Saturday, August 2, 2008

MIFF Review: Gardens of the Night

I have seen my fair share of movies in my relatively short lifespan. Considering the "average" moviegoer sees something like five films a year at the cinema (or however many it is) and I'm seeing five this weekend alone, I think it's a fair assumption that that is true. I have liked a lot of the movies I have seen, loved a lot of them too. I've also disliked a lot, hated a few. Of the ones I didn't care for I have had issues with them for a multitude of reasons whether it be poor writing, inept directing, bad acting, silly camera choices or any number of possible issues one person could have about a film. However, I come to Damian Harris' Gardens of the Night and it is, surely, the first time I have ever been negative towards a film due to the lead actresses hair. And yet, I do. Oh sure, the film has some pluses to it's credit, but also other minuses, but... but... the hair!

I'll get to that in a moment.


Gardens of the Night is an, at times, quite harrowing film. It is split into two defining halves, the first dealing with the abduction and subsequent prostitution of a 7-year-old girl Leslie (well played Ryan Simpkins) and her new friend Donny (Jermaine Scooter Smith) by two evil men (Tom Arnold and Kevin Zegers). It's tough stuff, folks, but thankfully Harris didn't use arthouse cinema's de rigueur go-to tricks of the trade like handheld camera, natural light and intense closeups. The films looks gorgeous, and reminded me of Mysterious Skin in the way it contrasted it's physical beauty to the ugly issue of child abuse.

However, the first half of the film is ended by a daft scene involving police - what policemen would raid a possible child abuser's home and not have anybody at the back gate, I ask?! - and it's all downhill from there as we promptly cut to ten years later where Leslie and Donnie (now played by Gillian Jacobs and Evan Ross respectively) are asleep under a lifeguard post at the beach. No explanation of what went "down", but I can forgive it. The next scene is key, however, as we see these two homeless teenagers enter a public bathroom and wash themselves using paper towels. How is it key? Well, yeah, that's where my issue with the hair comes in.

As we quickly learn, Leslie and Donnie are homeless prostitutes routinely sleeping under bridges, in parks, on beaches and the like. Leslie takes drugs and is a chain smoker of epic proportions. I can't tell you how long she's been a homeless drug using chain smoking prostitute with no access to a shower but she has absolutely beautiful skin and hair. Her face is perfectly blemish free and her legs are waxed and tanned like a star's. She has a beautiful long and luxurious set of curly hair on top of her hair, although it does occasionally become straight within a blink of the eye. Her nails are manicured and her clothes are the type that you could imagine Lindsay Lohan sporting to a film premiere. Donnie has a pimple in one scene, other than that he looks quite well groomed too.

It was at this moment that the movie lost me. It's nice to know that their stunning Californian looks haven't suffered at the hands of fate that had been dealt. In their early scenes under the capture of Arnold and Zeggers they routinely eat fast food too. Leslie is quite simply the prettiest and healthiest looking prostitute I've ever seen, and there isn't even a brief mention of STDs, which even the most amateurish film of this nature mentions. Joke all you will about actors "deglamming" to win an Oscar, but I'd rather than than have them taking roles such as this and looking like a Hollywood "it girl" stepping out for a night on the town.


As the films goes on from this moment it drifts about between storylines including one about a young girl at a youth centre (Carlie Westerman, the little girl from Me & You & Everyone We Know fyi) and the discovery of Leslie's parents. There's also the silliest transexual I've ever seen in a film. It is the part about Leslie's parents though that makes me think the film could have been so much more, as even after not doing near enough to deserve them, the film got me to shed a few tears in the tender, albeit too brief, final moments.

To compare it back again to Mysterious Skin - one of the finest films of the decade so far if you ask me - then the film comes up incredibly short. A topic as big and deeply affecting as all this doesn't deserve to be undermined by such silliness, but it is. The opening half worked so hard towards what it was aiming for that the second half feels even more infuriating that it already is, which is just plain disappointment of the highest order. C

Glenn saw Gardens of the Night as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival and would love to hear from you if you saw this or any other films at the fest.

9 comments:

Dame James Henry said...

Don't feel so bad. Something like the lead actress's hair would drive me crazy and that's all I would think about every time someone mentioned the film.

Catherine said...

That sounds kind of funny actually, in it's ineptness.

Is that 'five films a year at the cinema' thing real? I have a horrible suspicion it is, which is baffling to me. Like, I'm sure there are people out there who'd think it weird that I never go to sports events or whatever, but still. I'd crack up if I couldn't go to the cinema regularly. Like, I just came back from France last Sunday and since then I've been to the cinema 4 times.

Glenn said...

I'm pretty sure it's true that the average cinemagoer only goes a few times a year, which is why the summer blockbuster season is even more baffling. I really don't understand how they go so few times. I mean, already this year I've been over 30 times and that's just a rough guestimate. Probably much higher and I'm just forgetting which 2007 films were released here in 2008.

Glenn said...

Oh, and I must add about the actual movie, the silliness of the complain is just compounded by the fact that - really - the movie isn't that ineptly directed. It looks really good. As I said, it could've easily gone down the dreary handheld ultra-realism path but it didn't. But that doesn't excuse big lapses in film making judgement like having your homeless druggie chainsmoking prostitute look like a Miss World contestant.

FranklinBluth said...

I saw 'the complete history of my sexual failures' last week, and I really liked it. It was funny, moving and very honest. It's not to everyones taste, but I thought it was an excellent doco

richardwatts said...

This is exactly why Candy annoyed the hell out of me - well, one of the reasons anyway: it's leads looked far too robust and healthy to be long-term users.

I was intending to see this film at MIFF too, but I might cross it off my list after reading your review...

Kamikaze Camel said...

I know, right?! Like, I've seen plenty of druggos in my time and not one has had a perfect complexion.

leah said...

kam, stuff like unrealistic hair and make-up and skin condition annoys me, too, so your not being nit picky or unreasonable imo. even just weird hair gets to me (i remember being really distracted by laura linney's perfect blond coif in 'primal fear', it almost appears solid (and i worship her so it didn't wish her ill will or anything, i just couldn't take my eyes off her weird locks).

no one likes to portray druggies in film realistically for some reason, i'm racking my brain to think of some examples...maybe 'jungle fever' or trainspotting' or 'drugstore cowboy...and lead character druggies always seem to remain mysteriously pretty. weird, because you'd think it would be a good opportunity to 'ugly it up' a bit for a chance at awards!

Paul Martin said...

Richard, I absolutely agree with you re: Candy. I couldn't buy into it at all. When I first left home, I lived in a share house and one of the guys was a junkie. I knew others; I caught hair nits off the baby of another junkie (ie, a bit like Trainspotting).