There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Another Australian film about a charismatic psychotic, Angel Baby follows a slightly different itinerary from Shine. In the latter, true love is the end of the story, and a normalizing force. In Angel Baby, the adventure begins with romance, which proves to be spectacularly destabilizing.
A Melbourne computer programmer who suffered a nervous breakdown, Harry (Irish character actor John Lynch) has largely recuperated. He lives peacefully with his brother Morris (Colin Friels), sister-in-law Louise (Deborra-Lee Furness), and their young son. He’s a natural leader of the clinic’s other patients, who are a little too adorably wacky in an early scene where Harry leads them on an excursion to a bowling alley. He’s about to start applying for jobs. Then he spies Kate (Romper Stomper’s Jacqueline McKenzie), a skittish fellow patient whose heavy black eye makeup suggests she’s a recovering Goth. Harry chases Kate on and off a bus, and soon the two are comparing wrist and arm scarshis self-inflicted, hers the responsibility of a never-identified tormentor.
Morris and Louise are dubious, but at first the new relationship works out well. The lovers rent an apartment together, and Harry gets a job. Kate still thinks she’s receiving messages from her guardian angel, Astral, through the Australian edition of Wheel of Fortune, but these omens are as vague and benign as a daily newspaper horoscope. Then Kate gets pregnant, and Harry decrees that the couple should prevent birth defects by giving up cigarettes, junk food, and their anti-psychotic drugs. (It’s unclear what role Harry’s taking the medication would play in any possible birth defect; presumably, he abandons his drugs as a gesture of solidarity.) Soon everything goes wrong, and Harry’s attempt to hide Kate from her doctors can’t prevent her inevitable, dreaded appointment in the obstetrics ward.
Unlike Shine, Angel Baby is not intent on a happy ending. First-time feature writer/director Michael Rymer sometimes flirts with the cutein one scene, the numerologically minded couple insists on paying full price for a Kmart sale item because the lower price is inauspiciousbut Kate’s escalating detachment from reality is not played for laughs. Indeed, the ending has a bit too much of a Victorian-melodrama quality to it.
Rymer depicts psychosis with the cinematic vocabulary of the bad drug trip, swirling and zooming his camera in and out of focus as the soundtrack mixes Islamic wailing and African drumming. (From the opening strains of “Spirit in the Sky” to the reprises of “You Are My Special Angel,” the film is well outfitted with musical cues.) These tricks might be effective if they weren’t so well-worn, but even then they probably wouldn’t be adequate to convey Kate’s confusion and terror. (For the record, the equation of non-Western music and insanity is a bit of cultural chauvinism that should be retired.)
If the film is sometimes glib, it has two significant assets, Lynch and McKenzie, both of whom resist slipping into caricature. They have the fierce intensity that Rymer’s camera movements can only suggest. Admirably, the director also defies the notion that the clinically insane are sainted and prophetic. As the disastrous result of Harry and Kate’s plans reveals, the lovers are not blessed with special wisdom. Angel Baby does romanticize the convention-busting ardor of Harry and Kate’s passion, but it admits that such amok emotions sometimes lead only to calamity.
In America’s South, there are still members of the secretive, Irish-rooted Travellers (aka Tinkers), itinerant con men who work alone but stick together. Want to know more? Don’t bother with Traveller, a film that fails to find much that’s distinctive in an unfamiliar milieu.
Making his directorial debut, longtime Clint Eastwood cinematographer Jack Green (yes, he shot the idiotic Absolute Power) does a competent low-budget approximation of a Hollywood buddy/sting flick. There’s the nonstop soundtrack, featuring contemporary country- and roots-rockers covering such venerable tunes as “King of the Road” and “Dream Lover.” (The mournful faux-Celtic score is by ’70s Boston power-popper Andy Paley, these days a house producer at Sire.) Then there are such predictable plot elements as male bonding, an improbable romance, and a violent denouement. Finally, there’s a tidy resolution that pretty much ignores the film’s premise.
As its singular-noun title promises, Traveller begins by introducing a man who hustles alone: Bokky (Bill Paxton, who also co-produced the film) travels the South working various scams. He always has a batch of “sealant” that he needs to use up, which is why he can offer such great prices to repair a driveway or a silo roof. But the substance he sprays onto cracking surfaces is actually crankcase oil, which runs off in the first rain. Bokky also resells unreliable mobile homes, using a sob story about a broken engagement to turn a quick 100-percent profit.
Offered a partnership by scam artist Double D (James Gammon), Bokky refuses. But when he returns to the clan’s North Carolina camp for the semiannual mass burial, he inexplicably takes pity on Pat (Mark “Marky Mark” Wahlberg). Pat is a newcomer who has arrived to bury his father, a Traveller who married outside the tribe and settled down. He says his father told him he had a right to be accepted as a Traveller, but tribal chief Boss Jack (Luke Askew) disagrees. He doesn’t want to accept the newcomer, especially since the young man is showing an interest in Jack’s daughter Kate (Nikki DeLoach), who’s already “matched” to a member of the group. Bokky takes Pat as his partner over Boss Jack’s objections.
Pat picks up the Traveller trade quickly, and soon shows more enthusiasm for fleecing people than does his mentor. In fact, Bokky has a change of heart after he swindles $500 from Jean (Julianna Margulies), a recent divorcee who’s trying to support her daughter Shane (Danielle Wiener) on a bartender’s wage. Bokky’s scam gets Jean fired, so when he goes to give her the money back, she understandably slugs him. Soon enough, though, they’re in bed together, and Bokky is thinking of breaking the Traveller code by settling down with an outsider. When he learns that Shane needs a $40,000 operation to avoid going deaf, he pledges the money. To get it, Bokky and Pat ally with Double D in an overcomplicated scam to swindle big bucks from a Kentucky racing fixer. This major score, of course, goes dramatically wrong.
If Jim McGlynn’s script is largely predictable, his dialogue is agreeably terse. Only a few lines are as corny as Kate’s entreaty that Pat “go for it with everything you’ve got,” and they’re mostly delivered by the female characters, who are even more underwritten than the male ones. Connoisseurs of terse, untrustworthy masculinity may appreciate Paxton and Wahlberg’s performances, which are coolly robust. No doubt they would have been more credible if they’d had a more precise movie around them.CP