Archive for November, 2007

Lions For Lambs (2007)

It would be easy to approach Lions for Lambs as a simple partisan tirade and accept it on its own terms. But though it asks some important questions, the film ignores so much narrative common sense that its message drowns in a pool of presuppositions and insulting non-sequiturs.

The film follows three stories. Time magazine journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) has been invited by Sen. Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) for an exclusive look at a new plan to win the War on Terror. It’s a plan that involves capturing the high ground in Afghanistan — one that happens to includes soldiers Arian Finch and Ernest Rodriguez (Derek Luke and Michael Pena), former students of Professor Stephen Malley (Robert Redford). Malley, the third anchor to this story, has chosen today to confront the apathy of a slacker in his class whom, Malley believes, has a lot of untapped potential.

The structure lends itself more to a stage play than a film, relying almost entirely on dialog.

Redford, assuming directorial responsibilities, handles the script by Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom) well enough, and armed with two other thespian giants, portions of the film rise to colorful life on the strength of those performances alone. Absent any discernable plot, however, the story amounts to little more than an episodic ideologue.

Unfortunately, the film never quite transcends its agenda, and the resulting narrative begs credulity in places. For instance, Sen. Irving makes a habit of blaming poor intelligence for various difficulties involved with fighting the War on Terror, yet he assures Roth that this new operation in Afghanistan is based on solid information. The operatives joining Finch and Rodriguez in their flight over the desert corroborate the claim — satellite imagery from the day before confirms their landing sight as abandoned.

Naturally, the helicopter takes surprise enemy fire. In the course of the mayhem, Rodriguez falls from the craft. Finch, desperate to save his friend, leaps from the helicopter as well. As they lay in the snow, injured and bleeding, with enemy troops advancing on their position, a satellite has conveniently appeared overhead to keep the soldiers mounting a rescue appraised of the situation. The audience is left to decide whether its appearance is a result of poor military planning, or just lazy scriptwriting.

As the film’s most interesting characters, Finch and Rodriguez receive perhaps the most disrespectful treatment. They appear as thoughtful young adults, anxious to engage the world around them. Their choice to join the military, an intent decision made to put legs under their idealism, disturbs Malley, and he gently tries to coax them toward another direction. Admirably, they hold to their convictions.  We can change things, they say.

“If,” Malley replies. “If.” The implication being, of course, if they return home alive, as if their service to their country holds little to no meaning at all. Unfortunately, that’s just the signal the film appears to send.

Redford, Streep, and Cruise all turn in steady performances, in spite of their rather stock characterizations. Streep and Cruise spar over the issues with reflexive talking points, neither taking the discussion to a level deeper than anything found on Dateline NBC. Only Malley’s conversation with the slacker Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) leads to any real conversational development.

We get to see a glimpse of what Malley sees in Hayes through a flashback that reveals his smarts. We leave him at the end as he wrestles with Malley’s prompts, juxtaposed with a newsreel that has become all too familiar in a media culture more obsessed with braying pop stars than the too-often nameless lions making real sacrifices.

Perhaps the ending might have worked better had those sacrifices received better treatment.

(edited by Sam Gaines)

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The Invisible (2007)

While The Invisible makes honest use of the old Shakespearean thread of treachery and cowardice to spin its yarn, its sophisticated aspirations tumble into an underwhelming, ambling suspense tale of two fractured teens and their desperate need of mending.

Nick Powell (Justin Chatwin, War of the Worlds) writes essays for money, selling them off to the lazy and desperate teens who stalk the halls of his high school. He carries a plane ticket that will take him to a writer’s program at the Royal Academy in London, a decision his widowed and emotionless mother (Marcia Gay Harden) stiffly discourages.

Annie Newton (Margarita Levieva) lives in a splintered home run by apathetic parents. Her efforts to cope take her out to the streets at night to help her ex-con boyfriend Marcus steal cars. She also peddles cheap cell phones, a sticky temptation to Nick’s friend Pete. When Pete fails to pay up, Annie and her goons threaten violence. Nick tries to buy her off. “You are so broken,” he whispers into her ear, drawing out her defensive wrath.

A jilted Marcus’s call to police and Pete’s lack of a spine propel Annie toward her predictably disastrous confrontation with Nick that leaves the hopeful young writer lying dead in the woods. Or so Annie believes. Annie and her goons ditch his body and scatter. The next morning, Nick emerges from the woods, returns to school, and finds that no one can see or him. Trapped in an ethereal netherworld, he has finally earned the film’s moniker.

As the supernatural elements develop throughout the second act, the story starts to unravel under the strain of thoughtless plot devices, which unfortunately bury the stronger aspects of an otherwise mundane ghost story. Various awkward subplots, such as Annie’s past relationship with the officer investigating Nick’s disappearance, seem planted merely for drama’s sake, and never see any real development.

Many of the film’s clever attempts to evoke the eerie netherworld border on the ridiculous. We learn that the ghostly Nick can seem to interact with the physical world only to realize upon second glance that his actions have no effect. It’s a trope the filmmakers keep going back to, effectively drowning the initial shock.

Nick eventually sticks to following Annie around: watching her at home while she endures the paper-thin complexity of her parents, watching as she dotes on her little brother. As the police close in, Annie grows desperate and Nick inches closer to doom. Inexorably, Annie hears his voice, thrusting our two broken teens on a shallow journey of discovery and salvation.

Some moments offer glimmers of a more penetrating narrative. One surprisingly tasteful scene that follows Annie into a shower paints a figurative look at her desire to purge herself of her wrongs. Still unseen, Nick reaches a personal zenith as he watches his ice-hard mother melts into painful despair. His realization that she can feel moves him to start picking up his own broken pieces.

Director David S. Goyer (Blade: Trinity), familiar with moody plotlines, appears capable enough to coax adequate performances from his cast to at least project hints of believability. His strengths certainly help the film recover from some of its flaws. But only a little.

The film commits its most grievous sin during the final payoff. There’s no setup, so the climax appears out of nowhere, perhaps assuming the audience will just buy it after having followed the film’s vague humanistic meanderings thus far. A more refined script might have offered a more compelling journey to build toward that ending, instead of contriving one out of thin air.

The DVD’s special features include director and writer commentary, a pair of music videos, and a collection of 11 deleted scenes that would have offered still more needless dangling subplots that fail to offer any greater insight to the overall story.

(edited by Sam Gaines)