(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2006)
In Neil Marshall’s The Descent, six young, thrill-seeking British women go caving in a remote area of Philadelphia: five of them don’t know that the sixth has switched the game plan, plunging them where no man or woman has gone before. And no wonder, once they find out what dwells down there. The Descent is a classic straight-down-the-line horror thriller. Marshall supplies a punchy beginning so we know he’s serious, then kicks back for a while, expertly establishing the quirks and tensions within the group. Everything that happens in the caves, where fun turns to irritation and then to anxiety and outright disaster, is superbly dramatized, with masterful orchestration of light and space, rock and metal, physical fragility and, eventually, monsters!
And except for the very beginning, it all takes place among women. This allows one iconic shot in which the apparently most fragile of the group rises slowly from a pool of blood in which we might have thought she’d drowned (if we’d never seen a movie before); now ready for battle, as toned and steely as Sigourney Weaver ever was. The movie as a whole is admirably free of Fay Wray-type wailing and screaming. And its climax is a remarkably cold-blooded settling of scores between two of the women. It’s hard to imagine a film about males in jeopardy turning on quite the same dime, but The Descent takes the cliché about women being more in tune with their feelings, and extrapolates it to a giddily gruesome outcome.
World Trade Center
Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center could also have been called The Descent, to refer both to the two Port Authority cops trapped in the rubble, whose rescue the film dramatizes, and to the broader calamitous reality and implications of what happened on September 11, 2001. But such a title would already smack of “interpretation,” and Stone’s approach here is almost directly opposite to the feverish speculations of films such as JFK; instead he adopts a “right thing to do” approach paralleling the stoic professionalism of the two protagonists. I watched it in the third row, consumed by the screen and unaware of the rest of the audience, and I must say that I’ve seldom been so fully occupied by a two-hour picture. The depiction of the event itself, concentrating on the blind chaos, the sense of a world out of control, is especially effective. But even the conventional opening montage of early morning New York City has an unusual fluidity and beauty to it.
The film, concentrating on the agonized families, inevitably becomes ever more straightforward as it goes on, although the execution remains superb in all respects. The acting is all very fine too: Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena play the cops, and Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal their wives. I don’t know how it could have been carried off much better, so the question of course is whether this is the film that was actually needed. The closing voice over tells us that 9/11 reminded us of the many capabilities of man, and that it’s important to remember the good along with the evil. But this seems to me a simplistic paradigm, because we already understand the good better than we do the evil, and in any event, neither is ultimately as important as the events that were set in motion, and that continue to consume us. The film has only a brief glimpse of Bush on a TV screen, and we must rely on the briefest of remarks and reactions to suggest any broader perspective. There’s a reference to Iraq in the closing captions, which could be taken as a subtle endorsement of how 9/11 was used to justify that wretched initiative. But, if so, it’s so subtle that you can’t make anything of it. It’s often been difficult in the past to figure out exactly what Oliver Stone has been trying to say, but it’s a new experience to have him apparently so happy to say nothing.
Brothers of the Head
Keith Fulton and Louis Pena’s Brothers of the Head, a boozy, druggy, music-drenched documentary-style parable of decades past, feels closer to what an Oliver Stone movie used to be, although Stone never had this light a touch, and would surely have thought himself above such apparently inconsequential material. In one of the year’s wackier premises, the film depicts a pair of conjoined twins who front a rock-punk band in 70’s Britain, flirting with success before their psychological and physical frailties bring them down.
For a while, the film feels weighed down by logistics, with the central characters too far in the background, but it gradually comes together, perhaps working especially well as a new and fresh spin on old rock movie clichés; it’s a very poignant depiction of creativity born out of, and of course dependent on, extreme adversity. It’s also so good at evoking the unkempt lifestyle that you may need to fumigate your clothes afterwards.
Little Miss Sunshine
Little Miss Sunshine was this year’s consensus “discovery” at the Sundance Film Festival, and for once you can see what the excitement was about. The raw material is familiar enough – a dysfunctional family squeezes into a rickety old bus for a road trip (so that 8 year old Olive can compete in a beauty pageant), and gets some of its rough edges smoothed off along the way. But this particular version has lots of raw feeling and many funny lines, even if a few too many of those come from the easy direction of a foul-mouthed grandfather (impeccably played by Alan Arkin).
What’s most surprising is the film’s portrayal of a family living under real economic constraints. Details like Olive asking her mother how much she can spend, when they stop at a diner for breakfast, are rare in movies, particularly with the naturalism we see here. The astute costume design and art direction contribute to a feeling of uncommon depth and precision. And it’s hard to deny that several of the characters really are losers, if only by the standards they’ve set themselves. The title doesn’t lend you to expect too much bite, and indeed the movie could have gone further; Greg Kinnear, as the father trying to make it as a motivational speaker, sees his dream shattered, but we don’t know where that’s going to take him. Instead, once they get to the pageant, it shifts into easy (if again very well executed) parody and subversion. It’s a funny ending, but these pageants are so flagrantly tasteless and pathetic that the target doesn’t seem very relevant to where the film’s been going. Overall though, it’s only because of the general high quality that one can raise these sorts of objections.