Three movies look back at Leonard Cohen, 007—and an Aboriginal outrage
Brian D. JohnsonDecember22002
BRIAN D. JOHNSON
Three movies look back at Leonard Cohen, 007—and an Aboriginal outrage
CHANCES ARE YOU’RE already sick of hearing about Die Another Day, a featurelength commercial for cars, watches, snowmobiles and electric shavers that marks the 40th anniversary of 007’s film career. Trying to find Bond, the character, amid Bond the product is becoming a chore. Hollywood’s longest-running franchise is built on an escalating nostalgia for the romance of the “real” Bond, who becomes ever more elusive as time goes on. I’ll get to the new movie, eventually. But before we go looking for James Bond, let’s begin by looking for Leonard Cohen, another perma-cool character who began to make his mark as a poet, and an agent of eros, around the same time Sean Connery watched Ursula Andress emerge dripping from the sea in Dr. No.
Looking for Leonard, an offbeat feature from Montreal, isn’t really about Leonard Cohen. He isn’t mentioned in the script and doesn’t even show up for a cameo. But he serves as a kind of phantom presence. No one is actually looking for Leonard in Looking for Leonard, except in the sense that every woman in Montreal is, on some level,
looking for Leonard. The story’s heroine would rather read Cohen’s Beautiful Losers a second time than have sex with her boyfriend. And woven through the film is a series of clips from the 1965 NFB documentary Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen, sublime black-and-white glimpses of the handsome young poet at a bar, in his bath, at Ben’s delicatessen—the coolest man about town one could imagine, then or now. The footage is slipped in and out of the movie like a visual soundtrack.
This low-budget feature debut is a whimsical variation on a vintage scenario—two guys, a girl, a gun and a bag of loot. The girl is Jo, played with an insouciant edge by Kim Huffman (Traders). She robs corner stores and dry cleaners with her boyfriend (Ben Ratner) and his brother (Darcy Belsher). Bored with a life of petty crime and dead-end romance, she gets picked up by Luka (Joel Bissonnette), a Czech computer programmer freshly arrived in Montreal. A kiss leads to murder and... to reveal any more would be unfair.
Looking for Leonard was co-written and
co-directed by Matt Bissonnette (Joel’s brother) and Steven Clark, who both studied film at Concordia University in Montreal and worked as bartenders in Japan. (Bissonnette’s wife is actress Molly Parker, who has a small part in the film as a religiously inclined student in Jo’s creative writing class.) With their first feature, these two young directors have come up with a slender fable that recalls the innocent origins of independent film. It’s peculiar and quirky, but not in the usual Canadian way. From its stark visual style to the deadpan guitars looping through the dissonant score, Looking for Leonard feels a lot like an early Jim Jarmusch movie—Stranger Than Paradise comes to mind. Its bleak wit is also reminiscent of Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki.
Some of the characters are thinly sketched, especially the low-life boyfriend played by Ratner. But in the lead role, Huffman is utterly compelling. She’s like a Canadian Catherine Keener, keeping everyone off balance with a skittish mix of insolence and vulnerability. Joel Bissonnette’s Luka has the underhanded charm of one of Kaurismäki’s beleaguered protagonists. And as Chevy, an affable rounder who befriends Luka, Justin Pierce (Kids) steals his scenes with a dynamite, devil-may-care performance which seems all the more authentic, and poignant, when you know that the actor later hung himself. A melancholy intrigue lurks behind the glib Looking for Leonard, but like the poet who is nowhere to be found, it
has enough magic to keep the blues at bay.
Before moving on to the word-from-our sponsor escapism of007, here’s a more compelling movie about a real-life escape: Australia’s Rabbit-ProofFence. From 1910 to 1970, half-caste Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families in the Outback and taken to foster homes or government institutions, where they were bleached of their native heritage, forbidden to speak their own language, and trained as domestic servants and farm labourers.
Set in 1931, Rabbit-ProofFence is the true story of a spirited young teenage Aboriginal named Molly (Everlyn Sampri) who tries to lead her kid sister, Daisy (Tianna Sansbury), and young cousin, Gracie (Laura Monaghan), to freedom after escaping from an institution run by nuns. They embark on a 2,500-km odyssey to get back home, using a rabbit-proof fence that bisects the continent as their compass point. Hot on their trail are an Aboriginal tracker, Moodoo (David Gulpilil), and a white constable (Jason Clarke). But the villain of the piece is a government official named A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh) who, as Chief Protector of the Aborigines, actually believes he is rescuing the children by abducting them. His master plan is to breed out the Aboriginal race, which he believes is dying, by forbidding half-castes to marry full-blooded natives.
Based on a 1996 novel by Molly’s daughter, Doris Pilkington, the movie tells an astounding tale of colonial injustice. Australian
A melancholy intrigue lurks behind the glib Looking for Leonard, but like the poet himself, it has enough magic to keep the blues at bay
director Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, Dead Calm) has created an intimate epic, framing the runaway children against rhapsodic images of the Outback. And Peter Gabriel scores the action with a rather slick interpretation of Aboriginal music. But what saves the film from turning into Disney adventure is the fiercely grounded performances by the Aboriginal children, especially Sampri, who brings a grim cunning to the role of Molly.
I suppose it should be no surprise that the Aboriginals come across as more natural actors than the Shakespearean-trained Branagh, who has the unenviable task of trying to bring a trace of humanity to the role of a well-intentioned racist monster. What makes Rabbit-ProofFence so powerful is its transparency: whether through acting, or osmosis, a world of ancestral struggle can be glimpsed in the eyes of those children.
For a more refined relic of British colonialism, we can now finally turn to Bond. Die Another Day happens to be directed by an Aboriginal from New Zealand, Maori film-
maker Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors, The Edge), but there’s nothing revisionist about this addition to the franchise. Anticipating a new Bond movie is like waiting for a new tour by the Rolling Stones—another burlesque artifact of bad-boy English attitude that’s enjoying its 40th anniversary. Like the Stones, Bond walks a fine line between self-parody and self-aggrandizement. And even with state-of-the-art nostalgia, it’s hard for the act to live up to the expectation.
But Tamahori brings a serrated edge to the 007 formula. Die Another Day is aboveaverage Bond, a gonzo pageant of fire, ice and water, shaken not stirred. In the spirit of the anniversary, it’s riddled with homages to past films. And the visual design has some magisterial touches—notably the opening tide sequence, an aquarium gumbo of scorpions, mermaids and molten nudes.
Fanning the embers of the Cold War, the story begins in North Korea, where Bond (Pierce Brosnan) is tortured and imprisoned for 14 months—after a hovercraft chase through a minefield in the demilitarized zone. Emerging with a heavy beard— which allows a product placement for a razor—he’s discarded by British intelligence. It takes a while for him to get his job back, but soon he’s battling two megalomaniacs: Zao (Rick Yune), a Korean elegantly scarred with diamond shrapnel, and Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), a rich Brit who acts like a sadistic prefect. Judi Dench and John Cleese offer touches of astringent wit as M and Q respectively.
But the high-tech action, which ranges from Cuba to Iceland, eventually gets tedious. Oddly, the most thrilling scene is an old-fashioned sword fight, despite a Madonna cameo as a fencing instructor. As for the Bond girls, there’s Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike), a femme fatale ice queen, and Jinx (Berry), a girl-next-door American spy. While Berry looks fabulous, she seems awkward, almost embarrassed, in the role. Bond has all the fun, and the toys. While he has a ring that can explode Plexiglas, she spends ages trapped in an ice palace just trying to pry open a sliding door. Brosnan, meanwhile, has grown into the Bond role and made it his own. He’s found the chilly emotional centre of an indestructible character. “While you were away, the world changed,” M tells Bond, in an oblique reference to Sept. 11. “But not for me,” snaps 007, reaffirming that this is one character immune to the real world. üîl
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