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With: Justine Clarke, William McInnes, Anthony Hayes, Lisa Flanagan, Andrew S. Gilbert, Daniella Farinacci, Maggie Dence, Edwin Hodgeman, Andreas Sobik, Sacha Horler
Written by: Sarah Watt
Directed by: Sarah Watt
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content and thematic material
Running Time: 100
Date: 03/03/2005

Look Both Ways (2006)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Don't 'Look' Now

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

SRC="" border="0" height="150" align="right"> Sarah Watt's Look Both Ways received the Virgin Megastore Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at this spring's San Francisco International Film Festival. It's difficult to see why, unless we take into account a kind of self-flagellation audiences and critics sometimes partake in. If a film is a dreary, painful or otherwise unpleasant experience, it must be good for you, and therefore a good film.

This explains a great many Oscar winners as well as the continued popularity of the "disease-of-the-week" film genre, of which "Look Both Ways" is a proud member.

The new film opens today at the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco and at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

Look Both Ways trains its microscope on several miserable little lives in Australia during a heat wave, starting with an artist, Meryl (Justine Clarke), who paints greeting cards for a living.

She witnesses a gruesome death on a nearby train track, and the film follows the others who appear at the scene, including a reporter and the train conductor.

News photographer Nick (William McInnes) shoots a heartbreaking photo of the victim's widow arriving on the scene, but he's not interested in celebrating, as he has just learned that his body is riddled with cancer.

Nick and Meryl accidentally meet again and begin a tentative relationship in which they try not to talk about their bleak points of view, even though their sullen faces reveal everything anyway.

Like one of Robert Altman or Paul Thomas Anderson's ensemble pieces, Watt switches around to her supporting players when she can't milk the main relationship for a feature film's worth of pathos.

The main saving grace comes in the form of Watt's talent as an animator; she completed more than a dozen shorts prior to taking on this feature debut.

In Look Both Ways, she uses animated interludes not as funky little gimmicks, but to illustrate the darkest fears of her characters.

Meryl constantly imagines death and destruction, such as the earth opening up and swallowing her whole, or a man out for a walk suddenly, rabidly attacking her. Watt cleverly matches her little cartoons to the live-action shots so that they jump out, like sudden little nightmares.

Nick's visions come in his own personal style: photographs. He sees photo montages of various incidents that have led him to his sorry present, as well as random images from his potential future (each accompanied by snapping and whirring noises).

Meryl's study is even more revealing. While painting her soothing beaches and sunsets for work, she dots in microscopic scenes of sharks devouring young women. A striking painting hangs on the wall, depicting a roiling ocean with two waves clashing in an impossibly high peak, revealing all the more about her true self.

All told, Look Both Ways is not a stupid movie. Watt handles her people connections with intelligence and restraint. When the train conductor approaches the widow's home with a tearful apology, she gives it just the right beat to keep it from drowning in maudlin sentiment.

But the film otherwise lacks grace and finesse. It has a cold, observer's touch that makes dealing with the death and disease a disdainful task. Perhaps Watt intended this deadpan as darkly humorous, but what we really needed was a sense of empathy.

Many filmmakers seem to believe that simply dropping in cancer (likewise autism, deafness, etc.) will automatically generate said empathy. But in a movie these things are only so many special effects. We need something else.

One filmmaker made a masterwork about terminal illness, Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru (1952). In that film, a bureaucrat learns he's dying of cancer and, after a bit of soul-searching decides to dedicate his life to building a playground for poor kids.

The film's key shot shows the hero sitting on the swing, simply pondering. Is he happy? Is the shot ironic? Does his contribution really matter? The shot means so many things, and all of them have moved beyond the concept of cancer. Kurosawa has moved instead into the realm of character, emotion, or -- in essence -- cinema.

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