The Weight of History

When Jean-Luc Godard resolved that his next movie would be about “a girl and a gun”, he was cracking wise about the conventions of gangster movies and at the same time coming to terms with the fact that in order to sell tickets, the filmmaker must give the public what it wants. So it proves in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Centre, which takes the true story of two policemen who were pulled from the rubble of the collapsed towers to fashion a mausoleum of faithful Christian heroes, substituting gat-toting molls for atheists and foxholes. From the bones of a story that everybody knows, we are presented with a flag-waving, overly sentimental film designed to help American audiences exorcise the ghosts of 9/11 without ever confronting the reasons why the catastrophe happened or how it brought about the War in Iraq.

WTC opens in peace with a long montage of dawn over Manhattan on the 11th of September 2001, then focuses to follow police sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage) taking roll call at the Port Authority. The impact of the first plane stops all the day’s planning, with McLoughlin and his small team, including policeman Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), rushing to the Twin Towers to help evacuate survivors, unaware of the details of what has happened and scrambling for rescue equipment. While making their way in to the scene through an underground foyer, the two men are trapped in a stairwell as the building collapses.

From this point on, Stone switches faithfully back and forth between the trapped men and their suburban families on the outside. The stories run in parallel, as the men talk to one another to prevent slipping off into what might prove a final sleep and the women, surrounded by their friends and families, wait for news and worry and watch the television news. The third arm of the story is the introduction of the rescuers, notably David Karnes (Michael Shannon), who leaves his office job in Connecticut, gets a haircut, puts on his old Marine Corps uniform and strides into the smoking rubble to search for survivors. Astonishingly, although he appears to be a construct of a fevered propagandist, Karnes’ story is true, even if Stone later uses him to articulate America’s desire for revenge and, most unforgivably, by drawing attention to the fact that he later served two terms in Iraq, suggesting a causal link between 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq that has repeatedly been proved to be false. If the approach taken is at times unreliable, the cast at least are solid throughout in what are difficult, unambiguous roles. Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal are convincing as the frantic wives, deftly skipping through rocky emotional scenes. Gyllenhall is at her best in a scene in a supermarket, offended by the suggestion of a normal life in the midst of her most terrible crisis. Bello’s moment comes later in the hospital, a mumbled conversation with the mother of another survivor slowly opening into a devastating point of release.

Stone’s best touches illustrate his newfound restraint as he allows the screen to go dark a dozen times throughout the film, long pauses that poetically suggest the fall of the towers and the untold horrors the news cameras couldn’t see. It’s a tribute to Cage and his co-star Pena that they make this tiny enclosure into a stage, with the close-ups on their desperate faces making for riveting viewing. The sense of terror under the rubble is carefully crafted, through moments of shock like when a dead colleague’s gun goes off randomly, through falling dust that might announce a further collapse, with the masterful use of the creaks and screams of falling concrete and metal and the off-camera groans of the two cops, muttering prayers or encouragements. Stone’s most bombastic moment arrives with a wobbly apparition of Jesus carrying a bottle of water that Jimeno sees in a dream and excitedly relates to McLoughlin, who, inspired, subsequently imagines his wife lying beside him in a halo of saintly light. Then we see Jesus again, his arrival having been presaged by long, unbroken shots of a simple wooden cross in a chapel and a leather bound bible opened on the first page of the Book of Revelation. Was this an attack on America or an attack on God? Is there a difference anymore?

WTC has its merits, it is a well made and effectively moving drama, but by focusing on the survival of two men, it sacrifices the stories of the thousands of people, of all faiths and nationalities, who died on the day itself and in the wars that have followed in the subsequent half-decade. By turning his camera away from the wider truths to focus on the only story with a happy ending, Stone refuses us the connections that allow us to frame such an enormous tragedy in our own minds. There is no denying the bravery of those who risked their own lives to help evacuate the buildings and later search for survivors, humanity at its best responding reflexively to humanity at its worst, but WTC concentrates on courage and defiance at the expense of any other analysis, becoming more of a re-enactment, a memento mori, than an honest look at what might turn out to be the defining moment of our times.

There are those who will consider the entire enterprise shameful; a for-profit film that recreates the mass murder of thousands of innocent people for the purposes of feel-good sermonising. What looked like a blockbuster movie come to life when we first watched it on the television news is now just that; a property, a product, remade on an LA backlot with Big Stars and styrofoam rocks and ancillary rights. As a story of survival from a seemingly hopeless situation, WTC pushes all the right buttons and in the right order and that is all it does. Stone’s closing shots of the hobbling heroes at a picnic serve as nothing more than a recast, relocated “Mission Accomplished”, the dust-covered Manhattan streets standing in for the aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea. As with that stage-managed victory ceremony, similarly desperate for unwarranted closure and easy validation, Stone is dropping the curtain halfway through the play, having shown us only enough to placate us.

Apocalypse Soon

The world, the one you’re standing on right now, is heating up faster than a teenager’s face at a school disco, a process that means serious trouble for mankind. Now that is inconvenient.

Global warming is real, not the ramblings of tree-huggers. And it isn't a natural, cyclical phenomenon, we caused it to happen. A short twenty years from now, according to Al Gore in his brilliantly argued but terrifying documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, it’ll be too late to reverse its disastrous effects, meaning life for our children and grandchildren will be an distinctly uncomfortable prospect.

Director Davis Guggenheim’s documentary is, for the most part, a simple recording of the powerpoint presentation and lecture that Gore has toured the world with (on carbon-spewing aeroplanes, worryingly) for the past five or six years, enlivened by the addition of some robustly presentled statistics of doom, a few chucklesome, self-effacing jokes and long segues into biographical background details on the former US Vice President. If that sounds boring, the film is anything but – it’s as gripping as any horror movie with the difference being that this is real, and its denouement is imminent.

Gore, who does get a great moment out of a cherry-picker, doesn’t otherwise require much in the way of spin or smooth talk to convince his audience that the Earth is in serious trouble. Although the film could be read as an elaborate campaign advertisement for a still-active politician, who carefully positions himself as the man with the plan to save our sorry hides, it is better viewed as the wake-up call we need to pay attention to. The beaten candidate at the election that brought the oil-hungry Texan GW Bush to power, Gore by contrast comes across as an educated, decent and earnest fellow, informed and passionate, with a professional politician’s highly-developed communication skills, especially when presenting complex ideas in a clear and unequivocal manner. Rather than wring his hands while preaching to the choir, Gore presents hard evidence that can support no counter-argument, and proposes a consensus on up-to-date scientific thinking. Red-tinted graphs show the rapid increase in global temperatures and the corresponding increases in greenhouse gas emissions. Simple, unadorned comparison shots of glaciers, reduced to ice-cubes in as little as thirty years, or the disappearance of the snows of Kilimanjaro. The film is packed with troubling case studies; struggling polar bears swimming hundreds of miles searching for their melted habitats or the sequence of stark Google Earth forecasts that illustrate the deluge that awaits the coastal cities of the world (which includes most of the metropolitan areas in this country) when the ice-caps melt and the sea-levels rise. Better learn how to swim.

Then there are the grim statistics. The 10 warmest years in history were all in the last 14 years. The Gulf Stream and the other ocean currents of the world are changing as sea temperatures rise. There is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that at any other time in history. Snow reflects sunlight back into space, but since the polar ice-caps are melting, in an alarmingly rapid manner, and sea-water actually absorbs heat, the more the ice melts, the more of the sun’s energy is retained by the ocean. Gore leaves us with the hope that the effects of one hundred years of industrialisation can be reversed if action is taken immediately. An Inconvenient Truth is the most important documentary released to cinemas this year, but movies don’t change the world, people do. Lobby government, change your lifestyle, get informed and do what you can to increase awareness in your local area.

Practical information and more details on the film are available at the film's special website.

A Ray of Hope

Little Miss Sunshine, the Sundance-winning feature debut from husband and wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, takes a stock film genre, the dysfunctional family road-trip, and with the help of a razor-sharp script from fellow newcomer Michael Arndt, breathes into it new, albeit warped and sardonic, life.

The American everyman Greg Kinnear and the brilliant Toni Collette are Richard and Sheryl Hoover, a married couple barely holding everything together in the flat-pack suburbs of Albuquerque. She’s tired of trying, feeding the family take-out chicken on paper plates while he’s a failed motivational speaker. They have two children; teenager Dwayne (Paul Dano), who is devoted to Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence until he is allowed to join the air force and the younger Olive (Abigail Breslin), a chubby seven year old who harbours dreams of becoming a beauty queen. Their grandpa (the extraordinary Alan Arkin) is helping her achieve this dream, in between hits from his heroin stash. When Sheryl’s brother Frank (Steve Carell), a literature professor, fails in a suicide attempt and has nowhere left to go, she takes him in, completing the dysfunctional clan. All they need now is something to do; which, when another kid drops out, takes the shape of a cross-country road trip to take little Olive to the titular Little Miss Sunshine pageant in California. With little money, they pile into the family van and hit the road.

Following the standard set by Chevy Chase in another space and time, the Hoovers clapped-out VW bus encounters engine trouble, with the part required obviously not immediately available. Dauntless, they struggle on, introducing a repeated gag where the cheerleading Richard sits behind the wheel while the rest of the family pushes, running alongside and leaping into the cabin as the van gains momentum. As a symbol of struggle, and how tenuous a hold we all have on our sense of self-belief, the backfiring yellow van would take some beating. Taking them from fleapit motels to cheap roadside diners, across the physical spaces of the American countryside and the psychological spaces between them all, it’s the vehicle, literally, that allows the estranged Hoovers to find again their freedom and the love for each other, something they have let the hassles of daily life erode away.

The screenplay allows these characters to interact in a marvellously natural manner, with the finely tuned comedy brilliantly brought to life by the stellar cast, with Carell in particular displaying a hitherto unsuspected affinity for playing bitter and lost. Kinnear’s Richard, a flailing paterfamilias has a wound-up smirk and a fine line in peppy clichés while Colette tries to hide her disappointment and despair behind an open face and a level gaze. It’s rare in film that a cast can form a credible family as completely as the Hoover’s do. The road trip, taken chiefly to give the troublingly remote Olive some much needed interaction, becomes a kind of rescue mission for the family itself, which is coming apart at the seams. Hidden away, somewhere between the bitter jokes and the gradual burn of the character’s development, there is a constant, overwhelming sense of the simple struggles of middle-class American life – a myriad of financial and career problems, the closed doors of alienated teenagers, the dreams of children and the desperate attempts by their parents to both enable them and establish a barrier that protects them from life’s hard truths for as long as possible. Illuminating this in a typically understated moment, the silent Dwayne, desperate to leave his hated family behind, turns down to sound on the TV in order to better hear his parents argue.

Although the story, which starts as a keenly observed slice of disillusioned American life, reaches beyond incredulity towards the finish, the characters sing true throughout, regardless of the increasingly daft things they are required to do. Their honesty and humanity is underscored when the Hoovers meet the other pageant parents, a collection of aspirant monsters and pushy snobs smothering their children in airbrushed fake tan and choreography. They might be struggling to keep their place on the ladder and disintegrating before our eyes, but the family never pretend to be anything other than themselves. It might take as its starting point a well-established cinema formula, but that’s not the same thing as being formulaic. Quirky, darkly observant and distinctly individual, Little Miss Sunshine is also heart-warming, funny and life affirming, and there’s no blueprint for that.

Crank Shaft

Crank, I am assured, is American street slang for methamphetamine, making it the perfect title, never mind prerequisite, for this blistering action movie which takes us through the last day on earth of an ex-pat British hit-man. Jason Statham, who has made a career out of these tough-guy chase movies following The Transporter, plays British hit-man Chev Chelios, who wakes up on the day in question with a bit of a problem. Local Chicano gangster Ricky Verona has taken umbrage with Chev eliminating a Chinese drug runner, and has administered a dose of ‘Beijing’ poison while he slept. According to the DVD message Verona leaves behind, Chev only has hours to live and there is no antidote. Already struggling, our anti-hero makes a run for it, believing there must be some way to stay alive or at least exact an excruciating revenge on his tormentors. His medical pal Dr Miles (a deliciously sleazy Dwight Yoakam) is stuck on an airplane, but tells him that the only way to keep breathing is to maintain the adrenaline level in his body until he can attend to him. Cue deliberately dangerous manoeuvres on Chev’s part as he screeches around LA, with the requirement to stay buzzed matched by the desire to avenge his own death. Meanwhile, the army of gangsters are furiously trying to finish the job, Chev’s pot-smoking surf-girl girlfriend Eve (Amy Smart) is along for her own safety and the cannon-fodder cops are closing the dragnet, following the eye of the hurricane.

A twitchy thrill ride with large dashes of charm and invention added to the high-octane mix, Crank is a superior action movie that only occasionally stops to think about what it is itself describing, making it the perfect entertainment for these attention deficit times. The grim-set Statham and his co-directors Brian Taylor and Mark Neveldine have fashioned an extraordinary punk rock action movie, one of the best of its kind in a long time, which unleashes extraordinary havoc on the screen. An instant classic of the unstoppable, one-man-army genre that takes its cues as much from Rambo and The Terminator as it does MTV and Duke Nukem, this is a light-speed paced juggernaut of vandalism and obscenity that is as thrilling as it is exhausting. The admirable stunt work and towering body count aside, the film adds layers of finesse to the mayhem by constantly changing direction and focus, cutting away to the inside of Chev’s body as the adrenaline kicks in, or the nightclub memories in the mind’s eye of his cross-dressing sidekick Kalo (Effren Ramirez).

For a film with a super-flashy visual style it’s interesting that the majority of the action is physically executed in camera; notable throughout is the lack of wire-work or digital trickery. Statham will never play Hamlet, but this is nevertheless a powerhouse performance, the effort of which is etched all over his granite face. It helps that the script is packed full of ear-catching dialogue and the soundtrack is relentless. Crank is also brilliantly photographed, with a heart-shredding pace established from the opening 8-bit credit sequence taken from old video games, the constantly mobile camera and the inventive and often surprising editing. Chev’s precarious condition means he has to pit-stop along the way, at a corner shop for a whole shelf of energy drinks, at a strip-club for a wrap of cocaine (inhaled off the floor of the gents) and best of all, at a hospital for a shot of something to keep him going that kick-starts a long chase sequence that culminates in a highly-charged encounter with a defibrillator. Crank is fiercely told, violent and crude and occasionally surreally funny, but it is bedlam throughout, pure unfettered madness really, and because of that a hugely entertaining popcorn adventure.

Sentry Duty

Michael Douglas leads the line in The Sentinel; a dull, formulaic political thriller that gives the surgically-elevated grandfather another opportunity to race around in a dark suit, shouting important-sounding things into his cuffs and shooting off guns. He plays Secret Service agent Pete Garrison, who in 1981 took a bullet during the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan and is still guarding current President Ballentine (David Rasche) 25 years later. Garrision’s duties also include tending to the First Lady Sarah (Kim Basinger), with whom he is having an unlikely but passionate affair, under the noses of the crack security team and the world’s press.

After a West Wing-like introduction to the complicated White House security systems, Garrison’s best friend on the service is assassinated on his doorstep, just after telling the grizzled old G-man that he had an urgent message for him. It appears, from Garrison’s scant investigations that a foreign faction, led by sneering, pint-drinking ‘terrorist’ The Handler (Richie Costa) is planning to kill the president. According to a different, half-cracked, informant, there’s a double agent mole in the Secret Service and after failing a polygraph test in order to protect his high-profile lover, suspicions fall on Garrison and he flees. Chasing him down is his former protégée David Breckinridge (Kiefer Sutherland), who believes Garrison had an affair with his ex-wife, and his new sidekick Jill (Eva Longoria).

Without going much further into the plot, torturously delivered and really not worth relating, Garrison must try to stay free long enough to clear his name and foil the assassination attempt while convincing his friends on the service that he remains loyal and salvage his under-pressure relationship with the stiff First Lady, who has gone from 9 ½ Weeks to 9 ½ Seconds. That the ‘mole’ is immediately obvious from the first time we are introduced to him is the least of the half-hearted film’s myriad problems, a thriller without the thrills and a conspiracy without a secret. Douglas, literally a man who shoots first and asks questions later, looks exhausted for the duration. The scenes he shares with Sutherland descend into toe-to-toe shouting matches, with more than a few unintentionally hilarious lines roared across the six inches that separate their noses. Longoria pouts and jiggles in the background. The last half hour continues the irreversible decline, with the final scenes at a G8 summit in Toronto (whose membership includes, bizarrely, Iceland) playing more like a spoof of this kind of paranoid political thriller, In The Line Of Fire chiefly, than a straight-told tale. When it came to scripting The Sentinel, from an airport novel by Gerald Petievich, someone fell asleep on their watch.