Review: Poseidon

May 9, 2006

Based on a 1972 movie that jump-started that decade's cycle of disaster films, Poseidon arrives with thirty years' worth of advanced special effects and a director whose seagoing films already include Das Boot and The Perfect Storm. While it makes some concessions to the present (such as GPS locators and cell phones), what's most surprising about Poseidon is how old-fashioned it is.

The opening introduces a smattering of the passengers and crew aboard a mighty ocean liner. Divorcée Robert Ramsey (Kurt Russell), a former mayor of New York City, is vacationing with his daughter Jennifer (Emmy Rossum), who is too afraid of her dad's reaction to announce her engagement to Christian (Mike Vogel). Stowaway Elena (Mia Maestro) meets her boyfriend Valentin (Freddy Rodriguez) in the ship's galley. Professional gambler Dylan Johns (Josh Lucas) befriends young Conor James (Jimmy Bennett) and his glamorous mother Maggie (Jacinda Barrett). Also wandering around are Richard Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss), a suicidal gay architect, and "Lucky Larry" (Kevin Dillon), a foolhardy alcoholic. As the captain (Andre Braugher) prepares his New Year's toast in the Poseidon ballroom, his officers on the bridge notice a giant rogue wave approaching the ship.

As in the original Poseidon Adventure, these opening scenes are dishearteningly stiff and awkward. Once the wave hits, however, director Wolfgang Petersen gets down to business. As the ship slowly rolls over, death and destruction follow, captured with close attention to detail but with thankfully little outright gore. Then it's just a question of sending a small band of survivors through a prolonged episode of Fear Factor.

Petersen leans more on stunt work than CGI for the big set pieces, and the human touch adds a sense of danger that's often missing from adventure films. The director alternates action scenes with some quieter moments, but Poseidon is not about introspection. It's about scaring viewers by blowing things up, and complaining that it is superficial and escapist is like complaining that the ocean is wet. The only issues that matter here are basic ones, like which cast member will succumb first. The kid? The stowaway? The ingénue?

The cast does what it can with roles that are barely sketched in. Peterson also does what he can with a script that gets more waterlogged as it progresses, but he deserves credit for never trying to pretend that Poseidon is anything more than a disaster film. Credible it may not be, but it is certainly always watchable.

Cast and credits

Cast: Kurt Russell, Josh Lucas, Richard Dreyfuss, Kevin Dillon, Jacinda Barrett, Emmy Rossum, Mike Vogel, Mia Maestro, Jimmy Bennett, Andre Braugher, Freddy Rodriguez, Stacy Ferguson.

Credits: Directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Screenplay by Mark Protosevich. Based on the novel by Paul Gallico. Produced by Wolfgang Petersen, Duncan Henderson, Mike Fleiss, Akiva Goldsman. Executive producers: Kevin Burns, Jon Jashni, Sheila Allen, Benjamin Waisbren. Director of photography: John Seale. Production designer: William Sandell. Edited by Peter Honess. Music by Klaus Badelt. Costume designer: Erica Edell Phillips. Musical supervisor: Maureen Crowe. Visual effects supervisor: Boyd Shermis. Co-producers: Todd Arnow, Kimberly Miller, Chris Briggs. A Warner Bros. presentation, in association with Virtual Studios, of a Radiant Production, Next Entertainment, Irwin Allen Productions, and Synthesis Entertainment production.

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Review: An American Haunting

May 9, 2006

Graced with an unusually strong cast and claims that it is based on a true story, An American Haunting positions itself as an alternative to the current crop of ultra-violent horror films. Ambitious but not especially distinguished, it is bound for the same limbo that imprisons its ghostly subject.

While it opens with a terrified teen running through a contemporary snowy forest, the film quickly flashes back to 1817 Tennessee and the home of wealthy farmer John Bell (Donald Sutherland). His daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) is at the age when girls discover flirting. At a Christmas party she tries to persuade her teacher, Richard Powell (James D'Arcy), to dance with her, drawing her father's worried attention.

Bell faces greater trouble when he is charged with usury at a church court. Found guilty, he is roundly cursed by his neighbor and victim Kate Batts. Soon, Bell is being attacked by spectral wolves. A presence invades his house each night. Betsy receives the brunt of the torment. She is levitated by an unknown force, her bedding hurled about. She falls into swoons, and sees a small girl who has the ability to dematerialize.

Bell turns to his friend James Johnston (Matthew Marsh) and to Powell for help. But no one can explain the banging, sudden gusts, broken windows, locked doors, and illnesses that afflict the Bell household. That is until Bell's wife Lucy (Sissy Spacek) deduces an awful secret, one that she records in a diary.

Despite many books and articles, no one has ever adequately explained what happened to the Bell family, a tradition that continues in this film. Writer-director Courtney Solomon manages to cast a modern spin on the story, but it is one that could be regarded as the least imaginative explanation possible.

Solomon's style aims for the tried-and-true, circa 1968. It's just not very scary, unless you find the prospect of period speech and costumes frightening. An American Haunting unfolds as a series of toothless jolts accompanied by grating musical stings. The jangling, insistent score overwhelms the rest of the film, including Sutherland's finely realized performance as a proud patrician undone by the unknown. Perhaps remembering her start in films like Carrie, Spacek is equally accomplished in a smaller part. But they are unable to give weight to a pedestrian version of an obscure story. Hardcore horror fans are about the only conceivable audience for An American Haunting. Perhaps they will be inspired to find out what usury is.

Cast and credits

Cast: Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek, James D'Arcy, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Matthew Marsh, Thom Fell, Zoe Thorne, Gaye Brown, Sam Alexander.

Credits: Written, produced, and directed by Courtney Solomon. Based on the novel The Bell Witch: An American Haunting by Brent Monahan. Produced by Christopher Milburn, André Rouleau. Executive producers: Allan Zeman, Robbie Little, Lawrence Steven Meyers, Julien Rémillard, Maxime Rémillard, Simon Franks, Zygi Kanasa. Director of photography: Adrian Biddle. Production designer: Humphrey Jaeger. Edited by Richard Comeau. Costume designer: Jane Petrie. Music by Caine Davidson. Co-producer: Andrei Boncea. Co-executive producers: Nelson Leong, Francis Delia. An Allan Zeman presentation, in association with Midsummer Films, Remstar Films, SC MediaPro Pictures, and After Dark Films, of a Christopher Milburn production.


Random Thoughts on M:i:III

May 3, 2006

Tom Cruise wants to make his hundreds of millions, but he wants you to love him too. That may account for the weirdly bipolar Mission Impossible III, scudding into four thousand theaters on Friday, May 5. On one hand it's a sinister, cynical thriller filled with torture and betrayal, one that opens with a brutal murder that gets re-staged two more times. On the other hand, it's a film in which women ogle Cruise's body (purely as mate material, mind you), strangers tearily applaud his marriage, and he dies and comes back as the perfect husband.

Even within the fantasy rules of Hollywood thrillers, M:i:III is out there. It's set in a world where elaborate missions can be outfitted in two hours, which assumes a world-wide network of spy clearinghouses supplying Batman cable ascenders, night vision goggles, armor-plated SUVs, unlimited rounds of ammo, and complete blueprints for every building on earth. It's also a world in which nothing ever goes wrong. The jackknifed trailer passes harmlessly over the body lying prone in the street. The street vendor, the elderly retiree reading a paper on a deck chair, the woman hanging laundry don't accidentally block the hero running down an alley to a rendezvous. The door doesn't stick, the car doesn't stall, the gun doesn't jam, the wind doesn't pick up, the guard isn't suspicious, the mask doesn't slip. Fair enough here and there, but all the time? Hitchcock made entire movies about mistakes, quirks, faults. Here nothing ever fails, for good guys or bad. In the real world, in John Woo's world, in Jackie Chan's world, heck, in Richard Donner's world no one would have made it out of this movie alive.

Yes, it's a fantasy escapist adventure that spans the globe, shows off high-tech gizmos, and blows up the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. But did anyone stop to think what this movie was about? That the character played by Cruise betrays his country with the deadliest something-or-other in the world in order to save his wife, a nurse who knows nothing about his background? Because she's young and innocent, as he explains to the fellow traitor played by Ving Rhames. Only Cruise turns her into a killer anyway, before bringing her around to the office to show her off. So exactly what were his motives?

And what about the scenes they didn't write? (Ask the dust, MiII screenwriter Robert Towne might say.) Like how Cruise steals the whatsits, or how he escapes from the IMF HQ (unless pretending that it's connected to the Department of Transportation by air-conditioning ducts counts as an explanation). Not that it matters. Moviegoers will choose this over Poseidon or whatever other recycled junk is playing in the other cineplexes. But those same moviegoers will continue to drift away, one by one, to more entertaining pastimes as box-office revenues spiral downward.


Review: An Inconvenient Truth

May 3, 2006

The evidence about global warming has become so clear and ominous that it’s hard to believe anyone could question it. Yet many politicians and businessmen still argue that global warming is an unproved theory that can be explained away by statistics. In An Inconvenient Truth, former Vice President Al Gore addresses the issue in a straightforward, authoritative manner. Those on the left will appreciate the facts presented logically and forcefully; those on the right will accuse the film of distortions and evasions. Unfortunately, the people who need to see the film the most–those who haven’t bothered to form an opinion on the subject yet–aren’t likely to seek out what is the equivalent of a filmed lecture.

Gore is a polished speaker, and by his count has given his global warming speech over a thousand times. His familiarity with the material shows in his dry, dispassionate delivery. He raises his voice only once, while exhorting his audience to take political action; otherwise, his calm style can lull viewers into missing important points.

The speech’s content seems overly defensive. Gore spends most of the movie debunking junk science and defusing anticipated attacks from the right. Much of this material will be good ammunition for dinner-party debates, but Gore could have made better use of his time than preaching so relentlessly to the converted.

Gore does make some attempts to personalize the material. He speaks about how his older sister, a lifelong smoker, died of lung cancer, and about how an accident to his six-year-old son changed his priorities as a politician. It’s a welcome move that adds some of the sincerity and sensitivity that politicians often seem to lack.

Director Davis Guggenheim has tried hard to spice up the film visually, but it is impossible to disguise the fact that, no matter how gussied-up, this is basically a speech with slides (programmed in Keynote, Apple’s version of PowerPoint). Occasional film footage of ecological disasters, a stray clip or two from Futurama, and candid shots of Gore traveling or at work fill out the visual side of the film.

An Inconvenient Truth delivers a depressing message. In fact, the film succeeds in presenting a case so damning that despair seems the only response. What can the average person do with the knowledge that glaciers in Nepal that supply drinking water to some forty per cent of the world’s population are disappearing? The record-breaking temperatures, spread of communicable diseases, worsening storms, shrinking lakes, combined with political inaction or outright deception, can leave viewers feeling helpless. And Gore resists offering any solutions, either easy or obvious ones.

Still, if you believe, as I do, that global warming is a critical problem, then An Inconvenient Truth could not arrive at a more important time. If it can help persuade even one person to take steps to effect a change, then Gore will have accomplished more good than his presidential opponent apparently ever will.

Cast and Credits

Featuring: Al Gore

Credits: Directed by Davis Guggenheim. Produced by Laurie David, Lawrence Bender, Scott Z. Burns. Executive producers: Jeff Skoll, Davis Guggenheim. Directors of photography: Bob Richman, Davis Guggenheim. Edited by Jay Cassidy, Dan Swietlik. Music by Michael Brook. Co-producer: Lesley Chilcott. A Participant Productions production.


Review: The Road to Guantanamo

May 1, 2006

The most remarkable aspect of The Road to Guantánamo isn't the fact that it is based on a true story, but that directors Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross managed to get it made at all. Shooting on location with skeleton crews in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran, Winterbottom and Whitecross deliver a frightening picture of the front lines of the war on terrorism in a film that feels as immediate and authentic as a news report.

The film follows four British friends who travel to Pakistan in September, 2001, for a wedding. Asif (Arfan Usman), 19, the groom, is the first to arrive. He's joined later by three friends, best man Ruhel (Farhad Harun), Shafiq (Riz Ahmed), and Monir (Waqar Siddiqui). Lounging around Karachi, they learn that they can travel cheaply to Afghanistan. Prompted as much by the promise of cheap food as the hope of volunteering as relief workers, the four friends buy bus tickets to Kandahar.

They reach the city just as the United States starts bombing the country. In Kabul, the friends charter a minibus to return to Pakistan. Their route leads to Konduz, one of the last Taliban strongholds. Monir disappears. When the Taliban surrenders, the three surviving friends are imprisoned by Northern Alliance forces. Because they can speak English, they are flown to a special prison in Kandahar, where US and British soldiers interrogate them. From there they are sent to Camp X-Ray in Guantánamo.

For the next two years they will be interrogated daily by armed forces personnel. They are urged to reveal their terrorist connections, accused of attending rallies with Osama Bin Laden and Mohammed Atta, and subjected to torture. Without overly demonizing the guards and interrogators, Winterbottom and Whitecross present a very plausible account of how modern-day interrogation techniques actually work. The hoods, shackles, open-air cells, heavy metal music, sleep deprivation, and dogs all help "break down" the inmates, with beatings just a part of the routine.

Winterbottom's recent films, like the sex-and-music-video 9 Songs or the in-joke-heavy A Cock and Bull Story, have seemed like stunts in search of plots. But here he and Whitecross, who edited 9 Songs, devote all their technique and energy to the story. The Road to Guantánamo is pitched at a relentless pace. Documentary footage is mixed with re-created scenes, and the amateurs who play the leads are joined by their real-life counterparts, who provide more details about their stories in interviews.

The headlong filmmaking style sacrifices clarity at times, with disorienting results. The directors provide almost no context for the events they depict. And while the film is not inaccurate about the leads (who became known as the "Tipton Three" from their neighborhood in England), it doesn't quite tell all the truth either. Two of the three were on parole when they originally flew to Pakistan, for example.

Whether you are for or against the current administration's war on terror, this is not a reassuring film. Since the central facts in the story are beyond dispute, viewers are left with troubling questions. If something like this could happen to the Tipton Three, isn't anyone vulnerable? How many other detainees at Guantánamo are as innocent? How could so many security experts get this case so wrong for so long? And if their experiences at the hands of prison personnel have politicized the Tipton Three, what has Guantánamo done to their fellow prisoners?

Cast and crew

Cast: Riz Ahmed, Farhad Harun, Waqar Siddiqui, Arfan Usman, Ruhel Ahmed, Asif Iqbal, Shafiq Rasul, Shahid Iqbal, Sher Khan, Jason Salkey, Jacob Gaffney, Mark Holden, Duane Henry, William Meredith, Payman Bina, Adam James, Ian Hughes, Jamie Buller, Mark Sproston, Nancy Crane, Ewan Bailey, Martin McDougall, Naser Ranjha, Justin Lynch, Sara Stewart, Demitri Goritsas, James McNeill.

Credits: Directed and edited by Michael Winterbottom, Mat Whitecross. Produced by Andrew Eaton, Melissa Parmenter. Executive producer: Lee Thomas. Iranian co-producer: Shahryar Shahbazzadeh. Director of photography: Marcel Zyskind. Production designer: Mark Digby. Music by Harry Escott and Molly Nyman. A Filmfour presentation of a Revolutions Films production, in association with Screen West Midlands. In Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, Pashtu, Dari, and English with English subtitles.


Review: Clean

May 1, 2006

Although she is a remarkable actress, Maggie Cheung has rarely had a film role that made full use of her talents. Written expressly for her by her ex-husband Olivier Assayas, Clean gives Cheung an opportunity to show exactly what she can accomplish. Set on a modest scale, but told with Assayas' characteristic immediacy and complexity, the film is a moving story of growth and reconciliation as well as an excellent showcase for a genuinely talented star.

Opening scenes set in Canada detail the dissolute and dissolving marriage of Lee (James Johnston), a passive-aggressive rock musician, and Emily (Cheung), his overbearing wife and manager. Both are heroin addicts, although drugs are clearly a symptom of deeper-rooted problems. Within a few minutes of screen time, Lee has died of an overdose, Emily is sentenced to prison, and her father-in-law Albrecht (Nick Nolte) informs her that he's taken custody of her young son Jay (James Dennis).

Emily moves to Paris, where she leans on old friends for help. Jean-Pierre (Rémi Martin), a publicist, gets her fake prescriptions for methadone. An uncle gives her a job as a waitress in his restaurant, while Elena (Béatrice Dalle), a rock manager, finds her a flat in the suburbs. But these are temporary measures that don't address the real reasons why Emily has reached this point.

The bulk of the film examines her struggle for sobriety, which is also a struggle for maturity and self-respect. Because Assayas doesn't judge his characters, some have mistaken his style here as dispassionate or even diffident. But Emily and her father-in-law Albrecht have enormous reservoirs of emotion which they are trying to keep in check. Surrounded by reversals and disappointments, it's no wonder they have retreated into themselves.

Clean is filled with quick, precise character sketches, from a fed-up agent (played by Don McKellar) to Emily's coworkers in the Chinese restaurant. Assayas is equally comfortable depicting the squalor of a dingy rock club and the icy cubicles of television executives. As in his other films, he includes several challenging crowd scenes that are impressively shot. He also excels at depicting the mundane, day-to-day details that persist despite personal calamities. But Assayas consistently underplays his style in order to give his actors the room they need.

Nolte gives a quiet, dignified performance as a grandfather whose world is shrinking around him, but the film was built for Cheung, who is outstanding in a difficult part. She is so open and candid that her character makes sense despite her flaws. Cheung is at a point in her career where she no longer has to compromise about her art, and her honesty is one of the qualities that makes Clean such a morally satisfying film. She even sings a few tunes in a serviceable voice. Clean won Cheung Best Actress at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, a reward that reflects her long career as well as Assayas' generous film.

Cast and credits

Cast: Maggie Cheung, Nick Nolte, Béatrice Dalle, Jeanne Balibar, Don McKellar, Martha Henry, James Johnston, James Dennis, Rémi Martin, Laetitia Spigarelli, Tricky, David Roback, Emily Haines, Man Kit Cheung.

Credits: Written and directed by Olivier Assayas. Produced by Edouard Weil, Xavier Marchand, Niv Fichman. Executive producers: Aline Perry, Rupert Preston. Director of photography: Eric Gautier. Edited by Luc Barnier. Set designers: François-Renaud Labarthe, Bill Fleming. Costume designer: Anaïs Romand. A Rectangle Productions presentation, in co-production with Haystack Productions and Rhombus Media, of an Arte France Cinéma co-production, in association with Canal +, the Centre National de la Cinématographie, Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication, and Telefilm Canada, in association with The Film Consortium, UK Film Council, The Works, Matrix Film Finance LLP, with associate producers Forensic Films, Elizabeth II. In French, Cantonese, and English, with English subtitles.