Under the Same Moon(6/26/2008)

            The trailer for Patricia Riggen’s Under the Same Moon boldly proclaims that “not since Cinema Paradiso has a film captured the hearts of audiences around the world [as much as Under the Same Moon].”  Given that the movie swiftly came and went in theaters it can safely be said that that proclamation was, at best, wishful thinking on the part of Fox Searchlight and the Weinstein Company.  Still it makes one wonder why foreign movies are having such a hard time breaking into the mainstream as of late.  Pan’s Labyrinth came real close to breaking through two years ago, but never quite became a sensation along the line of Ill Postino or Crouching Tiger.  My personal conspiracy theory on this is that the studios are deliberately sabotaging their releases so they can more easily do Hollywood remakes.  But that’s a rant for a different day, because no one is going to want to remake this thing, and nor should they.  The only reason this was largely ignored is that it’s sappy and manipulative.

            The film follows dual stories of a Mexican boy named Carlito (Adrian Alonso) and his mother Rosario (Kate del Castillo) who’s working illegally on the other side of the border in Los Angeles.  Rosario has been gone for four years and Carlito’s father has been out of the picture for even longer.  Carlito’s only contact with his mother ocurrs when she calls him every Sunday, but after one fateful Sunday call he finds his grandmother dead.  With this in mind, Carlito decides to travel alone from his town in Mexico to his mother in L.A. and wants to get there before the next Sunday call is made so his mother won’t worry.  After the local coyote refuses to help him Carlito must rely on the kindness of strangers in order to get across the border and reach his mother.

            Believability is probably the first o many problems this movie has.  Over the years there have been a lot of precocious children on the screen, but it takes a special kind of precociousness for a nine year old to independently think that he can travel hundreds of miles across a foreign border, against all warnings from his elders, alone and on a very limited budget.  Many adults are killed or arrested trying to do the same, yet this kid succeeds relatively unscathed.  Every time the kid is about to get in trouble the film’s script has him coincidentally run into a random stranger willing to help him, usually at great expense to themselves. 

            Immigration was a huge issue for about a month last year, now it’s pretty well on the back burner but it remains a controversial subject.  This film’s take on the subject is one-sided and simple: all illegal immigrants are saintly figures while everyone who isn’t an illegal immigrant is naïve, mean, or an obstacle.  The only American citizens to be found here are nameless brutal cops, fascists with the gall to raid a sleazy tomatoes plantation who “generously” decide to hire a nine year old for dangerous work.  Also to found are a pair of Second generation Mexican immigrants who are inept college students incapable of the simplest smuggling actions.  But the most offensively un-nuanced of the American characters is a thoroughly witch-like and seemingly senile old rich woman who coldly fires Carlito’s mother for the most minor of offences without even paying for work that’s been completed.  Admittedly, the mother’s other boss seemed relatively normal, but one token non-sociopath American character is not enough to make up for this insanely manipulative look at a major issue. 

I’m sure one can find many Americans who do act a lot like the above examples, but only selectively choosing those types as examples and juxtaposing them with the saintly illegal immigrants here is intellectually dishonest.  If someone like Lou Dobbs decided to produce a movie that featured nothing but lazy, drug dealing, or diseased immigrants people would label it propagandistic or at the very least a gross simplification of a complex issue and rightly so, Under the Same Moon is exactly the same but from a different side. 

The film does step off its soapbox and focus strictly on its saccharine story in the third act, but this doesn’t help either because when divorced from its sophomoric politics is still a lame, sappy story.  The movie is just as manipulative emotionally as it is politically; its trivialization of human suffering and overbearing score make Frank Capra movies look downright subtle. 

This is little more than the hallmark card version of the immigrant experience and it pales in comparison to other better movies on the subject like El Norte, In America, and Maria Full of Grace.   The movie was mostly ignored in theaters and should also be avoided on DVD.  Speaking of which, the subtitles on the DVD I watched were actually captions, which continued through the film’s English potions and forced the viewer to read through descriptions of sound effects.  This annoyance was yet another reason to leave this thing on the DVD shelf.

*1/2 out of four

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DVD Catch-up: Cassandra’s Dream(6/24/2008)

            Woody Allen is, at this point less of a director than he is a cinematic institution, the second longest running one after the James Bond series.  Every time a Woody Allen movie comes out one has a fairly good idea of what to expect, even when he seems to deliberately hit one into left field.  Few Woody Allen movies went as far into left field as 2005’s Match Point, a film that did feel like the work of the same auteur but was in no way a comedic work.  His 2006 follow up, Scoop, made it seem like moving his location to Europe would be the only permanent change to Allen’s style.  However his latest film, Cassandra’s Dream, is clearly a return to the subject matter and tone that made Match Point such a surprise.

            The film is set again set in London and begins with two brothers buying a boat they intend to name Cassandra’s Dream.  One of the brothers, Ian (Ewan McGregor), has been working at his father’s restaurant for years, but plans to eventually leave when he has enough to invest in a California hotel chain.  The other brother, Terry (Collin Farrell), works at a mechanic’s shop and has serious problems with gambling, alcoholism, and pill popping.  Terry eventually finds himself over his head in gambling debt and Ian finds himself needing money fast in order to woo an actress he met named Angela (Hayley Atwell).  In order to solve these problems the two go to their rich uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson), but what he asks for in return is more than either bargained for.

            Before I get into the pros and cons of the movie itself, allow me to vent about the Weinstein Companies botched distribution of the film.  Woody Allen is supposed to put out one movie for every calendar year, that’s a sacred tradition, and Allen himself has lived up to his end of the bargain since 1982.  Cassandra’s Dream was done early enough to have premiered at a festival in June of 2007, but for some greed inspired reason the Weinstein Company (kings of overly patient release schedules) held its American release until January of 2008.  Thankfully, another distributor called On Pictures released the film in October of 2007 in Spain, so it could technically be considered a 2007 movie, but for all practical purposes the Weinstein’s screwed up an important tradition and should be punished for it, which is why I waited for the DVD release to see the movie.

            Ultimately, Cassandra’s Dream has a very simple structure.  It establishes two characters, puts them in an extreme situation and compares how the two characters react to it.  The characters are not simple necessarily, but they aren’t wildly complex either and they develop in very predictable ways.  The whole movie is rather predictable really, that’s just the nature of this type of morality play.  When I say these things are simple it’s not necessarily a slight so much as a description. 

            This simple story is simply told as well.  Woody Allen’s minimalist visual style is as evident as ever here.  Reportedly this is the first Woody Allen film to include a score mixed in stereo; that should give you a clue as to how much Allen ever cares to innovate technologically. Of course as with every Allen film one shouldn’t mistake his lack of technical ambition as a lack of technical skill.  Like Allen’s other films the technical elements here are all completely competent, just very simple.

            Collin Farrell and Ewan McGregor are probably the film’s biggest problems.  Neither is distractingly bad, but one gets the feeling that they may have been miscast.  Throughout the film I began to think the movie would have been better served if they had switched roles, if Farrell were to be the aspiring playboy and had McGregor been the blue collar worker with flaws but a good heart.  Tom Wilkinson also didn’t particularly impress me, it feels like he agreed to the small but vital part on a whim and sort of phoned it in on the set.

            Cassandra’s Dream is a perfectly watchable and moderately interesting drama, though I was unsatisfied by its ending and looking back there was nothing really extraordinary about it at all.  This probably represents what mid-range Woody Allen may look like in this new era of his career.  In other words Cassandra’s Dream is to Match Point as Everyone Says I Love You is to Hannah and Her Sisters.

*** out of Four

Mongol(6/20/2008)

            Sergei Bodrov’s Mongol, seems in many ways to be a film without a country.  Companies in such disparate areas as Germany, Russia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan funded the movie.  The film was largely shot in China, the director is Russian, the cast is from all over Asia, and the spoken language is Mongolian.  It was Kazakhstan that submitted the film for nomination at the 2008 Academy Awards foreign film category, and it did manage to get a nomination.  Of course it still took months after it earned its nomination to finally get a release stateside, which is one of the many things about that Oscar category that’s annoying; if it were up to me a film would need to have an American release prior to its nomination like it would in every other category.  Still, it was worth the wait because Mongol, a film about the early life of Genghis Khan, does mostly deliver on what it promises.

            The film begins in 1171 with a nine year old Genghis Khan (Odnyam Odsuren), who was going by the name Temudjin at this point, being brought to select a future wife in order to solidify an alliance between his father’s tribe and another tribe.  Young Temudjin selects a girl named Borte (Bayertsetseg Erdenebat), but on the way home Temudjin’s father (Ba Sen) is poisoned by a rival tribe.  He returns to find that tribe pillaging his people and Targutai (Amadu Mamadakov), the leader of this enemy tribe, threatens to kill Temudjin, but decides to wait until he’s older as per Mongolian custom.  Temudjin tries to flee but has an accident and is narrowly saved by another young tribal heir named Jamukha (Amarbold Tuvshinbayar) who takes Temudjin in as a blood brother.  Temudjin eventually grows up (and is played as an adult by Tadanobu Asano) and returns to Borte’s home village to claim her as a wife.  Borte (now played by Khulan Chuluun) gladly goes with him, but is eventually kidnapped by the rival Merkit tribe. Temudjin has no choice but to return to Jamukha (now played by Honglei Sun) and beg him to send his men on a rescue mission.

             Mongol, the first of a planned trilogy about Genghis Khan, was clearly envisioned as a biographical epic in the vein of Spartacus or even Lawrence of Arabia.  Of course the film never reaches the heights of those examples, but I admired the effort nonetheless.  The film does have some awesome battles, but it never devolves into a total action movie along the lines of 300.  The movie is about 80% character growth and development and 20% kickass fighting, with a little romance thrown in for good balance.

            The Temudjin here is not the brutal dictator and ruthless fighter that many think him to be.  Rather, he’s depicted as a leader fairly generous to his men, at least compared to other tribal leaders of his time.  He’s a family man and a born romantic; of course he’s also a violent fighter.  This positive outlook is quite possibly the result of the particular period in Temudjin’s life that the film covers.  By the end of the film he has yet to invade China and the darker aspects of the character may yet be seen if Bodrov is ever given the opportunity to finish his trilogy.  For now he’s a mostly heroic figure within the standards of his society.

            The acting here for the most part is solid but not extraordinary, mainly just because the roles here aren’t spectacularly challenging.  Japanese actor Tadanobu Khulan certainly looks like Genghis Khan and he approaches the part with an appropriate passion.  Khulan Chuluun’s work as Temudjin’s wife is certainly impressive given that this is her first credited role; also impressive are the various child actors who play the characters in their early years.  Honglei Sun almost steals the show as an adult Jamukha.  All the actors should also be commended for working in Khan’s original Mongolian, which adds a nice authenticity to the whole affair.

            As far as I can tell, the movie is more historically accurate than not when it comes to the basic outline of Temudgin’s life, but it embellishes freely with the details.  Ultimately it feels more like it’s trying to tell the legend of Genghis Khan than what is necessarily the most factual version of the story.  It is claimed that part of the reason for this is that the history of Temudjin is not the easiest to pin down, as it was mostly passed down through the oral tradition, which is prone to glorification and exaggeration.  I’m mostly fine with this kind of embellishment, as its more important for a film to tell a good story than act as an educational tool.  My general rule of thumb is that if I need to look something up to disprove a detail it’s a fair embellishment.

            The film has great cinematography by Roger Stoffers and Sergei Trofimov.  The cinematographers are aided by beautiful scenery.  Mongolia is generally thought of as a cold barren place, but it feels much more alive here than I would have thought.  I certainly wouldn’t want to live there, but the Mongolia of this film is certainly a joy to look at.  The film also has a nice score by Tuomas Kantelinen that seems to occasionally be influenced by Mongolian throat singing.  The film’s dialogue is not beautiful, but one probably shouldn’t expect a rural Mongolian soldier to speak like Shakespeare.  The characters talk in an appropriately blue collar way but are hardly inarticulate.

            The first few battle scenes here are awesome; they’re fast, intense, and brutal.  Bodrov uses mostly real people and avoids generating extras with CGI.  The fight choreography in these battles looks really cool but also feels mostly realistic.  I do however take issue with the climatic battle, which is much larger and CGI dependent.  The fight is well staged enough, but the CGI armies and blood felt less real and more like the poor Hollywood epics of recent like Troy. It’s not a bad battle necessarily, but it isn’t up to the standards of previous action scenes in the film.

            There are other problems with the film’s last act as well.  Notably the film makes the big mistake of introducing supernatural elements during a plot point, and it certainly doesn’t feel like a necessary change.  Earlier the film had a certain metaphorical mysticism involving a wolf and late there is a symbolic resolution involving lighting.  These were both fair enough, as they felt more like symbols than literal onscreen magic, but there’s another point where the plot is affected by a monk’s prophesy.  This undermined the authenticity of the film and generally seemed unnecessary.  It reminded me of a point in Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto where the main character is saved by an “act of god,” it felt out of place and added an unnecessary element that wasn’t needed.  I also take issue with a jarring leap forward in time taken in the last act of the movie that skipped over important elements of Temudjin’s life in order to end the film on a battle scene.

            I don’t think I can call this a great film, but it is a cool one.  From a filmmaking perspective I have very little to complain about aside from the final battle.   Ultimately I may have to wait until this trilogy is finished before I pass final judgment on the project, so far it’s off to a good start.

***1/2 out of Four

The Incredible Hulk(6/13/2008)

            In the June of 2003 Ang Lee put out his take on the comic book character The Incredible Hulk amidst a flurry of huge budget blockbusters like X-Men 2 and The Matrix Reloaded.  The simply titled Hulk, was just coming off the success of the original Spider-Man, and Ang Lee could have easily churned out a cookie-cutter blockbuster and turned a huge profit.  Instead Lee decided to take chances on his trip up to the superhero bat and essentially made a superhero drama as opposed to a superhero action movie.  The result was a very interesting if somewhat flawed exploration of the genre.  Of course this didn’t sit to well with the 13 year old males the studio marketed the film to and the movie famously dropped 70% in its second week, after a very respectable opening.  Now, five years later, the superhero genre has gone from being a fad to being a decade long institution and Marvel has no intention of letting one of it’s biggest franchises sit around collecting dust.  So they’ve decided to “reboot” the franchise, and this time they’re doing everything they can to pander to the 13 year olds.

            After a quick introduction, the film opens in the Brazilian fravelas where Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) has been hiding for the last five years.  Through really convoluted means General Ross (William Hurt), who’s been tracking him, manages to locate him in Brazil and sends a team to capture Banner.  The leader of this team, Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), spots Banner while he’s in Hulk-form and becomes obsessed.  Shortly before he’s chased out of town by the Special Forces team, an anonymous scientist calling himself Mr. Blue (Tim Blake Nelson) contacts Banner and tells him he has found a cure for Banner’s ailment (perfect coincidental timing).  With this in mind Banner decides to travel to New York in hopes that Mr. Blue’s cure works out, but while he’s there he runs into his old flame Betty Ross (Liv Tyler).

            The film recounts the origin story of Bruce Banner in its first three minutes while the opening credits are rolling; it generally assumes the audience to be familiar with the character from the get-go.  This makes the film’s place as in independent story a bit awkward.  Ignoring that opening one could conceivably pretend that this is indeed a sequel to Ang Lee’s Hulk, albeit one with different actors.  The relationship between the pursuing General Ross, his daughter, and Bruce Banner seems to have carried over, and there’s nothing to contradict Lee’s film except the opening scene; in fact the film opens in South America which is where the coda for the 2002 film was set.  There seems to be something rather confused and tacky about this reboot attempt, it reminded me in some ways of The Sum of All Fears, which was another film that tried to pretend the rest of its series never happened for no good reason.

            There’s a film related podcast I’ve been listening to for the last couple of years called The Hollywood Saloon (which I highly recommend).  The hosts of that show have come to coin the word “McMovie” which refers to bland Hollywood blockbusters which seem to be churned out for the sole purposes of making a lot of money.  These movies that take no chances do not try to achieve any form of greatness; people like Brett Ratner, Tim Story, or McG usually direct them.  A comparison between Ang Lee’s Hulk and this new film from Louis Leterrier (The man behind The Transporter series) provides a perfect example of the differences between a serious film and a McMovie.  While Lee’s film was a thoughtful meditation, Leterrier’s film settles on loudness.  It’s not just run of the mill loudness either, I haven’t seen a theater rattle like that in a long time.  Lee’s film was heavy on plot and story telling, Leterrier’s film is heavy on CGI, so heavy in fact that it was often hard to distinguish the film’s trailer from the advertisements for its videogame adaptation.  Lee’s film took chances within the context of it’s genre and tried to develop characters with real histories and problems outside of their comic book crisis, Leterrier’s film on the other hand feels like it was written by a marketing committee.

            Of course McMovie’s aren’t always terrible, in fact they’re often quite competent, but by their nature they’re never great.  This is by no means a terrible film and there’s actually a lot to like in it.  Firstly, the cast here is quite good.  Edward Norton is one of the best actors of his generation, and he’s really overqualified for this role, but the same could be said for almost anyone cast in a superhero movie.  Norton seems to be taking his work here pretty seriously, and he brings his inner tortured soul out pretty well.  William Hurt is also doing quite well picking up where Sam Elliot left off in the same basic role in Ang Lee’s film.  I also really liked Tim Blake Nelson’s work in a small but important role that looks like a setup for a future sequel.

            There are however definite problems with other casting choices.  Particularly problematic is the casting of Tim Roth, an actor I’ve never been a huge fan of, who is supposed to be playing some kind of badass elite special forces member.  Roth generally doesn’t seem very military in the way he carries himself, and he generally looks a bit too short and skinny for the buildup he’s given as “the best of the best” so to speak.  Liv Tyler also has some serious problems, as I don’t think she’s evolved much as a performer since Armageddon.  She seems pretty young for her role as a major biology researcher; she must have been twenty-five when Banner had his accident.  Tyler seems really mild mannered at some points and highly assertive at others.  Her character just isn’t very well defined or developed and she doesn’t have much to do.  None of the actors here improve on their counterparts from Ang Lee’s film at all, and were recast for no reason other than to differentiate reboot from that unpopular project.

            From an effects point of view the film does not live up to the standards of other movies like Iron Man, though this admittedly has a lot to do with the inherent challenges of the Hulk character.  While Iron Man was largely cased in lifeless steel, the Hulk effects team had to replicate a creature of organic flesh.  Characters like Spider-man can at least have some sort of humanity under all the CGI and even King Kong had a lot of fur and a real world creature to be based on, all the Hulk can really be is a walking special effect.  These obstacles may have been why Ang Lee choose to focus on a very human story with his film, even the 70s T.V. series mostly focused on Bill Bixby and only used the Lou Ferrigno creature sparingly.  Here on the other hand we deal with numerous extended action sequences and once a second creature emerges the film becomes increasingly CGI dependent. 

            The first two actions scenes have a certain level of respectability to them, particularly the first scene that is mainly a foot chase through the favelas with an un-transformed Banner.  The chase is pretty exciting, at least until Banner coincidentally runs into someone from earlier in the film.  A second action sequence on a college campus also has a lot going for it, though I don’t think it’s ever explained why this university is completely devoid of bystanders.  The third fight scene, however, quickly devolves into a pair of CGI hulks mashing into each other. 

The film generally suffers from a number of plot holes like Mr. Blue’s coincidental discovery of the cure at just the right time, and the ludicrous way the military finds Banner in Brazil, which the filmmakers try to cover up by distracting the audience with a Stan Lee Cameo.  Throughout the film the military have an uncanny ability to cover-up the fascistic behavior they use to capture this escaped scientist, and the Hulk jarringly begins to sprout a conscious at the most convenient (read: sequel preserving) moment.  The film also has a lot of lame attempts at humor.  There’s also a tacky cameo scene that’s clumsily tacked onto the end, it exist for no reason other than to be an inside joke and it robs the movie of a naturalistic ending.  Iron Man at lest had the decency to hide its tacky coda after the credits.

This is a great example of Hollywood marketing run amok, it’s a blatant attempt to reestablish the franchises brand with a run of the mill film intended to appeal to the ADD crowd.  The film seems perfunctory and if you saw any of the films advertising you already saw almost everything the film had to offer.  Admittedly, the film never descends to the level of stupidity found in something like Transformers, but it also features very few creative ideas.  As far as these things go there are much worse ways Hollywood could have you spend two hours, but this is still a very forgettable experience.

**1/2 out of four

The Happening(6/13/2008)

            When The Sixth Sense came out in 1999, M. Night Shyamalan’s style was like a breath of fresh air.  In an age of ADD pandering filmmakers like Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich, Shyamalan was a young director who had great success with a more patient style of filmmaking.  He followed this up with Unbreakable and Signs, which were both very strong continuations of this new cinematic voice.  Everything looked great for Shyamalan, but then everything suddenly went to hell.  Shyamalan’s next film, The Village, was well crafted but it was also an exercise in futility complete with a lame twist and a predictable ending.  Still, The Village had its moments and may have simply been a small stumble in Shyamalan’s career had he not followed it up with the abominable Lady in the Water, an incoherently bizarre film which seemed to be the work of an absolute madman. 

All this time I continued to be a Shyamalan apologist simply on the basis that he had only made two bad films and three good films, which seemed to still be a decent average.  For that reason I decided I was still going to give his next film a chance, especially since it had an intriguing trailer and a good concept.  Unfortunately, The Happening, is not the comeback I was hoping for, in fact it might just be further confirmation of what I had feared, that M. Night Shyamalan has completely lost it.  

The film doesn’t take long to get into its premise; it opens in central park on a clear morning.  All of a sudden all the people in the park stand still, suddenly a woman pulls out a hairpin and stabs herself in the neck.  Elsewhere in New York an entire construction crew jumps off the top of a building to their deaths.  Shortly thereafter in Philadelphia a high school biology teacher named Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) is interrupted in the middle of his speech about the disappearance of bees and is informed that this wave of suicides is spreading throughout the entire Northeast, and is thought to be the doing of a terrorist attack.  School is dismissed early and Elliot’s colleague Julian (John Leguizamo) invites his to flee with his daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez) on a train to Harrisburg.  Elliot brings his estranged wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) along as the four try desperately to outrun this strange outbreak that is causing mass death.

I’ll start with the positive here, as bad as this is, it isn’t nearly as non-sensical or boring as Lady in the Water.  Unfortunately this is probably still worse than The Village and isn’t anywhere close to being as good as his first three films.  Shyamalan does at least seem to have the germ of a very good idea here.  The mass suicide scenes are very well made and effectively creepy especially in the first ten minutes or so.  These scenes incorporate a level of violence that has previously been unseen in Shyamalan’s work (the film’s R-Rating has become a major point in its advertising campaign) and this occasional gore is an interesting addition to Shyamalan’s somber style.  The catch is, that everything around these few set pieces is absolutely god-awful.

Interestingly, this is a film that manages to fail in a way that is the exact opposite of how The Village and Lady in the Water failed. Those two movies were both very well crafted and acted, but were let down by misguided and/or insane stories.  Here the story really could have worked, but the acting and dialogue is shockingly bad.  I’m not entirely sure why the acting here is so bad; Wahlberg, Deschanel, and Leguizamo are all talented performers and Shyamalan has traditionally been something of an actors director, getting great work out of Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson, and Paul Giamatti even when his films don’t generally work.

Here every performer seems to have no idea how to dial their work back at all, there’s massive overacting all around.  Wahlberg speaks through the whole movie like in an oddly confused tone and often comes off really whiney, Deschanel is just as unnaturalistic and neither is able to create really effective characters.  John Leguizamo just seems completely miscast and none of his natural wit is able to really come through.  I don’t think I can really blame any of these actors for this mess, as all of them are uncharacteristically weak, as are the supporting characters.  I can only assume that it was Shyamalan’s neglect that lead to such wild overacting in this thing.

I’m sure the actors weren’t helped at all by this messy script’s terrible dialogue.  This script feels like a first draft to me, the dialogue is incredibly unpolished here.  The actors are frequently forced to try and make ridiculous lines like “If you take my daughter’s hand you better mean it” work.  The exposition here is also quite bad, with the marriage problems of the two leads handled in the most awkward way imaginable.  Compare the handling of this couple’s back-story with the careful prose used to explain Bruce Willis’ past in The Sixth Sense or the family’s situation in Signs and you’ll get an idea of just how far M. Night Shyamalan has fallen. 

The film is in many ways an inferior retread of Signs, as both are movies dealing with troubled families (in this case a surrogate family) dealing with a mass crisis situation.  This in itself is a disappointment, as crazy as the Shyamalan’s last two films were, they at least were trying different things and didn’t feel like recycled stories.  The film mostly avoids the general insanity that characterized Lady in the Water, but he gets damn close to that level of confounding silliness in the third act where the group find themselves in some really strange encounters with hillbillies.  Particularly strange is the sudden and jarring appearance of an old hillbilly woman named Mrs. Jones (Betty Buckley).  The behavior of this character defies any type of conventional action by a member of the human species and Buckley is forced to give one of the most over the top performances in recent memory.  Even stranger is how long the group puts up with this clearly disturbed person.

Throughout the film characters continually find themselves acting in strange and illogical ways.  For instance, mid way through the movie a crowd realizes that the outbreak mainly attacks areas with large numbers of people, and that it’s beginning to target increasingly small groups of people.  So the first thing these geniuses do is decide to “Stay together” which would be great advice in most slasher movies but which is completely illogical given that A. there isn’t a single thing that teamwork can do to save anyone from a poisonous gas and B. that’s clearly just going to make them more of a target.  Later Wahlberg finds himself behaving in a very Lady in the Water kind of a way by deciding to base his decisions using the scientific method, which means he sits and says he’s sorting out the variables before coming to the obvious conclusion that he needs to run as fast as he can.

Spoiler Warning, skip ahead a paragraph if you don’t want to hear about a twist that emerges early in the film’s second act.  About half way through, Shymalan reveals that this wave of violence is the result of plants deliberately giving off chemical pheromones to defend themselves from the polluting humans.  You read that right, this is a heavy handed message about environmentalism.  Firstly, that’s stupid.  Secondly, the message is handled in a remarkable inelegant way.  The film begins with Wahlberg conveniently setting up the theme is a direct way via a lecture to his high school class.  Throughout the film Wahlberg slowly decides that this is the reason for the attack without doing a single test.  The logic is never clear, why is it only attacking groups when it seems these plants could just as easily just let the poison loose everywhere at once.  Also why are certain people, like the woman at the beginning, seemingly immune for the purposes of looking scared as everyone around them is dying?  The environmentalist message is just silly.  At least The Village kept its heavy-handed message as an (obvious) allegory; this film just bludgeons the audience with Shyamalan’s message of “respecting nature.”

I’ve tried to support Shyamalan for so long, I had hoped he had learned his lesson from the horrible reaction to Lady in the Water, but this is another disaster.  He at least rid this film of some of the problems he usually has, there’s no director’s cameo and there isn’t really a twist ending, but the bigger problems of hubris is still in full swing.  Shyamalan just needs to quit making these high concept twilight Zone episodes and try something new because this well is getting really dry. 

* out of four

Standard Operating Procedure(5/29/2008)

            Ask anyone on the street who the most prominent documentary filmmakers is and odds are you’ll hear the name Michael Moore instantly.  But, if you ask the same question to a critic or hardcore film buff the same question and they’ll probably passionately yell Errol Morris back at you.  Morris is in many ways the anti-Michael Moore, he never asks loaded questions and he usually lets his subjects speak completely for himself.  I seem to be in the minority when I say that Morris has only improved over the years.  I fail to see the brilliance in his early films like Gates of Heaven (not to be confused with Heaven’s Gate), and Vernon Florida.  I also was never overly engrossed by his famous investigation The Thin Blue Line.  However, I really began to “get” Errol Morris with his interesting film Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control and I loved his Oscar winning Robert McMamara interview The Fog of War.  Morris’ newest film, Standard Operating Procedure, might just be his best work and possibly the best film involving the Iraq war to date.

            Standard Operating Procedure is a document of what happened in the Abu Ghraib prison during the famous scandal as told by the prison guards who committed the offences.  The film has no narrator and is put together as a series of interviews with various people involved in the incident.  Among those interviewed are Brent Pack who investigated the incident for an eventual court-martial, Javel Davis who served at the prison but seems to have had little direct involvement with the prison’s most infamous incidents, all the way to Lynndie England who is the woman pointing snidely at  a nude detainee in the scandals most recognizable image.

            Are the MPs involved in the scandal sadistic torturers?  Fools manipulated by their superiors?  Or simply soldiers unsure what to do in a complicated and unclear situation?  The film has no intention of driving a single agenda toward the viewer but instead allows the audience to draw its own conclusions, and the above are far from the only questions asked.  This is not a documentary interested in one3 single subject to which the maker feels he already knows the answer, it has multiple goals and seems like an honest attempt to get to the bottom of a famous example of man’s inhumanity toward man.

            The film’s title is somewhat awkward but, I think, is essential to finding some solution the film’s central question of what went wrong.  Late in the film investigator Brent Pack examines some of the famous photos and classifies each as either a criminal act or as standard operating procedure within military rules.  The role for each one can be shocking, photos of naked human pyramids and forced masturbation are indeed considered criminal acts, but the famous picture of the detainee with a bag on his head and wires on his wrist was considered a stress position and thus standard operating procedure.  In other words most of the acts that could be called structured torture was within the confines of the MPs orders and the line to criminal action was only crossed when the MPs decided to go above and beyond the call of duty into sexual humiliation.  But, when it’s standard operating procedure to strip a detainee nude, place woman’s undergarments over their head, put him in a stress position, prevent him from going to sleep; it’s understandable that poorly trained, low ranking, MPs might get confused as to how far they were supposed to take torturous action.  In others word, when the line between standard operating procedure and criminal action is this thin it’s inevitable that that line will eventually be crossed, especially in a mismanaged and chaotic environment like Iraq.  This is not only the crux of this situation but of every other morally ambiguous element of the war on terror.  Of course the movie never comes out and says any of this, many audiences may in fact have completely different reactions to the evidence on display here. 

            One must also consider the credibility of the interviewees on display here.  These are people who have been under great public and legal stress in the wake of this national scandal.  They really do have every reason to lie or at least bend the truth in order to cast themselves in the best possible light.  Sabrina Harman for example claims that she was disgusted by the conduct in the prison and took the pictures involved in order to eventually report the abuses, but this is hard to believe when she is smiling and giving a thumbs up in front of horrific events, something that would never be done by someone taking pictures with a journalistic or evidentiary reason.  One also has to question the level of spontaneity in the responses of Javel Davis, who seems very interested in coming off like an articulate and slightly cynical witness, he sounds like someone giving us a story that gets “better” every time he tells it.  Of course that’s all just speculation on my part, and this is not a criticism, rather it’s something that makes the film into even more of an intriguing little enigma. 

            Perhaps the most shocking revelation here, to me anyway, occurs toward the end of the film where we learn that what is going on in the photos that were on the news in fact wasn’t torture, it was people being prepared for torture.  The real torture never made it to the nightly news because the real torturers weren’t stupid enough to take pictures of what they were doing; the real torture left people dead.  What gets gleamed from this fact is that what was on the news was only the tip of the prisoner abuse iceberg.  The really scary acts of torture and inhumanity will never be photographed because people far more professional and secretive do them.

            The film’s complex message is brilliantly accomplished through Errol Morris’ great execution.  Morris again uses a device called an “Interrotron” which allows him to face an interview subject while they look directly into a camera lens, as a result the interview subject is able to directly face the audience.  The subjects all appear in the center of a full widescreen frame looking directly forward, and this has a strangely powerful effect projected onto a large screen.  Morrs accompanies the interviews with all sorts of stylish tricks like a computer diagram of the method used to establish a timecode between the photographs.  Morris also incorporate a few very well produced re-enactments, but is careful to only use these to illustrate points that would be hard to establish through other means. 

One element Morris very deliberately avoids over-stylization of are the photographs.  All the photographs are placed in their entirety in the very center of the frame.  Morris never crops the photos and never uses the “Ken Burns effect” to increase the dramatic appeal of still photography.  This may not be the most dramatic way to utilize still photography, but it’s done this way for a reason.  A major theme in the film is that photographs need to be seen not just for what they are but as part of a larger puzzle, that one needs to consider everything that is going on around the frames of a photo rather than focusing on one small aspect of any given image.

Standard Operating Procedure is an accomplished and mature work from an important filmmaker who only seems to get better with age.  It’s a film that will have audiences thinking long after they leave the theater.  Of course this these types of thrills are seldom appreciated by summer audiences, and as I write this Standard Operating Procedure is already no longer playing anywhere in my area.  Still it a fine film that I implore you to seek out, though if you have yet to see it you’ll probably have to settle for DVD.   

**** out of Four