Film

LOVERS, LIARS AND THIEVES

Forget Alexander—this season, real men ransack hearts and rob banks

Brian D. Johnson December 6 2004
Film

LOVERS, LIARS AND THIEVES

Forget Alexander—this season, real men ransack hearts and rob banks

Brian D. Johnson December 6 2004

LOVERS, LIARS AND THIEVES

Film

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Forget Alexander—this season, real men ransack hearts and rob banks

GIVEN THE CHOICE of new movies about men driven by desires of conquest, I’d rather be writing about Alexander. Trashing Oliver Stone’s monumentally bad blockbuster would be such fun. I could interpret pre-Christian history through the evolution of Colin Farrell’s blond streaks, or the thickening eyeliner of his male co-stars. I could make fun of the Irish accents rampant among Stone’s ancient Macedonians (including non-Irish actors like Val Kilmer). I could roll my eyes at the Oedipal ooze between Farrell and Angelina Jolie, who portrays his mother even though she’s just a year older. Or ponder Stone’s clumsy allusions

to both Osama bin Laden’s vanishing act and George W. Bush’s mission to outstrip his father’s imperial ambitions. It’s always easier to write a pan than justify a rave. But it seems a shame to squander space on a ludicrous epic about Alexander the Great at the expense of two smaller, infinitely superior tales of modem plunder: Closer and Stander.

If Sideways is the year’s best comedy about love and betrayal, then Closer is the dramatic counterpart—its evil twin. It, too, has a vein of acid comedy, and consists of a well-tuned quartet of deliciously flawed characters. Adapted by British writer Patrick Marber from his own hit play, Closer is directed by American maestro Mike Nichols, who’s had a stellar record of adapting stage works, from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) to his more recent HBO productions ofWit and Angels in America. But as a chilly tale of sexual treachery, Closer is most reminiscent of Nichols’ 1971 classic, Carnal Knowledge, and poses the same uneasy question: when romance becomes spiked with infidelity, which is more cruel, honesty or deceit?

The story begins with a chance encounter between Dan (Jude Law), an obituary writer, and Alice (Natalie Portman), a gamine stripper. The narrative vaults through the years via clean, surgical jump-cuts. Before you know it, Dan is living with Alice, has written a novel about her, and is trying to seduce Anna (Julia Roberts), a photographer who takes portraits of strangers (“stranger” is the script’s favourite word). The fourth player, an earthy dermatologist named Larry (Clive Owen), enters after Dan inadvertently sets him up with Anna by posing as a woman in an Internet chat—staged as a hilarious duel of frenetic, filthy typing.

All four performances are superb. From blubbering desperation to coal-black anger, Owen shows devastating range. His is the only honest character in the bunch, but he wields truth like a machete. As a devious writer who cuts the crusts off his sandwiches, Law makes sensitivity and deceit go together like toast and jam. Stripping away more than her clothes, Portman is by turns disarming, fragile and invincible as she plays hide-andseek with her emotions. And even those allergic to Julia Roberts will appreciate her here—keeping the star wattage dimmed, she underplays her role with a grim transparency.

Marber’s meaty script has an epigrammatic wit that’s often sharper than life. But rather than blunt the play’s theatrical elegance, Nichols preserves it in a silky aspic of formal cinema. With an operatic score and

exquisite visual composition, he lets the action unfold like a dark tango, in which the men make the moves, the women hold the power, and love gets left behind. Couples beware: this is a dangerous date movie.

Stander is about stealing money, not hearts. It’s based on the true story of Andre Stander, a Johannesburg police captain who became a legendary bank robber under South African apartheid during the late 1970s. Portrayed with star-making dynamism by American actor Tom Jane (The Punisher), Stander turns to bank robbery after being traumatized by his role in the killing of anti-apartheid protesters. Covertly humiliating his superiors, he holds up 26 banks while still on the force and then, after four years behind bars, busts out of jail to rob another 20 with fellow outlaws Allan Heyl (David Patrick O’Hara) and Lee McCall (Dexter Fletcher). They become folk heroes, staging heists with brazen audacity—the Stander Gang hits the same bank twice in one day after hearing a news report that they’d missed the safe.

It would make for a tidier moral fable if these flamboyant gangsters were looting apartheid’s

coffers to bankroll the African National Congress. But while the film suggests Stander becomes a criminal to rebel against a criminal regime, he behaves more like a rock star than a revolutionary, complete with a yellow Porsche and a country mansion. He’s a mercurial soul, addicted to the rush of armed robbery rather than the cash. And as he goes through chameleon shifts of appearance and mood, Jane morphs from mustachioed cop to beach-blond Sundance Kid. Stander’s a lonely outlaw, haunted by emotional debts to his conservative father and to an abandoned wife he never stops loving—played with lethal poise and a spot-on South African accent by Canada’s Deborah Kara Unger.

STANDER becomes

a criminal to rebel against a criminal regime, but behaves more like a rock star than a revolutionary

Shot entirely on location in South Africa, Stander is a Canadian co-production directed and co-written by Toronto-born Bronwen Hughes. A former film student at York University, Hughes cut her teeth making commercials, caught Hollywood’s attention with short films for The Kids in the Hall, then made two studio confections, Harriet the Spy (1996) and Forces of Nature (1999). “I’m working my way backwards down the budget scale,” she joked in an interview last week. “Stander is closer to the kind of film that made me want to make films in the first place.”

Putting her early training as a journalist to use, Hughes did heavy research in South Africa, and conducted prison interviews with Heyl, the last surviving member of the Stander Gang. With the freewheeling lyricism of 70s cinema, the director upshifts through a synchromesh of styles. She sets the grave political context with a powerful scene of an anti-apartheid township riot involving over a thousand extras, letting the suspense of the standoff accumulate in real time. Later the film turns into a rock ’n’ roll lark, a hell-bent Bonnie and Clyde. It’s utterly intoxicating. This movie makes you want to rob banks—I dare the distributor to use that for a blurb—which comes across as a more noble pursuit than stealing hearts. Iffl