Tag Archives: C-

AMELIA

Producer: 
Director: 
Writer: 
Stars: 
Studio: 

C-

Back in 1965, Ron Goodwin’s title song from “The Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines” said of the early aviators that “they go up tiddly-up-up, they go down tiddly-down-down.” Mira Nair’s biographical tale of the aviatrix who sealed her fame by doing a Judge Crater and disappearing on a flight across the Pacific in 1937 follows only half the pattern. “Amelia” never takes flight, but it certainly crashes.

Hilary Swank, all gussied up in period hairstyle and clothes, is nonetheless never convincing as Earhart, whose life is traced from her first meeting with George Putnam (Richard Gere), the publisher/promoter who also became her devoted husband, in 1928, when, already an eager and ambitious pilot, she applied to become the first female to fly across the Atlantic—though, as it turned out, as a passenger alongside a male pilot and navigator (Joe Anderson and Aaron Abrams). As the film tells it, however, she became the driving force behind the exploit, pushing the men onward when they would have given up, and the ultimate success of the journey made her an immediate celebrity as “Lady Lindy,” which George promptly employed to make big profits in books and commercial endorsements.

But for Amelia flying was the great thrill, and now she was in a position to undertake record-shattering exploits truly on her own, fulfilling the wide-eyed dreams she had, as a few flashbacks show us, as a young girl back in Kansas. With the financial backing secured by Putnam, she goes on to cross the Atlantic solo. And she uses her popularity to encourage other female pilots, most notably young Elinor Smith (Mia Wasikowska)—a sort of simplistic proto-feminism is one of the themes built into the script—and even to help get federal government backing for a civil aeronautics board by, among other things, lobbying a star-struck Eleanor Roosevelt (Cherry Jones).

She also secures the top post in the bureau for West Point aeronautics instructor Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), with whom she develops a friendship so close that it irritates Putnam. That’s another thread in the story—what amounts to a romantic triangle. But as played here, it’s a romantic triangle without any heat. Swank’s brittle Earhart, more an imitation than a truly developed character, never develops any chemistry with either Gere’s Putnam, whom the actor portrays with an assortment of his usual prissy mannerisms but gives little inner life, or McGregor’s Gene, who never becomes anything more than a sort of well-dressed male model. Even the romance between Amelia and George is given short shrift; they move from a professional relationship to a wedding with startling swiftness (and a feminist joke). In fact, the only personal relationship in the picture that seems at all deep is the one Amelia shares with Gene’s little son Gore (William Cuddy), who becomes in effect her occasional pet (the implication being that he brings out her otherwise unfulfilled maternal side).

But human considerations take a back seat to Earhart’s flying ambitions anyway, and the film necessarily leads up to her final exploit, the disastrous attempt to achieve an around-the-world flight that ended somewhere in the South Pacific. The film actually starts with that episode and returns to it periodically throughout, devoting the last reel to her difficulties with navigator Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston) on the earlier stages of the journey and the final messages she exchanged (or couldn’t exchange, given the radio problems) with US Navy personnel trying desperately to help her find the small island on which she could refuel. Happily the script dispenses with all the far-out theories that have been proposed about the plane’s disappearance, but it also plays out the episode rather flatly, not sensationalizing it but failing to give it much urgency either.

And ultimately that’s the fundamental problem with “Amelia.” It looks gorgeous. The period ambience created by production designer Stephanie Carroll, art decorator Nigel Churcher, set decorator Gordon Sim and costume designer Kasia Walicka Maimone is impressive, and the aerial footage is, if not breathtaking, lovely to look at. And Stuart Dryburgh’s widescreen photography gives the images throughout a burnished glow. Beneath the beautiful surface, however, there’s no heart. (The Depression-era context, as one example, is virtually ignored except for one brief moment when Earhart’s car passes by men standing in a soup line and she remarks about it.)

Much of the problem lies with the cast, who overall seem more like waxworks figures than real people. But of course it must also be laid at the feet of director Nair, who’s made a film that comes off more like a museum exhibit than a vital drama. “Amelia” feels like a picture that might have been made in the forties, with its staid tone, stilted dialogue and determinedly inoffensive, even panegyric biographical approach. Everything that happens in it may well be factually based, but as realized here none of it seems truly authentic.

One of the Kansas phrases that Earhart liked to use, the script tells us, was “That’s hooey.” Unfortunately, in this case a subject that might have generated an enlightening examination of the American character has instead been manipulated into a movie that feels very close to TV-style docudrama—the epitome of hooey.

UNBREAKABLE

Producer: 
Director: 
Writer: 
Stars: 
Studio: 

C-

“Unspeakable” might be a better title for M. Night Shyamalan’s followup to his 1999 smash “The Sixth Sense.” The picture mimics its predecessor in numerous ways, from its crushingly deliberate pacing and morosely blue-green color palette to a largely impassive lead performance by Bruce Willis and a Hitchcockian cameo by the writer-director himself (here as a drug dealer). It also shares with the earlier film a storyline laced with supernatural mystery and a sudden twist ending designed to take one’s breath away. Unfortunately, while “Sense” managed to maintain a sense of chilling plausibility despite its underlying outlandishness, the new picture imposes on its pulpish premise a weight it just can’t bear, and at the lugubrious speed at which the director plays the scenario out, it just grows sillier and more tiresome.

The conceit behind “Unbreakable” is that the idea of a special, nearly invulnerable being most clearly embodied in costumed comic-book superheroes might actually be a garbled reminiscence of an ancient human reality embedded in the common consciousness, and that there might really exist some chosen individuals almost impervious to harm and destined to serve as humanity’s saviors. When security guard David Dunn (Willis) emerges from a devastating train wreck without a scratch, he’s approached by Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a dealer in comic art suffering from a genetic defect which makes him subject to easy injury; Price suggests that Dunn might be such an extraordinary individual fated to protect mankind from evil–physically the mirror image, as it were, of Price himself. As the narrative proceeds, Dunn, a laconic man troubled by family problems and personal regrets, entertains Price’s initially preposterous notion and begins to wonder whether he isn’t actually one of the (non-digi)destined, as it were.

In itself the premise positing a heroic defender of humanity, though inevitably pulpish, can serve as the basis for some thought-provoking fantasy: Harlan Ellison, for example, used the notion to good effect in his 1964 “Outer Limits” episode “Demon With a Glass Hand,” and an equally intriguing variant of it appeared in his story “Paladin of the Lost Hour,” which was turned into one of the better segments of the “Twilight Zone” second series in 1985. But while Ellison’s riffs on the idea evinced a sort of mystical grandeur, Shyamalan’s relies on an unvaryingly turgid portentiousness which grows progressively infuriating as the picture unspools. It wouldn’t be cricket to reveal much of the narrative arc, but one can note that although Sherlock Holmes may be long gone, Dr. Moriarity proves to be alive and well in that dank vision of Philadelphia which is ShyamalanLand.

To be fair, one should admire the writer-director’s continuing interest in tackling philosophical, life-and-death issues in his work, even if he gives them a pop twist to make such musings palatable to a mass audience. (You can see his ambition along these lines not only in “The Sixth Sense,” but also in his lighter, little-seen first film “Wide Awake.”) One can also note that there is one element in “Unbreakable” that is a successful carry-over from “Sense,” namely the sweet, affecting relationship depicted between Dunn and his young son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark). Shyamalan seems especially skilled in getting fine performances out of adolescents, and although Clark doesn’t have nearly the screen time that Haley Joel Osment enjoyed in “Sense,” he creates a touching, affecting portrait of a boy in awe of his father but also in obvious turmoil over his parents’ marital difficulties. On the other hand, the writer-director seems less able to fashion convincing male-female relationships: the scenes between Dunn and his wife Audrey, played decently but somewhat reticently by Robin Wright Penn, lack the intensity they ought to have. Instead the emphasis turns to the growing friendship between Dunn, who in Willis’ performance remains an almost glacial presence even when involved in physical action, and the emaciated-looking Price, whose odd appearance (his hairdo almone sets him apart) and dogged determination in the face of adversity inevitably make him a sympathetic, if somewhat strange figure.

If you value a spooky atmosphere above all else in a film and don’t mind putting up with leaden pacing and a fairly ridiculous story to get it, you might find “Unbreakable” sufficiently moody to warrant a look. But most viewers–especially those swept up by “The Sixth Sense”–are likely to find it a grave disappointment.