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Column Fri Sep 11 2009

9, Whiteout, The September Issue, Five Minutes of Heaven, The Baader Meinhof Complex and American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein

9

I've spoken to enough directors over the last 11 years or so to know that scraping together a handful of short films and getting them shown at festivals has been the path that many successful filmmakers have taken to land them their first feature film job. About five years ago, I saw a wonderful live-action short called Cashback, from writer-director Sean Ellis. About two years following the short's acclaimed journey through the festival circuit, Ellis took his short and made it the centerpiece of a feature-length work of the same name that garnered a great deal of acclaim from most critics who saw it (including me). Ellis has since directed another feature, but continues making shorts as well. In 2005, writer-director-student Shane Acker developed a groundbreaking and much talked about animated short called 9, which showed up in animation and other film festivals. It caught the attention of Tim Burton and others who were eager to work with Acker and add him to the growing list of directing greats in the animation universe. The result of this process is a feature-length version of 9 that does not feature material from the short, although it certainly does take place with the same lead character in the same post-apocalyptic world. It's actually kind of rare that a first-time director will get to make an enhanced version of their own short as their premiere movie, but both Ellis and Acker are the worthy exceptions to the standard operating procedure.

If you're a fan of eye-popping, dark and slightly terrifying animated works, 9 should scratch that itch. The trouble comes with what I deem to be a fairly unoriginal story about a group of humanoid creatures (they look like ragdolls built with bits of metal weaved into their cloth bodies) that are simply going from place to place searching for clues about their origin, about what happened to the human population in this now machine-run world, and how they can stop from getting killed by the machines before they figure out how to defeat them. This is the kind of adventure story that parcels out bits of plot detail only when the story dictates they are necessary and not from any kind of insight or cleverness on the part of any particular character. And considering how stunning the look of the film is and the smart general concept behind 9, the fact that the execution is so ordinary is a substantial disappointment.

One of the things I loved so much about the short was that there was no spoken dialogue, an element I wish could have been transferred to the feature. The short made the audience think and pay attention and look for hints concerning the world in which the character 9 exists. I've got nothing against any of the voice actors in the feature; quite the contrary. Any film featuring Elijah Wood (who plays the title character), Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, Martin Landau, Christopher Plummer and Crispin Glover will get no push-back from me on casting choices. The problem originates with the screenplay from Pamela Pettler (Corpse Bride, Monster House), which spends way too much time in exposition mode and not enough time simply wowing us with character development or even a surprise or two on this journey.

I did like the way each cloth avenger was differentiated. Reilly's 5 is missing an eye, so a folded cloth has been sewn over the socket. Glover's mentally ill 6 has pens for fingers and communicates largely through drawings. Connelly's action-hero 7 looks like she's made out of a smoother, sleeker material. And how great is it that Plummer and Landau are both in the movie at all, rather then have some younger actors come in and perform the characters (1 and 2) using old-man voices. In no way can I fault Acker's vision. He has created a world that isn't exactly ours, but it's close enough to be recognizable as a post-industrial age gone horribly wrong. The machines don't look slick and modern at all; they are noisy, clumsy and ugly, but every inch of them appears able to cut or crush you. An OSHA inspector would have a field day in this environment.

I'm truly torn on 9, because there is much to like here. But considering it's only 79 minutes long with credits and I was getting bored at about the 30-minute mark, that isn't a good sign. Perhaps if I'd watched the film with the sound turned off, I might have seen it as a masterpiece. What I got instead was a tired plot brought to life by some of the coolest visuals you'll likely see this year. With exceptional voice work spouting out cliché dialogue and practically reading us the handbook on how to execute an adventure, 9 is a troubled movie that is playing it safe in one area of its production, while going for broke in the best possible dark and dangerous way in many other areas. I'm edging toward recommending it primarily because I want to encourage people to support adult-oriented animation and not simply look at the medium as a place safe for families to go on the weekend. 9 is not for small children, but I'm guessing that pre-teens might get a lot more out of this film than I did only because they haven't seen it 100 times before. The look of the film is simply too good for me to dismiss it entirely, but if you loved the short as much as I did, you may be disappointed.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my interviews with 9 director Shane Acker, producer Tim Burton and co-star Jennifer Connelly, and star Elijah Wood.

Whiteout

All I could think when the final credits started rolling on this new murder mystery set in Antarctica was: "It took four people to write that piece of shit." No lie. Four people are actually credited with writing Whiteout, and my guess is that several uncredited others had a hand in this long-delayed Kate Beckinsale vehicle that is most certainly not a companion to piece to the brilliant Snow Angels, also starring Beckinsale. Instead, what we're left with is a busted-up duh-fest that is meant to keep us guessing as to who the killer or killers are (don't want to give away that gem of a surprise), when there are only two or three possible choices in the cast. The fact that the killer's face is covered up automatically means that it's a face we're going to recognize going around hacking up unsuspecting geologists who find a long-buried Russian plane carrying a mystery cargo that everyone seems to want.

Beckinsale plays U.S. Marshall Carrie Stetko, who had a terrible assignment stateside and is essentially attempting to waylay her guilt by taking the worst law-enforcement gig on the planet. Her best friend is an aging doctor (Tom Skerrit), who has decided after working in the deep freeze for a double-digit number of years, it's time to hang up the stethoscope and cold medicine. As the ice station is about to shut down for six months of darkness, Carrie is called out to investigate a possible body on the ice, which appears to have been tossed out of a plane. The clock is ticking to beat a incoming mega-storm that will essentially trap anyone still left on the continent for six months, so the Marshall and the doctor attempt to find out what or who killed this mystery geologist, who was supposed to be looking for meteor fragments. As the investigation deepens, the body count gets higher and the list of suspects narrows. Enter onto the scene a U.N. investigator (Gabriel Macht) who is attempting to keep the murders (the first in Antarctica's history) from becoming an international incident.

There's nothing particularly clever or memorable about either the killings or the solving of the crimes featured in Whiteout. The dialogue seems intentionally dumbed down, with characters repeatedly stating what are the plainest and most obvious facts. Beckinsale looks at a map where the geologists have been searching for their meteors. "Here's their map," someone astutely points out. "They've mapped out their route in a grid pattern," says someone looking at a map with a giant grid upon it. "Looks like they stopped in Section 104," says Beckinsale looking at giant X's drawn through Sections 100-103." I'm sensing a drinking game in the making, except this movie isn't nearly inspired enough in its duh quality to justify multiple viewings.

Director Dominic Sena has a long and proud history of making films that are almost good, but never quite get there. I was a fan of his early effort Kalifornia, but he lost me with his Gone in Sixty Seconds remake and Swordfish. His upcoming Season of the Witch (scheduled for March 2010) with Nicolas Cage doesn't inspire much hope in me either. And while there are two or three interesting chase scenes set on tethered ropes that lead from building to building during a blizzard, and a really nasty sequence involving Beckinsale getting frostbite, there is very little I could recommend about Whiteout with a clear conscience. In fact, I'd go so far as to say this movie is insulting to dumb people. I spent most of my time watching this lame-brained film shaking my head in disbelief, and looking at my watch wondering if I needed a new battery because the hands seemed to be going so slow. If it's been too long since you've suffered unbearable agony while watching a movie that bombards you with flagrant lapses in logic and a disregard for any kind of intelligent storytelling, consider yourself warned. Don't let movies like Whiteout or Gamer or All About Steve (to name the most recent three offenders) crush your soul or lower your standards. End of rant.

The September Issue

As someone who comes out of the publishing world (and no, I don't mean Ain't It Cool; I'm talking about actual magazine publishing), I find it fascinating that any monthly magazine on the face of the earth can publish an issue that is anywhere near 700 to 900 pages long (approximate weight: 4 pounds). But every year, Vogue magazine does that every September, which is months in the making under the ever-watchful eye of its longtime editor Anna Wintour, who may be the single most important and powerful person in the fashion industry. Even if you have zero interest in fashion, publishing or popular culture, The September Issue is one of the most fascinating behind-the-scenes documentaries that you're likely to see about a subject matter you may not feel invested in until you see this movie.

The September Issue isn't just about over-privileged fashionistas who talk, walk and breathe clothes and accessories. The film is about an industry in which artistry is both celebrated and dismissed depending on Wintour's whims and the needs of the magazine. The most fascinating aspect to the film is the weirdly antagonistic, 20-year relationship between Wintour and the magazine's creative director and head photographer Grace Coddington, a former model who has an eye for great composition and pairing clothes with themed photo shoots, the results of which could hang in art museums around the world. Wintour systematically rips apart Coddington's photo essays without a second thought, leaving Grace to bemoan the demise of the true artist on a monthly basis. She's also the most human element to this film and its comic relief.

Most of what I know about Wintour is from the fictional portrayal of her by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, which of course is simultaneously nothing like the real Wintour and very much like her. There's a coldness and abrupt quality to her that seems necessary for her to do her job, but she's not without her humorous (inadvertent at times) side, especially when we see her with Coddington or her own daughter, who has zero interest in fashion or the industry that surrounds it. But her very t-shirt and jeans offspring is the first person she goes to for an opinion on the magazine's cover shot or a lengthy photo layout.

One of Wintour's greatest milestones was to bring in celebrities to pose on the cover of a fashion magazine (a spot usually reserved for professional models). For the September 2007 issue, Sienna Miller was set to grace the cover, and every aspect of the shoot, airbrushing, and final photo selection and cover design is covered in the film. It's slightly sickening but never boring to watch the process of pulling this monster together. Director R.J. Cutler, who took us behind the scenes of Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign in The War Room (which he produced), drags us along like one of Wintour's pieces of luggage across the globe to New York's Fashion Week, to Paris, to Rome, to botched photo shoots, staff meetings and sessions with designers previewing their lines to her in the hopes of knowing what to send down the runway and what to throw on the fire. It's a lifestyle I will never understand, but I will never think it's not work after seeing this wonderfully entertaining and slightly stressful movie. The access given to Cutler and crew is almost more than I could believe. Nothing seemed off limits, and no real effort is made to cast Wintour in a good light when she's acting like a brat.

I doubt this film will change the way you already view the world of fashion, but I can't imagine anyone not finding The September Issue a triumph in storytelling, suspense building and personality profiling. So few documentaries I see in a given year about far nobler subjects manage to capture even a portion of the detail and sense of time and place that this film does. That has to count for something, and have no shame in saying that I whole-heartedly loved this movie. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Five Minutes of Heaven

German-born director Oliver Hirschbiegel has had some spectacular successes as a filmmaker (Downfall, Das Experiment) and one or two colossal failures (The Invasion). Thankfully, his latest fairly small-scale endeavor falls into the former category as he essentially has assembled a two-man piece in which the two men share almost no screen time. Five Minutes of Heaven opens 25 years ago when a young man and UVF (the Northern Ireland paramilitary group Ulster Volunteer Force) member named Alistair Little killed the older brother of a young boy named Joe Griffen. Joe not only witnessed the murder, but he also stood mere feet from Little when it occurred and has been tearing himself up from the inside for freezing when he should have been saving his brother's life.

Just forward to modern times, a television crew has arranged for the two men to meet as part of an organized (and highly staged) act of reconciliation. Although Little went to jail for many years for the crime, he emerged and has become a successful businessman (played by Liam Neeson). Griffen (the great James Nesbit from Bloody Sunday and Waking Ned Devine) has a wife, two children, and enough guilt to crush him. We follow the two men during their long drive to the meeting place, we see the far-too-elaborate set up the TV crew has set up for them for their face-to-face, and we watch as each prepares in separate rooms for this event, Griffen clearly far more nervous than Little, who has long since dismissed his actions as a product of the times and his rebellious youth.

In many ways, Five Minutes of Heaven feel a lot like a play that's been expanded somewhat to give us a bit of the local flavor of Ireland. Writer Guy Hibbert, who mostly writes for British television, has done a worthy job of giving this subject the gravity it requires, without making either man overly noble. Hibbert has also laced his work with just the right amount of dark humor (particularly from Griffen, whose anxiety about meeting his brother's killer seems both appropriate and amusing somehow). I'd be remiss if I didn't mention a great performance from Anamaria Marinca as Vika, a production assistant who is put in charge of babysitting Griffen until the actual meeting takes place. The two form an almost doctor-patient relationship in their short time together, as Griffen repeatedly double checks with her that this, in fact, an absurd set of circumstances.

Even when the story takes turns that seem a bit forced and ridiculous, it's still a joy to see these great actors really get the chance to dig their claws into such well-written characters. Neeson's polished Little is a well-oiled corporate slickster whose suit is as perfect and pressed as his supposedly off-the-cuff remarks during his pre-meeting interview with the TV crew where he lays out his past behavior. Nesbitt's Griffen is a bundle of nerves and raw emotion. Even though he was only a child, that didn't stop his mother and later himself from placing all of the blame for his brother's death squarely on his shoulders. Nesbit is such a great force as an actor, and I can't remember a time not enjoying one of his performances. He's asked to engage in some behavior in Five Minutes of Heaven that might have been played as melodrama by another actor, but Nesbit's version of Griffen is so grounded in reality that there's never any danger of that from him.

Five Minutes of Heaven never tries to be anything but what it is — a small movie about a singular incident that changed the lives of at least two people. It never feels like the filmmakers were trying to make this story representative of the bigger problems in Ireland, although one could certainly look at it that way. This film is about getting personal and intimate, by getting into the heads of these two men and making some sense of what they went through. It's also a fantastic acting exercise for the two leads. However you choose to look at it, I'm sure this very good movie will penetrate your mind on some level.

The Baader Meinhof Complex

This film is a classic case of "You Either Find This Subject Fascinating Beyond Words" or "You Just Couldn't Give a Fuck" before you even leave your house to check it out. But when I hear that there's a drama about the origins of modern terrorism perpetrated by the sons and daughters of the Nazi generation in Germany who were fighting against the very nationalistic elements that the Nazis held dear, yeah, you can count me in. The Baader Meinhof Complex is a complicated, beautifully crafted depiction of the organized chaos that led to the formation of the Red Army Faction, who used kidnapping, bombing and paranoia to keep much of Europe in fear, while the group waxed poetic about keeping the American imperialism out of their country so as to create a more human society.

Directed by Uli Edel (Last Exit to Brooklyn, Body of Evidence), the film shows us the sparks that lit the fuse in the late '60s that was the RAF — Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu of Run Lola Run and Munich), former journalist Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck of The Lives of Others and The Good Shepherd), along with Baader's main squeeze, Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek). With proper training in the Middle East and enough fire in their hearts, this group of self-proclaimed freedom fighters waged a war on the establishment that carried over into the United States and other first-world nations. What I found so surprising about this film is how it more often than not portrays these young students as heroic in some way; and I'm sure some people in the world view them exactly that way. There are even times where we are most definitely supposed to be rooting for their bloody missions to go off without a hitch. We are meant to mourn when one of them gets caught or killed, and that might be asking too much of some audience members.

But this is what Edel does. As desperately as we might like him to, he doesn't pick sides or show favoritism. He wants us to care as much about these criminals as we do the law enforcement officials who pursue (embodied in a stellar performance by Bruno Ganz as the head of the German police force Horst Herold. The screenplay for The Baader Meinhof Complex is from Bernd Eichinger (based on the book by Stefan Aust), who wrote the exquisitely made Downfall. His attention to detail is impeccable, and that alone would be enough to recommend the film. But Edel is in top form as well, as is the large and fiery cast. In the end, the film asks the audience to define "terrorism" and "oppressor." It's not all that different than what Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner did with Munich a few years back. These words have some of the loosest and vaguest definitions of any in the English language, and very often it is history that will make or unmake the call. Baader Meinhof is certain to add fuel to this raging fire. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein

Most talking-head documentaries can be pretty dry, even when the subject matter is interesting. But there are few such films as explosive and gripping as American Radical, a portrait of Norman Finkelstein, a recently bounced DuPaul University professor, who was not granted tenure because of his beyond-controversial views against Israel's treatment of the Palestinian people. As you might have guessed form Norman's last name, he's Jewish and the son of parents who both survived concentration camps. But his mother was a fervent pacifist who believed that any war was a bad, and she passed this belief to Norman, who wrote a series of books (including the notorious The Holocaust Industry) that attacked Israel's use of the Holocaust as justification for aggression toward its Arab neighbors.

Accusations of being a traitor to his people and a self-hating Jew are lobbed at Finkelstein, and he answers them accordingly and with equal venom. He becomes mortal enemies with Harvard's Alan Dershowitz when the two appear on a radio show together and Finkelstein accuses Dershowitz's latest book of being filled with plagiarism (a claim he goes into much more detail on with his subsequent book, in which he catalogs Dershowitz's "crimes.") It's also clear that there are many who believe Finkelstein is one of the few intellectuals speaking the truth. What becomes clear in the film is that Finkelstein may appear certain about who he is in a lecture hall, but he's still struggling with his identity and the way he is perceived. The film also touches on the freedoms (or lack thereof) allowed by members of the academia. American Radical is film that demands discussion upon its conclusion, because no matter who conclusions your draw after watching Norman Finkelstein in action, there are enough layers to the man to spend hours peeling them away to even get a hint as to what he's all about. Agree or disagree, you will be glued to your seat to see what he has to say next. And even if you walk out disgusted by his beliefs, at least you took the time to find out exactly what he stands for in the first place. That's called being informed, and that's a rare thing these days.

American Radical will screen at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Sunday, September 13 at 5pm; and Wednesday, September 16 at 8pm. Directors David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier will be present for audience discussion after the Sunday screening.

 
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