A long flight at the movies

If Hollywood producers really want to test-market movies effectively, they should arrange to do it on international long-haul flights.

Typically the screens are small, the transmission is subject to the interruption of flight-deck announcements - "Ladies and gentlemen, due to moderate turbulence the captain has just re-engaged the seat-belt sign. Please return to your seats and tighten your seatbelts" - the baby in the row in front is having a fitful night, and the passenger in the window-seat next to you bought his bladder from Woolworths.

Only if the movie is particularly engrossing is it likely to survive such persistent intrusions. Of the six or eight watched on recent long flights, remnants of only two or three remain. Some didn't make it past first base, including the Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy with a premise so clichéd and dripping in wish-fulfilment that I couldn't endure it.

It starred Ms Aniston as the uptight career woman who passes through Hicksville, USA, and stops for a night at a motel where she catches the eye of the gormless night manager. He plies her with wine and suggestive compliments and she duly returns the favour - and realises all his fantasies - by ravishing him on the laundry room table.

That's as far as I got before switching channels.

One of the more diverting pieces was a small Italian movie revolving around a man who looks after his elderly mother and finds himself with several other elderly matrons to care for over the course of a summer weekend - a charming tale about cooking, caring and attitudes towards the elderly, with a gently moralistic undercurrent.

I can't quite recall the title.

Another was The Soloist, currently showing at local screens. This is the story of a Los Angeles Times columnist (Robert Downey jun) in search of subject matter for his latest article (know the feeling) who happens across a transient (Jamie Foxx) under a motorway underpass playing a two-stringed violin.

It transpires that the transient is a lost prodigy whose genius and talent have been subsumed by years of mental ill-health.

The columnist befriends the homeless musician and attempts to help him find accommodation, take up his beloved cello again - and learns a few lessons along the way about the nature of mental illness and, indeed, of friendship. Based on a true story, and boasting two excellent performances from the leads, it felt real. It registered.

The other that made a lasting impression was a small Irish film. It is called Five Minutes of Heaven, and again had two powerful actors in the lead roles: Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt, two men bound by a brutal and mindless crime - the sectarian murder of the brother of the Nesbitt character by the young Liam Neeson. Thirty or so years later, the two are to be brought face-to-face by a reality television programme.

Nesbitt has harboured hatred and a sense of responsibility for the murder of his brother in the intervening years. Given half a chance, he will kill the perpetrator; and Neeson, having done his time in prison, is full of a sort of unexpunged guilt and remorse.

The preparation for the shoot goes badly and the meeting is aborted, but Neeson decides to persist in engineering a rendezvous.

This is a powerful drama which, among other things, addresses the psychology of victimhood. And I'm not going to spoil it by saying exactly how; it is a thought-provoking film.

I was reminded of it by all the talk emanating from the Sensible Sentencing Trust (SST) conference in Taupo at the weekend.

Here, the families of the country's most high-profile murder victims gathered to discuss their treatment under the justice system and to suggest alternative criminal remedies to those currently in force.

At the heart of the SST project seems an attempt to place Victims - invariably rendered with a capital "V" by the trust - at the heart of the justice system.

It's a remit that, while sincerely and often with some force seeking a better deal for "victims", works against a historical trajectory which sought to remove the burden of achieving justice - or vengeance, retribution, utu, call it what you will - from the individual and place it upon society, instead.

But victimhood can enshrine grievance, and while an active sense of grievance and anger smoulders, no matter what sentences have been passed down on the offender, one suspects it is difficult if not actually impossible "to move on".

In fact, some might suggest that a victim-centred justice system is one in which the very real agony felt by friends, relatives and families of victims is prolonged - to debilitating, sometimes crushing, effect.

- Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor at the Otago Daily Times.

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