Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Tsunami, the Aftermath / *** (TV-MA)

Ian Carter: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Susie Carter: Sophie Okonedo
Nick Fraser: Tim Roth
Kathy Graham: Toni Collette
Tony Whittaker: Hugh Bonneville
Kim Peabody: Gina McKee
Than: Samrit Machielsen
Ellen: Kate Ashfield

HBO Films and BBC present a film directed by Bharat Nalluri. Written by Abi Morgan. Running time: 185 min. Rated TV-MA (for adult content, violence, and language).

On December 26, 2004, much of the world awoke to the first reports of one of the largest natural disasters ever seen. I know I had trouble conceiving the magnitude of the tsunami, which affected 13 countries and killed over 200,000 people. It was like a made-for-TV disaster flick, but much worse than any Hollywood producer could have ever conceived.

Now, HBO has made a television mini-series out of that terrible event. Luckily, they have taken a cue from the ‘80’s television nuclear drama “The Day After”, and focused on the events following the disaster rather than concentrating on the tsunami itself. Instead of making some mid-disaster melodrama like “Hurricane” or “The Towering Inferno”, director Bharat Nalluri and writer Abi Morgan look at the struggles and heartbreaks of the survivors in this fictional account of what happened in the days following the tsunami.

The film follows several different character storylines to give the audience a broad overview of all the different efforts that were made during the relief effort. The stories themselves are rather academic. Nalluri and Morgan tell them in much the same way the film’s website lays out facts about the tsunami. Although they have fictionalized the events, it all has the feel of some sort of classroom lesson. It is very interesting to learn about all the things that happened that the general public might be unaware of, but the film lacks some dramatic flare.

That is not to say that it is emotionally ineffective. The catastrophic nature of the tsunami by itself leaves an emotional impact. It tears lives apart, even for those who came after and did not experience the wave itself. It is almost strange that I could be so emotionally affected by a film that is not great, but merely good.

It is the actors who carry all the emotional power of the stories. The strong performances are lead by Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Inside Man”) as Ian, a father who loses his grip on his 6 year-old daughter’s hand during the wave impact. He last sees her hanging onto a tree. The mother, Susie, is out deep sea diving and returns to the devastated coast line with no idea what has happened to her husband or daughter.

The two eventually find each other; the father feels shame for allowing the daughter to get away, the mother resents him. Sophie Okonedo (“Hotel Rwanda”) handles the difficult chore of presenting a mother who is willing to replace her daughter with another displaced little girl rather than accept her own offspring’s possible death. A powerful breakdown occurs between the couple when Ian voices his regrets and lashes out at Susie for not being there at all.

Gina McKee (“Notting Hill”) turns in a traumatized performance as Kim Peabody, a mother on the same deep sea diving excursion with one son, who must search out another son and her husband. She finds the boy in a Thai hospital and tries to get help from the British Embassy to have him evacuated to a British hospital for better care before Thai doctors amputate his leg. All the while, her youngest son insists on a heartbreaking search for their father.

Hugh Bonneville (“Iris”) gives a strong performance as the British government representative on site to establish aide for British victims. He struggles with doing what he is told by the government and with what is necessary for the survivors he has to look in the eye. Meanwhile, Tim Roth (“Dark Water”) turns in a typically solid performance as a journalist with a conscience. And once again, Toni Collette (“In Her Shoes”), as a school teacher who leads the British relief effort, shows that she can turn anything she’s involved with into gold. Let’s just pretend “Connie and Carla” never happened.

There are some conspiratorial overtones to a storyline involving a hotel chain that reclaims some coastal land where locals have lived for generations. But this is the most confused area of the film. The filmmakers make a point about how the Thais are unfairly treated in terms of ownership, but they seem distracted more by the dangers of reconstruction in an area where the underwater fault line threatens to one day re-create the same catastrophe. In this sense, the corporate takeover of land is actually saving the Thai locals from future destruction, and provides a thriving job market and economy.

It is nice to see that the typical disaster flick can be transformed into a thinking man’s drama. The performances make the film worth watching and go a long way toward carrying across the filmmakers’ points. But it would be good to get a better balance between the “facts” and the awesome nature of the situation. It is a strong representation of the aftermath indeed, but doesn’t quite transport the viewer to the tragedy we desperately need to understand.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Joyeux Noel / ***½ (PG-13)

Anna Sorensen: Diane Kruger
Nikolaus Sprink: Benno Furmann
Lieutenant Audebert: Guillaume Canet
Ponchel: Dany Boon
Palmer: Gary Lewis
Horstmayer: Daniel Bruhl
Gordon: Alex Ferns
Johnathan: Steven Robertson

Sony Pictures Classics presents a film written and directed by Christian Carion. Running time: 116 min. Rated PG-13 (for some war violence and a brief scene of sexuality/nudity). Presented in English, French and German w/ English subtitles.

I’m a sucker for good war movies. There is a level of emotion riding upon the realization that these wars actually happened. And as the history of film has developed, the sophistication of war films has gotten ever greater. Also there has been a greater concentration on telling war stories that actually happened rather than those idealized John Wayne romps, or those Steve McQueen adventures. Now, war films are more likely to center on our humanity, not on our need to win for the cause of democracy.

“Joyeux Noel” is a French film that takes documented incidents from the First World War and dramatizes them in a war story of humanity, by depicting a front where the soldiers from both sides of the line call a truce on Christmas Eve. It is Christmas Eve, 1914 and on the Western Front there are three regiments of soldiers holding the line; French, Scottish and the invading Germans. None are happy to still be in the trenches when most believed the war would have ended long before the holidays; and through an unpredictable set of circumstances the regiments find their commanding officers meeting in the no man’s land between the trenches to call a truce.

It is the power of music that brings these opposing soldiers together. The German side of the story follows an Opera singer, Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Furmann, “The Order”), who is looked down upon by his commanding officer for being an artist. Sprink’s wife, Anna (Diane Kruger, “National Treasur”), uses her fame to arrange a vocal performance on Christmas Eve by her and her husband at the German command center near the front. Sprink then brings his wife to the front to sing for the soldiers. When the Scottish hear the singing they join in with bagpipe accompaniment, and soon the three commanding officers are meeting to call a truce for one night only.

The Christmas Eve festivities are brief and the officers agree that on the following morning the fighting must resume. The leaders do not anticipate the bonds that form between the men, however, during that night of sharing in Christmas tradition. In fact it seems as if it is the officers themselves who are most affected by knowing their enemy. Soon they are taking another day off to exchange and bury their dead. They warn each other about bombing raids and provide shelter from artillery to each other.

There are a great many subplots throughout the film that flesh out the characters and give them all a level of humanity deeper than can be seen in most war films. I liked many of the details that were revealed about the lead characters in each group as the story unfolded: the French Lieutenant Audebert’s (Guillaume Canet, “The Beach”) relationship with a French General who checks up on him, the Scottish soldier Johnathan’s (Steven Robertson, “Kingdom of Heaven”) refusal to accept friendship with the Germans after the death of his hometown friend in battle, and the fact that the German Lieutenant Horstmayer (Daniel Bruhl, “Good Bye Lenin!”) is Jewish and has a French wife.

The direction by writer Christian Carion is much more sophisticated than the rather sentimental subject matter might suggest. The battle sequence near the beginning of the film could substitute in any war film about the harsh reality of combat. Plus, Carion throws in subtle flashes of style that underlay great substance beneath the film’s cheery message. When Johnathan rushes out of his local parish after delivering the “good news” that they will be going to war with the Germans, all the candles the priest Palmer (Gary Lewis, “Gangs of New York”) has just lit are blown out by the swinging door. Also the film opens with a speech given by a German schoolboy about how evil the British are. That Speech is repeated almost verbatim near the end of the film by a Scottish Bishop blessing new recruits before they are sent up to the front.

The sentimental premise of this film might throw some serious film goers off; however, it is based upon several documented cases of truces called between lines during that first Christmas Eve of WWI. But the film itself has depth far beyond the notion that we are all the same and can overcome our differences if we just have the inspiration. Carion’s film is a fully realized story with the Christmas Eve truce providing only one aspect of these soldier’s lives. Their emotional journeys are served by what they bring to the war and take away from it, rather than just what happens to them during the war. This is a holiday film with its message of hope, but it is also a film that fully realizes the human spirit, both good and bad.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Clerks II / *** (R)

Dante: Brian O’Halloran
Randall: Jeff Anderson
Rebecca: Rosario Dawson
Jay: Jason Mewes
Silent Bob: Kevin Smith
Elias: Trevor Fehrman
Emma: Jennifer Schwalbach

The Weinstein Company presents a film written and directed by Kevin Smith. Running time: 97 min. Rated R (for pervasive and crude sexual content including aberrant behavior, strong language and some drug content.)

“Clerks II” is one of those films where it’s pretty much pointless to assign a star rating. If you’re a fan of Kevin Smith and his unique mythology of losers from Jersey with their brash outlooks on life, then you’re probably going to like it. If you’re not a fan, you either won’t get it or have already decided it’s all a waste of your time. Some fans may find Smith’s sentimental turn at the end of the film a betrayal and say Smith has lost his veneer of cynicism. Non-fans might see this turn as a nice change of tone for Smith and say he may yet grow up.

I am a great fan of Smith, but not a “Clerks” fanatic specifically. Smith is an incredibly talented filmmaker, and one of the best writers in the business. The original “Clerks” was a bold example of independent filmmaking and intelligent writing, but suffered from inexperienced directing and just plain bad acting. It is an irony that one of the jokes in this film involves deriding the wooden acting of Hayden Christiansen in the latest “Star Wars” trilogy.

“Clerks II” is basically just more of the same from the first film, with clerks Dante and Randall (Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson of the original “Clerks”) leading the way. This time, after losing their jobs at the Quickstop due to an in-store fire, they infuriate customers at a fictional fast food joint, Mooby’s. There is a little plot involving a love triangle between Dante, his fiancĂ©e Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach, “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back”) and his boss, Rebecca (Rosario Dawson, “Rent”).

But plot is not really what the Kevin Smith universe is all about. Mostly it is about drug-influenced, inane conversations that would be offensive to one demographic or another if they weren’t so entertaining. Even with their entertainment value, I’m sure many people find the offense before discovering the tongue-firmly-in-cheek humor of it all.

Of course, Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith) are present, fresh out of re-hab and trying not to use, but still dealing to the locals. Mewes, as usual, adds his idiotic verbal rants and seemingly off-character obsessions on music and movies. And Smith stays true to his character’s moniker until vital wisdom is needed near the end of the film.

It is a great irony that Smith writes so cleverly about idiots and inanities. He somehow makes you care for these people who do nothing to deserve anyone’s sympathy, or even empathy. This benefits Smith’s own sentimentality as an independent filmmaker who so obviously is most influenced by Hollywood fluff.

What Smith does with these “Clerks” films (and to a lesser degree with most of his other material) is essentially make a Hollywood sex comedy, but instead of showing us all the flesh, drugs and rock and roll, he has his characters perform a poor man’s philosophical debate about such practices. The subjects range from repressed Christian homosexuality, anal sex, and bestiality to racism, “Star Wars” vs. “The Lord of the Rings”, and internet message boards.

This severely limits Smith’s audience because the juvenile set prefers to see boobs, not listen to some loser talk about seeing them. Conversely, a more intellectual set would like something deeper to ponder in their talking head movies. As a member of both those demographics myself, it works for me. Smith may risk scaring off some of his devoted following, however, with an overly sentimentalized conclusion for Dante and Randall. I, on the other hand, kind of like the way their hearts come into focus for these guys, who up until this point had been fairly two-dimensional characters.

Smith has made much better films than the “Clerks” movies. The first had the benefit of being fairly original and thrived from the buzz surrounding its audacious origin. But Smith is capable of grander and more auspicious filmmaking as evidenced by such films as “Chasing Amy”, “Dogma”, and “Jersey Girl”. It is nice that he retains his affection for these original characters, but I hope this return to his Redbank, New Jersey losers doesn’t mean he’s giving up on aspirations to tackle more substantial projects. I know the Hollywood machine has not tread lightly on Smith, with studios canceling several of his big ticket projects or handing them off to other directors, but it would be a shame if a writer of his talent was relegated to fart jokes and donkey sex for the rest of his career.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth / **** (PG)

Al Gore

Paramount Classics presents a film directed by Davis Guggenheim. Running time: 100 min. Rated PG (for mild thematic elements).

It is sort of critiquing clichĂ© to say about a film that it should be “required viewing,” but there is hardly any other way to describe the global warming documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”. And what this frightening documentary puts forth is very concerning indeed.

Director Davis Guggenheim follows former Vice President Al Gore on his lecture tour to raise awareness of the dangers of global warming. He provides a little background into Gore’s nearly life-long pursuit to bring awareness to this pressing issue, but the film spends most of its time simply capturing one of Gore’s engaging lectures.

Yes, Gore’s lecture is quite impressive. It is all very academic, but also incredibly compelling. This is not the same man you might remember from his lackluster run for the presidency in 2000. First of all, he’s funny. He begins his lecture by introducing himself as the man who “used to be the next president of the United States.” After a good laugh from the audience he claims, “I don’t see why that’s funny.”

But very little else of what Gore has to say is amusing. He accuses our political representatives of consciously ignoring the problem because to recognize the problem would also be to realize “the moral imperative to do something is inescapable.” Gore himself played down his environmental platform in his presidential run because of pressure from the Democratic National Committee that it was too leftist. Based on his performance in this film, I would say that may have been the electorate losing mistake.

The sad thing is this is not a political issue, it is a moral one. It is an irony that the “moral” right (or left for that matter) is so ruled by their financial dependency, they choose to do the easy thing above the right thing, which holds the potential for just as many job opportunities as the oil industry claims alternative fuels would cost.

I will leave the facts of the case to an expert like Gore, but this environmental “debate” reminds me in some way of the debate over the war in Iraq. Whether you supported the war from the beginning or not, it seems the general consensus is that something has to change in our approach to Iraq. While criticism of the war is high, reasonable solutions on what to do about it seem hard to come by. It seems the general public has a similar outlook on the environment. The powers-that-be (whomever they may be) seem to have the attitude that the only solution is unreasonable, and the public at large is content to accept that, but the best feature of this film is that Gore lays down some very simple, attainable solutions that will vastly affect the doomsday predictions that all the scientific evidence points toward.

Gore convinced me it is everyone’s responsibility to fix this problem that our modern society has created. This is why this film is required viewing. I would hope that this review would convince all its readers to rent the film, but since I am aware that my opinion of a film is hardly the final determining factor in my reader’s rental practices, I will attempt to do some of the work here for you.

From the website I’ve included their list of ten things you can do to help:

1. Change your light bulbs. A fluorescent light bulb uses 150 pounds less carbon dioxide per year than a regular light bulb.
2. Drive less. Walk, ride a bike, or use mass transit.
3. Recycle more.
4. Check your tires. Properly inflated tires will improve your gas mileage.
5. Use less hot water.
6. Avoid products with a lot of packaging.
7. Adjust your thermostat. 2 degrees can save 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere.
8.Plant a tree. A single tree will absorb one ton of carbon dioxide during its life time.
9. Turn off electronic devices when they are not in use.
10. Spread the word.

One of the best ways to achieve the last tip on this list is to rent this film with someone else. It is as terrifying as it is educational. I should have included it in this year’s Horrorfest. One thing this film isn’t is boring.