Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This smart, somewhat morbid drama from Australia was written and directed, and based on the animation designs, of Sarah Watt. The premise shows a number of young people brought together by tragedy. A violent act serves as the catalyst, shaking each individual free of the modern despair engendered in part by a media that feeds its public a steady diet of misery and horror.
Look Both Ways is a live-action film punctuated by frequent snippets of animation to illustrate the heroine's thought processes, or to show the mind-storm of panic growing in the hero, who is told in the first scene that he may have a life-threatening Cancer.
Adelaide news photographer Nick (William McInnes) is told that he has testicular Cancer but can't get any more details until Monday. At a grisly train accident he snaps a picture of the victim's wife arriving on the scene, which is used by the paper on its front page. Artist Meryl (Justine Clark) is a witness to the tragedy. She returns to her studio and continues to fantasize gory deaths and accidents all around her, while producing pretty images for greeting cards. Nick lives in the same neighborhood and over the weekend he visits her and they start a romance. After taking Meryl to meet his mother, Nick breaks down, which Meryl thinks is a cheap excuse to dump her. Meanwhile, other characters associated with the accident have their own morbid reactions.
Look Both Ways resembles a number of other films in theme and form. It takes its time frame from Cleo from 5 to 7, the famous Agnes Varda film in which a woman waits to find out if she has a terminal illness. Like Magnolia, it expands on the tensions in a group of characters reacting to morbid events. Whereas several films of this kind come off as insufferably pretentious or unnecessarily grim, Look Both Ways eventually creates a feel-good vibe out of its characters' fears and suffering.
The famous producer Val Lewton might have liked this story; one of his un-produced projects was a moody tale about a man and woman that meet and fall in love when their respective spouses are killed in a train accident. A similar story called Random Hearts (1999) was directed by Sidney Pollack, and if one really wants to stretch the concept, Billy Wilder's romantic comedy Avanti! fits the bill as well.
Look Both Ways swings dangerously toward the ponderous Paul Thomas Anderson end of the scale by overstating the psychological dominance of an ugly media insistence on tragedy. The horror of the train victim's widow is splashed across the front page of the paper and the television exploits an even larger train crash; a columnist immediately infers that the local train accident might have been suicide. All are under the emotionally numbing spell of media fear. If the characters are not obsessed with impending doom they're in denial. By cramming a lot of angst into 48 hours, the film turns its back on positive possibilities, at least until its rather convenient happy ending.
But Look Both Ways is also refreshingly different in its presentation. Writer/director/animator Sarah Watt makes three of her main characters into artists, with Meryl's greeting-card illustrator the focus. Meryl lives alone, is unhappy about not having a man she can trust and continually fantasizes about being eaten by sharks or struck by cars; even as she walks to the site of the impending accident she's imagining the trains crashing in tunnels or falling on her from above. When Nick comes to her apartment, Meryl instantly imagines him as a hooded killer. These little animated fantasies aren't limited to Meryl's imagination, as Nick finds similar morbid artwork among the pretty watercolor seascapes she paints for a living.
The simple story of Nick and Meryl is complicated by secondary threads, all converging on the same theme. Nick's boss Phil (Andrew S. Gilbert) spends the weekend appreciating his kids more fully. The hotheaded columnist-reporter Andy (Anthony Hayes) stews in his own bitterness. It's easy to see that the callous slant to his writing comes from his broken home -- he hates his ex-wife and sees her turning his own children against him. Andy's Koori girlfriend Anna is pregnant, but Andy selfishly thinks only of himself. The beautiful Anna works as a nurse, and sees too well the difficulty and strain of single mothers. Back at the train tracks the new widow suffers and the train driver has a terrible, guilt-stricken weekend as well.
How well Look Both Ways comes together will depend on one's acceptance of its point of view. The characters are sincere and attractive, although Andy doesn't seem mature enough to be a good reporter. Their individual suffering is aggravated by the constant shock news from the television, which, even though it probably inspired the entire story, comes off as forced. Meryl's cartoon animations are funny and gross and provide a distinctive style hook. Sharply rendered lifelike animations of Cancer news and monstrous growths haunt Nick's thoughts. The film appears to break its own style rules when Nick experiences a couple of cartoon daydreams identical to Meryl's.
Sarah Watt's sensitive direction still serves up a conventional ending -- like many films from Australia and New Zealand, Look Both Ways succeeds at recycling solid plot structures abandoned by Hollywood. One character overcomes his selfishness with an expected burst of maturity, while our lovers work through their fears and hostility to acknowledge their need for one another. Oddly, what should be the film's corniest scene is its most affecting moment. A character delivers a condolence greeting card in person to the aggrieved widow and makes a heartfelt positive connection. Store-bought greeting cards delivered by mail are a stain on our culture, but this personal ritual, using the card as the pretext to introduce one's self in person, seems an extremely civilized way for strangers to meaningfully connect.
Kino's DVD of Look Both Ways is an attractive enhanced transfer with glowing colors. Handsomely produced, it outdoes many American movies and television dramas, which have come to require either stars or a sensational angle to attract viewers. Producer Bridget Iken also made the wondrous film biography An Angel at My Table, another sensitive drama seen largely from a woman's point of view. The extras include lengthy illustrated interviews with director Watt and her leading player Justine Clarke. Clarke is a blonde beauty in person, but her Meryl character is interestingly de-glamorized with tangled brown hair and an absence of makeup.
Savant's only criticism of the DVD presentation is its lack of English subtitles. The mumbled Australian accents are often difficult to understand, and I missed a goodly percentage of the dialogue.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Look Both Ways rates:
Supplements: Interviews with writer/director Sarah Watt and actress Justine Clarke; still gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 2, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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