Film review – Face to Face (2011)

8 September 2011
Face to Face: Wayne Travers (Luke Ford)

Wayne Travers (Luke Ford)

Wayne Travers (Luke Ford) is potentially facing jail after repeatedly ramming his former boss’s car in a rage after being fired. Wayne is angry, resentful and sullen while his boss Greg Baldoni (Vince Colosimo), who was in the car at the time, is understandably upset. Instead of going through the court system Wayne is allowed to take part in a community conference where he confronts Greg, other former work colleagues and a handful of other people connected to the incident. What seems like a straightforward situation with Wayne clearly in the wrong and not showing much remorse soon becomes far more complicated through the conference process.

The release of Face to Face could not have been better timed considering some of the current debate in the Australian media over criminal sentencing. According to some commentators offenders are getting off too lightly and that’s due to the courts and judges being out of touch with community values. This attitude was proven to be a myth by the report Public judgment on sentencing: final results from the Tasmanian Jury Sentencing Study, released in February this year. In the report it cites a study of 698 jurors; 90 per cent of who felt that the sentences handed down on cases they had served on were ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ appropriate. 52 per cent would have handed down lighter sentences. While this report significantly vindicates the courts it also reveals that once people know all the details behind a crime, they are less likely to respond with a knee jerk call for tougher sentencing. Once mitigating factors and background information comes to light, issuing blame and culpability can become so much more complex. This is what Face to Face is about.

Over the course of the film we discover that behind Wayne’s anger are varied factors that don’t excuse his behaviour but help to explain why he responded the way he did. Wayne is not let of the hook, but at the same time it becomes apparent that being the victim of workplace bullying over a sustained time has taken a toll that many of the people in the conference room with him shoulder a lot of responsibility for. Face to Face almost functions as a mystery film where over the course of the conference various secrets and events are revealed to dispel many of the assumptions the audience are encouraged to feel about Wayne in the beginning.

Face to Face: Jack (Matthew Newton)

Jack (Matthew Newton)

While flashbacks are successfully integrated to flesh out the back-story, Face to Face is essentially a single location film set in the conference room with all the actors together for nearly the entire film. Working in Australia again for the first time in almost 10 years, director Michael Rymer makes sure the camera is continually being repositioned around the actors to keep each shot fresh and to best channel the enormous energy that transpires from having so many strong characters and actors all in a confined space together.

While 12 Angry Men is a fitting comparison film, Face to Face also evokes the excellent 2008 Australian film Men’s Group, which had a smaller cast and more external scenes, but was still significantly comprised of group discussion scenes between the main characters. However, while Men’s Group incorporated very large amounts of improvised dialogue, Face to Face feels heavily scripted and indeed the end credits reveal that it has indeed been adapted from a stage play by David Williamson. Many of the characters certainly feel like typical Williamson characters as they take on almost archetypal characteristics to convey specific values and attitudes within Australian society. This mostly works and it allows the film to cover an extraordinary range of contemporary issues. Not only is Face to Face about workplace bullying and how we perceive a criminal act, but it also covers pack male behaviour, racism, worker exploitation, infidelity, class conflict and domestic violence. Sometimes it does come dangerously close to feeling like a checklist of important issues, but it is ultimately successful in pulling together all the threads to provide an insightful study into human behaviour, how situations spiral out of control and the shifting nature of guilt, culpability and victimisation.

Face to Face: Claire and Greg Baldoni (Sigrid Thornton and Vince Colosimo)

Claire and Greg Baldoni (Sigrid Thornton and Vince Colosimo)

Where the film is less success is the overtly theatrical dialogue that just doesn’t feel quite right on film. Especially at the start, some of the lines are over explanatory and too reliant on language to define the characters. It is blatantly a script that has come from the stage and onto the screen, seemingly with very little alteration to compensate for this transition to the more visual medium of cinema. Nevertheless, the resulting almost unintentionally stylised dialogue does settle down as the film progresses and nearly all the actors overcome these issues. Small moments of humour are also successfully weaved into the film to strategically lighten the mood when required.

Initial distracting staginess aside, Face to Face is compelling cinema that showcases a marvellous group of performers. Ford and Colosimo are the standouts, but the whole ensemble, which includes Sigrid Thornton and Matthew Newton, are also great. The emotional roller coaster that the characters go through, where they confront their misdeeds to understand how they all played a part in what happened, is genuine and authentic. Face to Face deals with a disturbingly recognisable aspect of mainstream Australian culture in its depiction of a pack tormenting a weaker element, or being complicit in the torment by doing nothing, and how this behaviour is all too often laughed off as ‘taking the piss’. Perhaps more importantly, it is convincingly optimistic that once presented with all the facts, people are capable of making compassionate and rational decisions. In a time of so much misinformation, hype and sensationalism, Face to Face offers some welcomed hope.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Balibo (2009)

10 August 2009
José Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac) and Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia)

José Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac) and Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia)

The Australian writer/director Robert Connolly had already established himself as a director to keep an eye out for with The Bank (2001) being a first rate corporate thriller and Three Dollars (2005) wonderfully articulating lower-middle class angst way before it was fashionable. However, with Balibo Connolly has exceeded all previous expectations and made a masterpiece of modern Australian cinema. Balibo begins in present day East Timor with the recording of an oral history being given by a woman who was a young girl during the 1975 Indonesian invasion. Her story – which at the end of the film we are reminded is but one of the lifetime of stories she has – is about Roger East, an Australian journalist who went looking for five younger journalists who went missing while reporting on the Indonesian invasion. The original five journalists became known as the Balibo Five and the Indonesian army murdered them all. Beginning the film with the recording of an oral history establishes that the events that are about to be depicted in the film have come from the testimony of eyewitnesses; testimonies that differ significantly from the official position of the Australian and Indonesian governments who still claim that the journalists were simply caught in crossfire.

Balibo is cleverly constructed as a dual narrative with the flashback scenes depicting the journey of the Balibo Five being intercut with the scenes depicting East following in their footsteps. This not only keeps the film moving at a brisk pace and gives both stories equal importance, but it provides an intrinsic link between the two stories. It is a remarkable accomplishment both in terms of story structure and film editing. Balibo is also beautifully shot and the scenes depicting the Balibo Five are all slightly over-lit to provide further contrast with the Roger East scenes. All the characters are fully fleshed out entities and the lighter moments and interaction between them serves to both relieve the tension and foreshadow the coming tragedy. The young cast portraying the Balibo Five are wonderful as is Oscar Isaac who plays José Ramos-Horta, the man who sought out East and would later become a Nobel Peace Prize winner and President of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste.

02Anthony LaPaglia portrays East as the classic burnt-out journalist figure, who is lured reluctantly back into action in the pursuit of justice. East may initially seem like a recognisable stock character but LaPaglia embodies him so confidently and with such a genuine blend of compassion, old-school toughness and righteousness, while not ignoring his flaws and weaknesses, that East is presented on screen as the real deal. LaPaglia has always been an excellent and reliable actor but nothing he has done before will prepare you for the power and conviction that he displays in Balibo. Roger East is to LaPaglia what Jake La Motta was to De Niro, what Terry Malloy was to Brando, and more recently, what Daniel Plainview was to Day-Lewis. This is the craft of acting at its absolute best.

Connolly wrote the screenplay with David Williamson, using Jill Jolliffe’s book Cover-Up: The Inside Story of the Balibo Five as their primary reference point. Williamson presence is notable and Balibo contains the best work he has done since he hit his peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Part of what makes Balibo such a great film is that among its politics and desire to set the record straight is a hugely entertaining film with appealing characters. It is not overly didactic or preachy and instead gets the perfect balance of emotional impact, political commentary and historical re-enactment. Giving a human story to acts of genocide is a powerful tool that cinema has to communicate stories that must be told and in this way Balibo is comparable to films of recent years such as Schindler’s List and Hotel Rwanda although it is closer in tone to the very underrated 1997 film Welcome to Sarajevo. Balibo, however, is the best of the lot.

36The key moment in Balibo is the scene where Ramos-Horta heatedly challenges East about the fact that East is trying to discover what happened to five white men while hundreds of thousands of East Timorese are being massacred. It’s a valid question and one that applies to the actual film itself. The response that East gives is sadly all too true – the English-speaking media (and cinema audiences) are simply not going to care about thousands of anonymous brown people but focusing on the fate of five white people will at least get our attention to the fact that gross acts of inhumanity were committed.

Balibo is an astonishing film with many heartbreaking scenes. The ending will leave you shattered and Australians especially will feel a deep sense of painful recognition over the fact that the virtue of being Australian no longer provides the automatic protection throughout the rest of the world that we once naively thought it did. This is a story that had to be told and it has been told in the very best way. This is as good as cinema gets – the story may be devastating but as a cinematic accomplishment, Balibo is something to be celebrated.

Read Cinema Autopsy’s interview with writer/director Robert Connolly.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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