Review: United 93 (2006)

Director: Paul Greengrass

*****

United 93 is an expectedly sobering viewing experience. Whilst we all recoiled in horror at the events of September 11th 2001, few could imagine the terror experienced by those on board those ill-fated aeroplanes. Writer-director Paul Greengrass captures the fear in a shockingly accurate way that refuses to pander to the crowd. Then again, it’d be impossible to sugar-coat these events, so he might as well go for the all-out horror of the whole situation. Your seat will be drenched in sweat by the end.

United 93 opens on clips of the four men who hijacked UA Flight 93 preparing for their final journey, routinely washing and praying. One of the most frightening aspects of United 93 is that sense of routine; Greengrass captures the feeling that this day should have been like any other, making the inevitable outcome all the more devastating. The passengers and crew, though some became well known after the fact, just pass by fleetingly without mention of their names. There are no conversations between passengers to establish character; refreshingly, there is little to no pandering to narrative convention here. Whereas World Trade Center used the events of 9/11 as a springboard into a personal story, United 93 simply presents events in an almost documentary fashion. Greengrass’ penchant for shaky-cam is used to full effect here, as the cast and DP Barry Ackroyd are flung about the airplane as it turns and plummets. The cast don’t do anything flashy; the banality of the everyday informs their performances, and makes their eventual act of bloodshed all the more shocking. They are helped by the depictions of the various agencies struggling to cope with the hijackings on the ground. The then-head of the Federal Aviation Authority, Ben Sliney plays himself in the film, as do several members of the US Air Force stationed at Rome, NY, as they furiously struggle to contact Air Force One for rules of engagement. Greengrass’ script is based on the phone calls of the passengers and the official 9/11 Commission Report. Whatever details are present or excluded, one thing we can be sure of is the passengers, the crew and even the terrorists were full of fear, and all found a motivation within themselves to do what they felt was necessary. One weakling German passenger aside (one of the few sacrifices to convention), the passengers receive a quick but rounded depiction onscreen. The key is remembering that those who were held up as heroes never intended to be heroic; they wanted to survive, and to see those whom they cared about once more. As Greengrass reminds us, sometimes our most basic needs see us at our best.

From the opening shots to the moment the aeroplane is hijacked lies an unbearable wait for the inevitable. Yet, once it arrives, and once the passengers decide to act there is a sense of catharsis, as we yearn for an outcome that we know can’t come and yet seems possible.  Between his script and direction, all kudos must go to Paul Greengrass for creating a depiction of that sunny September day that is cinematically satisfying, yet never cheapens the memory of the passengers and crew of UA 93. Like so many great films, it challenges and even troubles, but also stirs the senses and reaffirms us. It’s about the best of us. Not of the US, but of us.

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Review: World Trade Center (2006)

Director: Oliver Stone

***

Five years after the horrors of 9/11, Oliver Stone made a film about it. “How dare he?!”, they said. One of the most provocative of mainstream American directors attempting to make a film about the US’ darkest hour when the effects were still being felt (mostly by Iraqis and Afghans) should have been a powder keg. It was inevitable that films would be made, but by the man who made JFK and Nixon? Hit the dirt!

No, wait! It’s alright. You can come back. Anyone expecting a probing and critical dissection of the events of that September day will be in for quite a shock. World Trade Center is a personal story; Stone retracts his claws in favour of a story of survival and hope. If this sounds a bit sappy to you, you’re mostly right, but it still packs a punch.

World Trade Center focuses on John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), two Port Authority officers on duty when the Twin Towers are struck by two hijacked aeroplanes. A group of officers volunteers to enter the towers on a search and rescue mission, but only get into the lobby when the tower collapses on top of them. The opening half-hour of World Trade Center sees Stone at his most upfront, as we witness the towers burning and people falling to their deaths. The grim realities of that day are captured so effectively that what follows can’t help but pale in comparison. Once the towers fall, McLoughlin and Jimeno are pinned under rubble, and with little else they can do, they talk in order to kill time and take their minds off the pain they are in. Meanwhile, their wives (Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal) are forced to wait to hear about what has become of their men. The four leads are uniformly excellent; Cage and Peña evoke a lot of emotion despite being rendered immobile in the debris. Tales of children’s achievements and life plans are exchanged as they try to maintain consciousness; when they do sleep, they dream of happier times. It’s hard to be cynical about such potentially mawkish material when it is based directly on the men’s experiences in the wreckage (the real McLoughlin, Jimeno and their wives served as consultants on the film).

Stone is committed to retelling the story of these men not as a direct 9/11 story, but a personal journey and a testament to hope. Andrea Berloff’s script may be inspired by McLoughlin and Jimeno’s ordeal, but her reverence leads to some bizarre scenes (at one point, Jimeno hallucinates about Jesus offering him a bottle of water). Some would also argue that a storyline involving a volunteer rescuer, Sergeant Karnes (Michael Shannon), is too gung-ho and oozes bleeding-heart patriotism, which is just not Oliver Stone material.  It flirts with sentimentality, but that was always going to happen. World Trade Center is a finely constructed film, committed to courage over carnage. Anyone expecting a probing dissection of the events of the day in the vein of vintage Oliver Stone, however, will be sorely disappointed.

Review: Blood Diamond (2006)

Director: Edward Zwick

****

As Shirley Bassey once intoned, diamonds are forever (Naomi Campbell could not be contacted to confirm this). As such, the price of diamonds is very high; not just monetarily, but also in human terms. Hundreds of people die each year in the illicit trading of so-called ‘blood diamonds’ in West Africa. This is the basis for Blood Diamond, Edward Zwick’s exciting and relevant exploration of an oft-neglected problem.

You have to love the way awards season brings about a raft of ‘issue films’. The film opens on a meeting of diamond-importing nations as a major diamond importing firm agree to cease the import of blood diamonds. As this meeting is intercut with an attack on a village in Sierra Leone by a revolutionary group, it’s fair to say that these suits ain’t gonna keep their promise. Ooh, eeeevil men in suits! People dying in poor countries! Oscar, please? Zwick, calm down! You have one already, alright?

Anyway, the rebels capture one of the villagers, Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), who is then forced to work as a diamond miner. He discovers an exceptionally rare diamond and, having escaped his captors, hides the diamond and tries to find his family. However, word gets around about this diamond, attracting the attention of  a diamond smuggler (Leonardo DiCaprio), a journalist (Jennifer Connelly) and various military and rebel factions.

For all its heavy-handed polemical aspects, Blood Diamond manages a difficult balancing act between sincere depiction of horrific atrocities and action-centred thriller, mostly due to Charles Leavitt’s script, and its refusal to shoehorn action scenes in except where necessary. Indeed, the scenes of combat are exciting, but also necessarily horrific as numerous innocent victims get caught in the crossfire. In between, there is plenty of meaty dialogue, and the cast chew it with aplomb. DiCaprio’s Danny Archer is brash and cocksure, and DiCaprio deserves a lot of credit for never making him completely likeable, as well as for sticking with the South African accent. The character of Maddy Bowen is pretty much Female Token No. 37, but Connelly gives her a definite presence. Hounsou gives the best performance of the three leads, with anguish and anger written all over his face as Vandy tries to track down his family while having to lead Archer to the diamond.

For all the excitement and good acting, there are still problems. Zwick is right to believe in the story’s strength, but it’s no excuse to descend into unremarkable filmmaking in the second half of the film, especially when the material is the kind of awards fodder that he is so often drawn to. Edward, Best Director Oscars (usually) go to directors who take risks. Try it sometime! It could also be argued that bloody reality is being exploited for the sake of entertainment, but if it draws attention to a cause, it may not be altogether a bad thing. It’s no stone cold classic, but Blood Diamond is still an urgent, visceral and worthwhile film.

Review: Sherrybaby (2006)

Director: Laurie Collyer

***

Can anyone can doubt the massive acting talent of Maggie Gyllenhaal? Her ‘aw-shucks’ sensibility and earthy tones coupled with her girl-next-door looks make her instantly likeable, even when she’s playing such a character as Sherry Swanson, the heroine of Laurie Collyer’s Sherrybaby. After a three-year stretch in prison for drugs offences, Sherry is keen to get her life back together, including reconnecting with her young daughter Alexis (Ryan Simpkins).

Collyer’s background is mainly in documentary filmmaking, and this clearly influences her unforced, impressively naturalistic style here. With a lot of handheld shots, the intimacy of this film is key to making it work. As we watch Sherry interact with the fellow residents of the halfway house, her brother and sister-in-law (who are also Alexis’ foster parents) and her parole officer, the awkwardness of Sherry’s character is brought into sharp focus. She is clearly ill at ease with social interaction, and is the product of an unfortunate home life; any scenes with Sherry and her father (Sam Bottoms) are truly uncomfortable. Kudos to Collyer for not pulling back and showing grim (un)reality.

Despite her determination, Collyer cannot overcome one of the big problems with the script: its conventionality. We’ve had films about reformed female crims before (Little Fish) and since (Il y a longtemps que je t’aime), and there’s nothing particularly revelatory about it. While Collyer struggles to deal with this one, the problem of Sherry’s inherent unlikeability is dealt with beautifully. She wants to make things right, but on her terms, and she continuously demands attention/pity from those around her. As mentioned before, Gyllenhaal can make any character sympathetic, and she does so here with a great deal of heart. However, she does retain the childish selfish impulses that make Sherry an annoyance; an impromptu performance of The Bangles’ ‘Eternal Flame’ at a family meal is so awkward as to make you squirm, yet you can’t help but pity this pithy little pile of neuroses. Gyllenhaal makes the film, and lifts it above the norm. Like Secretary, it’s another great Gyllenhaal performance in a film which needed it.

Review: Requiem (2006)

Director: Hans-Christian Schmid

****

Few ideological battles are as bitter, or can have such dire consequences, as that between science and faith. This battle is particularly scarring when innocent parties get caught in the crossfire. A prime example of this is the notion of exorcism, and whether or not so-called ‘possession’ is simply symptomatic of an illness. In Requiem, the debate between science and faith comes to rural Germany, and in the process tears a young girl and her family apart.

Considering the nature of possession (invasion of a body by a foreign spirit, essentially), it has been given a rather sensationalist treatment at the hands of filmmakers (The Exorcist is no-one’s ideal of realism). Both Requiem and Scott Derrickson’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose were inspired by the true and tragic story of Anneliese Michel, a young German woman who died aged 24 after repeated exorcisms were performed on her to remove demons that were alleged to have caused severe seizures. Compared to Emily Rose, Requiem takes a sober and realistic look at the possibility of the phenomenon. Michaela (Sandra Hüller) is on the verge of adulthood as she prepares to head off to college in 1970s West Germany. Her strict Catholic parents (Burghart Klausner and Imogen Kogge) are not keen on this, especially as Michaela has a history of seizures. Their concern for their daughter is understandable, but it does pressurize Michaela into an uncomfortable position. Finding her feet at college with her friend Hanna (Anna Blomeier), Michaela is confronted by the liberal and carefree lifestyle of university, and her guilt increases until she’s stretched to breaking point. Her parents are immensely dissatisfied, her new boyfriend (Nicholas Reinke) is being pushed away, and then Michaela takes a turn for the worse. To whom can one turn then?

In the lead role, Hüller is astonishing. Combining naivete, strength and fear, Michaela is a most unfortunate victim; no-one can reassure her, neither her parents nor her doctors nor her priests. The combination of strict upbringing, college freedoms and her illness lead to a troubling final act in which Michaela’s family resorts to exorcism in the belief it will cure her. Director Hans-Christian Schmid presents this in a documentary style, whilst both he and scriptwriter Bernd Lange take precautions to ensure that neither the spiritual or medical explanations of Michaela’s condition is favoured over the other, leaving the viewer with a potentially troubling but respectful and sobering watch. Don’t expect a German Exorcist; instead, prepare to find your faith (or lack thereof) perturbed.

Review: This Is England (2006)

Director: Shane Meadows

****

This Is England: as a title, it’s declarative and in-your-face, two very apt phrases to describe the film itself. Shane Meadows’ homage to the 1980s of his youth is a necessarily brash and confident piece of work.

As a contrast to its depiction in the 1960s (think of the image of ‘cool Britannia’ in Quadrophenia or A Hard Day’s Night), Britain in the 1980s (and in This Is England) is a haunted place, spooked by the spectre of the Falklands War and the tough austerity measures of the Thatcher government. It is in this setting we meet Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), a 12-year-old boy who’s bullied at school and misses his father, who was killed in the Falklands. Lacking both father and friends, Shaun is in need of guidance. When he encounters a group of Burberry-sporting layabouts (led by Joe Gilgun’s Woody) who take a shine to him, Shaun can’t resist their charms. It’s only when former group member Combo (Stephen Graham) is released from prison that things start to go awry, as he espouses racism and violence towards minorities.

In no unambiguous way, Shaun is Britain incarnate; He is England, disenchanted, bereaved and lacking influence. His mother (Jo Hartley) is no disciplinarian, and Shaun is vulnerable. Turgoose’s performance is all anger and adolescent frustration; the fact that this was his first ever acting job makes his performance even more impressive. Whether verbally assaulting a local shopkeeper or getting to know the pleasures of an (older) girl, Shaun is sympathetic as he is under the influence of very dangerous people. As the main source of influence, Graham morphs from charming to terrifying at the drop of a hat. He’s hateful, but never less than compelling. A barrage of colourful supporting characters, plus the definitive style and sound of the era, give a definite tone and feel to proceedings.

In writing the screenplay, Meadows drew upon his own experiences growing up as a disillusioned youth in 80s England. This Is England is a personal reaction to the changes befalling a nation, a terrifying trend told from one point of view. It shows how easily led the masses can be when they are so inclined, but also serves as a paean to corrupted childhood. This Is England boasts potentially tricky material, but handles it in a mature and confidently cinematic way. The final shot of the film is a clear reference to the ultimate film about lost childhood, Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups. If not quite matching Truffaut’s opus, This Is England is still a powerful and relevant warning against the corruption of the childhood (childish?) mind.

Review: Away From Her (2006)

Director: Sarah Polley

****

Coming to terms with something as complicated and cruel as Alzheimer’s Disease requires subtlety and patience. In attempting to show the struggle to cope with said disease, Sarah Polley’s directorial debut Away From Her is suitably subtle and pleasantly patient, traits the film shares with its main character Grant (Gordon Pinsent), a retired university professor who watches as his wife Fiona (Julie Christie) slowly regresses into a horribly mundane senility.

As we are often told, it’s the little things in life that mean the most. In the opening scene, after enjoying a pleasant dinner together, Grant and Fiona wash the dishes when Fiona nonchalantly puts a frying pan away in the freezer. Away From Her has many moments like this, but they’re never exploitative; as in reality, they’re just tell-tale signs of a slowly crumbling mind. Polley’s script, adapted from Alice Munro’s short story ‘The Bear Came Over The Mountain’, is a beautiful balance of a clear depiction of the effects of Alzheimer’s, coupled with a great deal of restraint. Fiona takes the decision to check into a respite centre, Meadowcare, whilst Grant is hesitant to let her go. Away From Her is a study not only of the effect of Alzheimer’s on the person who has it, but also on their loved ones. Fiona begins to forget Grant, and this is compounded by the relationship she strikes up with fellow patient Aubrey (Michael Murphy). Christie is the focus of much of the film’s plaudits; her transformation from feisty-at-fifty to forgetting her own husband is heartbreaking. However, her performance would be for naught without Gordon Pinsent’s touching turn as the forgotten spouse. Getting a raw deal, yet unable to be angry and incapable of doing anything but loving his wife, Pinsent is marvellous, and his scenes with Christie verge on devestating. As Fiona and Michael grow closer, Grant seeks help from Michael’s wife Marian (a embittered Olympia Dukakis) in an effort to do what his wife has done: forget.

As a director, Polley makes a remarkable debut. She shoots without fuss, and uses natural bright light to create stunning vistas in the film’s Canadian setting. Her writing matches her directorial ability, matching light touches of humour with the bitterness of the situation. Plenty of people won’t have the patience for it, but Away From Her isn’t designed for them. Rich in emotion and passion, this one’s for the grown-ups. Before checking into the rest home, Fiona says, “All we can aspire to in this situation is a little bit of grace.” Away From Her is as graceful and elegant a treatment of illness on film as one can experience.