Movie Review: Flightplan

David St. Hubbins was more right than he knew when discussing the fine line between stupid and clever. “Flightplan” is a pitch perfect example of it, in fact. It’s a simple premise with a convoluted payoff, and it depends on a series of staggering coincidences in order to stay afloat. To the filmmakers’ credit, they do a good job of deflecting any and all suspicion, but only for so long. In the end, they can’t escape their own contrivances, and while the movie is well executed, it’s fatally flawed.

Jodie Foster stars as Kyle Pratt, an engineer for an airplane manufacturer living abroad in Berlin. Her husband has just killed himself, and Kyle is taking her daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston) back to the States to bury him. Kyle and Julia take a couple empty rows in the back of the plane to stretch out, and after snoozing for about three hours, Kyle wakes up to find Julia missing. She does a cursory check through the cabin (having worked on the engines for the plane, she knows the layout backwards and forwards), convinced that she’s off playing with other kides, but no one can find Julia. She has a sympathetic ear in Carson (Peter Sarsgaard), a US Marshal, but the jaded flight attendants aren’t terribly helpful, and neither is the captain (Sean Bean). The reason for that is, according to their records, Julia isn’t on the plane. Worse, the crew is telling her that they have a communication from the morgue in Berlin that not only is Kyle’s husband dead, but her daughter is, too.

Kyle begins to unravel. She got on the plane with her daughter, she knows it. Didn’t anyone see Julia? Kyle then goes into Protective Den Mother mode, using every trick she can think of to check every aspect of the plane, including the cargo holds. This doesn’t help her cause, as now both passengers and crew think she’s a nutcase, and the Marshal has no choice but to treat her as a threat to the safety of everyone on board.

At the risk of being a spoiler, if you think that Julia never boarded the plane, you haven’t seen many movies. But the truth is, I haven’t spoiled that for you; the studio did. There is a particular shot in every trailer I’ve seen of this movie that gives the game away completely. It brings to mind the trailer that Touchstone, the studio behind “Flightplan,” assembled for “Ransom,” yet another children-in-peril thriller. In that movie, Mel Gibson’s character turns the tables on his kidnappers, turning the ransom into a bounty for the kidnappers’ heads. A great twist, no doubt, but imagine how cool it would have been to not know that going into the movie. It would have been a totally different experience, yes? Well, too bad, because they based the movie’s entire ad campaign on that one scene, effectively neutering the movie before it’s begun, and they did the same thing here. If you don’t know which scene I’m referring to, I won’t give it away.

Still, this is only half of what is wrong with the movie. The entire second half relies on a series of events that is tenuous to say the least. If the first piece doesn’t fall into place – and in real life, it wouldn’t – there is no movie. In fact, there are several moments where the “plan” is in reality seconds from falling apart, and when the endgame reveals itself, the plan, as it were, is difficult to swallow. Call it sleight of hand moviemaking, where the audience is misdirected at such a pace that they can’t put the pieces together until the movie ends. Once they have the time to think about what they’ve seen, though, the more deceived they feel.

But God love Jodie Foster, who gives the movie her absolute all. Her Kyle is melting down on the inside, and barely keeping her composure on the outside. You can see the gears turning in her engineer’s melon, trying to figure out what is really going on. She sells it well, but unfortunately no one else appears to be as into it as she is. Seeing Bean play a pilot is almost amusing at this point in his career. This guy’s not a pilot, he’s 006, he’s Boromir, he’s a heavy duty man of action! Also, the sight of Erika Christensen (“Traffic”), once considered a hot up and coming talent, relegated to mousy flight attendant, is troubling. Certain movies can get away with asking the viewer to take gigantic leaps of faith or logic. “Just Like Heaven,” for example, asks you to buy the possibility that this one guy can see Reese Witherspoon, but her sister can’t. And because it’s a romantic comedy, we do buy it. Action thrillers used to have a similar leniency applied to them (“Bad Boys,” the later “Lethal Weapon” movies), but “The Matrix,” among others, changed those rules permanently. As a result, “Flightplan” feels like a movie out of time, something that would have been a thrill a minute in 1997, when audiences gobbled up airplane thrillers like, horrors, “Air Force One.” “Flightplan” is actually better than “Air Force One,” but that is hardly an endorsement.

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)
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Movie Review: First Descent

Q: How does a snowboarder introduce himself?

A: He turns around, waves and says, “Sorry, dude!”

Obviously, a skier wrote that joke, but even the skier who came up with that joke would find lots to love about “First Descent.” There is some exhilarating camerawork of the best of the best doing things that they didn’t even know they were capable of doing. The easy way out would be to describe it as a Warren Miller movie for ‘boarders, but it is actually much more than that. While it deals with the stars of the present, it also includes a comprehensive history of the sport’s origin and evolution, which makes it part Warren Miller and part “Dogtown and Z-Boys.” If only it had been about 20 minutes shorter.

The setup for the movie is that five of the world’s best snowboarders – Shawn Farmer, Shaun White, Hannah Teter, Nick Peralta and Norway’s Terje Haakosen – travel to Alaska to do some hardcore mountain skiing, the likes of which the 18 year-olds White and Teter have never attempted. This 10-day adventure is broken into chapters by interchanging storylines on the history of snowboarding and the backgrounds of the five snowboarders. Given the range in ages of the five main players – White and Teter are 18, Farmer is 40 – you get a lot of different takes on what snowboarding means to them and how much it’s changed since they started ‘boarding.

Farmer is easily the most fascinating of the bunch. Looking like the bearded love child of Flea and Pete Rose, Farmer (no one calls him Shawn, and that’s not in deference to wonderboy Shaun White) has a raw enthusiasm for the sport that belies his years. Sometimes this gets him into trouble – after one wipeout, his left arm looks like something out of a Joe Theissman clip, without breaking the skin – but it leaves the viewer impressed just the same. White is impossibly composed for an 18 year-old. A five-time X Games winner, he is uncommonly graceful about his success. When he meets NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, and Gordon tells him that his boots are Shaun White boots, White is clearly bowled over. “Gordon’s getting a free board for that comment,” he jokes later.

Of the two devices that cut up the action, the historical overlook, narrated by Henry Rollins (it is surely not a coincidence that “TV Party” appears as background music), is the more compelling. The shots of the early ‘70s gear is hilarious (riders held a rope attached to the board’s nose to keep their balance), and the clips from skiers in the ‘80s, disgusted that they have to share their slopes with these punks, are even funnier. Throughout the timeline are shots of incredible freestyle moves and footage from the early snowboard videos which, as one of the stars of those videos says, were indeed “Jackass” before there was “Jackass.” The most jaw-dropping moment comes when White’s buddy Travis Rice does a run from a nearly pristine mountaintop, and in the process creates a monstrous avalanche that nearly takes him under. They show it three times from two different angles, and not once does the gravity of the moment lose its impact.

If “First Descent” has a fault, it’s that it doesn’t know when enough is enough. In their attempt to make an all encompassing doc on the sport, filmmakers Kemp Curly and Kevin Harrison didn’t know when they had outstayed their welcome. By the time you got to Terje’s “flashback” (all five skiers were shot spending time at home one month before the Alaska trip), you realize that, while they all came from vastly different backgrounds, their upbringings, surprise, were very much alike, and as a result were quite dull. Terje’s story, though, will open the eyes of many to the fact that there is surfing in Norway. Who knew? Besides the Norwegians, that is. Still, only skiers and non-snowboarders will bellow about the movie’s length. “First Descent” (yes, it does end with one ‘boarder making the first drop on one steep-ass mountain, but I won’t give away the details here) will thrill anyone who’s ever strapped a board on a slope. But speaking as a fellow skier, would it kill these guys to not run over our skis when they pass by?

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)
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Movie Review: Finding Nemo

Magical. God knows how they do it, but Pixar is easily the most consistent, most intelligent movie shop in Hollywood. Their movies are loaded with razor sharp wit, mind-boggling visuals, pitch perfect casting, and an abundance of heart. If Disney knows what’s good for them, they will go to the negotiating table early (“Nemo” is the last movie in their current deal together) and give Pixar whatever they want in order to keep distributing their movies. 

“Finding Nemo” had a lot to live up to: Pixar’s last movie, “Monsters Inc.,” was one for the ages, a dazzlingly clever and touching story that showed Pixar at the height of their powers. “Nemo,” by comparison, doesn’t quite strike the same emotional chord, but it doesn’t miss by much, either. And the advancements they’ve made with the visuals more than make up for any shortcomings in storytelling. 

The story begins on the Great Barrier Reef, with a nervous clown fish named Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks). His wife is cruelly dispatched in the first five minutes (what is it with Disney movies and dead mothers?), leaving him to raise his only surviving son Nemo (Alexander Gould). Nemo, now ready to start school and smothered by his overprotective father, dares to swim over the ledge of the reef in a fit of textbook rebellion, and pays for it dearly when a scuba diving dentist catches Nemo and brings him back to Sydney to put in his aquarium. Marlin rushes off to rescue his son, and along the way he meets Dory (Ellen Degeneres), a blue tang fish with short-term memory loss who tries to help him but naturally causes an equal amount of hindrance. 

The one aspect of “Nemo” that will likely be overlooked upon viewing but remarked upon in retrospect is how spectacular the water looks. Animators will tell you how hard it is to capture the essence of water, both in terms of its movement and its tendency to be both murky and transparent, and the Pixar guys just nailed it. There are scenes with cascading water that look like real photography. Indeed, if there’s anything the artists haven’t figured out how to animate yet, it’s humans, who still look a bit like crash test dummies. Pixar picks their non-human subjects (toys, bugs, monsters, fish) for a reason, after all. Shhhhh. They’re easier to draw. 

The importance of the casting cannot be overestimated. Brooks is a natural as worrywart Marlin, but it’s DeGeneres who absolutely steals the movie. Her Dory is dead on the money, possessing an ignorant bliss that someone who is both excitable and extremely forgetful would have. Watching her drive Brooks’ character up the wall is both fun and necessary, because Marlin alone would not have been much fun to watch. 

What makes the Pixar movies truly special, however, are the supporting characters. Every Pixar movie has them. “Toy Story” had the Army men. “A Bug’s Life” had the Russian acrobatic bugs Tuck and Roll. “Monsters, Inc.” had Roz and the snakes in Celia’s hair. “Finding Nemo” has a laundry list of strong support, from Allison Janney’s starfish and Brad Garrett’s blowfish to Barry “Dame Edna” Humphries’ great white shark Bruce (a nice in-joke for “Jaws” aficionados) and Geoffrey Rush’s sympathetic pelican. But the best support in “Nemo” comes from the seagulls, whose endless squawk of “Mine? Mine? Mine?” (because really, isn’t that the only word seagulls really use?) makes them the center of attention every time they’re onscreen. They also have an uncanny resemblance to the penguin from “The Wrong Trousers,” for you Wallace & Gromit fans. 

“Finding Nemo” is not perfect, however. The movie’s not very subtle with its vegetarian message, and there are a few bits in the first thirty minutes where the pacing drags noticeably. It seems they have their eyes more on the details (for example, watch Bruce’s eyes when he smells blood) than the big picture, and while that’s commendable in the face of so many movies that paint with very broad strokes (“Dumb & Dumberer,” anyone?), it works much better when there’s a coherent, well-paced story for those details to fit into. 

“Finding Nemo” is proof positive that Pixar doesn’t make kids movies. That would imply that they’re only for the children to enjoy, while the parents sit utterly bored and insulted. No, Pixar makes family movies, ones that the kids, parents, grandparents and even sullen teenagers can enjoy. Half the attendees at the showing I saw were young couples in their 20s, which is money, baby. And rightfully so: Pixar hasn’t missed yet, and based on the hilarious trailer for their next movie, “The Incredibles,” there is no reason to suspect the next one will be any lesser. Bravo, gents.

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)
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