Lita On Film

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South of the Border (2009)

In Film Reviews on November 13, 2010 at 2:40 pm

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Oliver Stone’s new film, “South of the Border,” documents the (in)famous director’s lovefest of a tour across the major Leftist countries of South America.  His main focus is Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela—or its dictator, depending on whom you ask.  The thrust of this short, very one-sided film is simple: everything you think you know about Chavez and his comrades is wrong.  Let Oliver show you the real story.

And show he does.  Stone spends most of the film chatting with Chavez and constructing an elaborate explanation for how and why Venezuela, Brazil, Cuba, Argentina and other countries have ended up getting such a bad rap in America.  Stone argues that the U.S. has exerted a type of neo-colonialism on these countries, through its biased media reports and collusion with international oil companies, who are bent on sucking these countries dry without any thought for their inhabitants.  Stone also indicts the International Monetary Fund, or IMF, for what he sees as its role in forcing these countries into insurmountable debt.  Listening to him discussing these issues with Chavez can give you a feeling of deja vu; they seem to parrot the same phrases back and forth to each other, even as they must pause for a harried translator to keep up.

Needless to say, everyone Stone talks to in his film agrees with his assertions, and not once is a truly thorny issue raised.  No one discusses, say, freedom of the press or human rights issues under the current Chavez regime, and nor does Stone extend his economic analysis to Venezuela’s current massive inflation rate—not, one could argue, necessarily a sign of progress.  Stone even gleefully includes a clip of Chavez at the UN calling George W. Bush “the Devil” from a few years back.  I have to admit, it’s hard not to just want to join in on the fun.

But the fun of the film is precisely what obscures its total lack of objectivity or serious intellectual rigor.  It is certainly fascinating to get to be up close and personal with not only Chavez, but the presidents of Bolivia, Argentina, and Cuba; their casual interviews with Stone are the sort of thing you’d never get to watch on CNN.  The film’s production values are huge; the cinematography is sumptuous, and found footage, news clips and live video all flow seamlessly into one another.  It’s easy to leave the film thinking about the idea of revolution in a romantic haze.

However, if this were truly a documentary rather than an overgrown opinion piece, we’d be treated to at least a brief summary of the other side of the argument, and perhaps we’d be able to form our own opinions about Chavez and his contemporaries.  As it is, Stone’s film purposefully doesn’t give us enough information to allow us to make up our own minds—it’s a dictatorship, not a democracy.

“South of the Border” premiered last year at the 66th Venice Film Festival, and is currently available on DVD from Cinema Libre Studios.

Red Hill (2010)

In Film Reviews on November 6, 2010 at 2:57 pm

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“Red Hill,” a new Australian thriller, forcibly reminded me of “No Country for Old Men,” the Coen brothers’ smash from 2007.  A lone gunman busts out of prison and stalks his way back to the town where he was arrested, intent on getting his long-awaited revenge.  It’s like a stripped-down Eastwood picture; there’s crime, there’s killing, and in the end everyone gets their due.

The weird part about this film is that it stars Ryan Kwanten, best known for his role as Jason Stackhouse on HBO’s “True Blood.”  His character in that show is certainly plucky and daring, but not exactly the brightest crayon in the box.  In “Red Hill” his character, Shane Cooper, resembles Jason in many ways: he seems to be perpetually out of the loop, always in danger but never quite sure why.  However, in this film there’s a good reason for that.  It’s Shane’s first day as a policeman in the rural town of Red Hill, in the Outback, and without knowing it he’s stepped into a whole world of trouble.

Shane’s boss, Old Bill (Steve Bisley), sounds the alarm when he realizes murder convict Jimmy (Tommy Lewis) has escaped from prison; there’s only one place he’ll go, Bill tells the motley militia gathered in the police station, and that’s here.  Soon everyone is armed to the teeth and awaiting the arrival of this archetypal nemesis.  Naturally, not everything goes as planned, and as Shane tries to work out how to stop Jimmy’s killing spree, he discovers there’s more to the story than he’s been told.  Though Kwanten isn’t forced out of familiar territory here, his performance is compelling enough to carry the film, and it’s terribly fun to hear him yelling in his native Australian accent.

“Red Hill” is the first feature from fellow Aussie writer/director Patrick Hughes, and there’s no denying it’s a promising start to his big-budget career.  The cinematography is brilliant, though one could argue that Hughes’ chosen setting is so picturesque that all you’d have to do is point a camera at it for it to look great.  Still, the film fulfills everything it sets out to do: the script zips along so fast that the 95-minute runtime feels more like 75, and even though the resolution is a little predictable and ham-handed, it doesn’t feel totally out of place.

Several blogs have described “Red Hill” as a “neo-Western,” and though no one has actually explained what this term is supposed to mean (are all Westerns made after Ford’s time neo-Westerns?) I agree with it.  These days, we’re so used to films being clouded by things like emotion and character development—it’s refreshing, in an odd way, to be immersed in a film in which the players are as developed as they’re going to get, and the only thing left to be resolved is who’s going to live to see the end of the picture.

“Red Hill” opened November 5 in limited release.