse relationship involving a flashy criminal who has become a worthy, friendly adversary to a dull-as-dishwater authority figure with no personal life. Can is a rare example of a picture that gets me to quietly root for a delinquent. That said, there's still the whole warts issue, and Can never really shows how Abagnale becomes so adept at forgery.
It's probably completely unintentional, but there's an interesting scene in Can where Hanratty goes to the home of the senior Frank Abagnale in an attempt to learn the whereabouts of the man's namesake. There's a bit of verbal sparring between the two, but the father refuses to give up the son. Eventually, Hanratty finds a scrap of paper with the younger Abagnale's address. Keen observers will notice this harkens back to that legendary scene in True Romance, only this time Walken isn't the eager heavy to Dennis Hopper's smart-ass dad. Well, that and no point-blank execution.
Interested in unsanitized movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy, at www.sick-boy.com, or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.