2005Director: Robert Schwentke
Cast: Jodie Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Sean Bean, Greta Scacchi
ircraft. I love that word. I also love the fact that only people in the aeronautics industry refer to an airplane as an “aircraft.” Just like only actors refer to their “work” as practising their “craft” in the film industry.
The antithetical pull of the craft vs. the industry is seldom debated in movie reviews. I’m assuming it’s because it’s assumed Joey Mallgoer isn’t particularly interested or isn’t smart enough (or it doesn’t subliminally sell enough salt and sugar.) And then there’s the Corporate Media Colossus suck-up, of course. All of which make any intellectual, as opposed to the emotional, discussion of the film-going experience or any “craft vs. industry” analysis Verboten, sloughed off as so much trite Kaffeehaus klatch or neo-pretentious Cahiers du Cinéma wannabee-ism.
I’m no fan of pinky-extended, High Tea, academic dit “serious” film criticism—essentially more about Literature than Cinema—any more than the next stub-holding troglodyte. But voyeurism is a fetish and fetishes are, clinically speaking, serious. It’s what gives us amateurs an edge, “expert” muscle, and, with it, the self-righteous legitimacy that is Lunacy’s blessing. It’s what is currently allowing me to pontificate, profane, pose. It’s the mock-audacious, faux-disturbing motivation of what can only be a new low in arrogance: offering constructive criticism. After all, as a member of the audience and a regular movie-goer, I am technically “in the industry.” And, well, in a vicious self-affirming armchair circle jerk, here I am writing about my fetish, which makes me a… professional.
And what review of a German-directed Hollywood B-movie starring A-list film actress Jody Foster frotting madness would be complete without some… professional help? Wink.
Director Robert Schwentke’s European car commercial-slick thriller, written by Peter A. Dowling and Billy Ray and produced by A Beautiful Mind and Apollo 13 producer Brian Grazer, had its moments but got the wind knocked out it in the third act. It’s a pity, too, because the 98 minute, PG-13 rated film (for “violence and some intense plot material”), had a really nice auteur funk early on bordering on hardcore psychological thriller (à la The Tenant). That is, of course, until the producer pulled the plug and decided to direct, apparently; or sacked the director two thirds of the way through post; or, more likely, it got bad audience reaction in Santa Monica (where they test show films to the tourists free in exchange for post-film written comments)… and the plain vanilla, Bruce Willis ending card was played.
It’s all the more painful when you inventory the The Lady Vanishes or Lifeboat structural plusses (i.e., the limitations.) An analytical Englishman like Hitch would have delighted in the structural possibilities of the restrictions: “no exit” claustrophobia, hostage politicking, linear tunnel-vision, etc. Even a bathroom plot device! The sterile, bourgeois E-474 was all Hitchcock. And the altered state of blond, fey Kyle Pratt (Foster), suffering the Vertigo of despair as a result of her husband’s questionable suicide (whose on-board coffin she is returning home from Berlin) and panic at the loss of her child on board, an ostensibly “safe” environment—though supercharged with 9-11 paranoia, exploited through the presence of stereotypically sketchy, paranoid Middle Eastern bait-and-switch fall guys—make for hysteria-in-a-vacuum Hitchcockian drama. Especially when neither the crew nor the undercover Air Marshall, Carson (Peter Sarsgaard), recall having ever seen the 6-year-old Julia (Marlene Lawston).
The set-up works. In fact, the film made me realize why I don’t like thrillers (apart from the fact that being tense for that long makes me cranky.) Anxiety or fear as a tool is what makes propaganda so effective. And film, as a tool of propaganda, is so effective because we swallow any premise if it’s pretty enough. Willing suspension of disbelief and all that. We swallow the relatively feeble premise in Flightplan—including the fact that Foster’s character is an aeronautical engineer who knows every square inch of the plane’s blueprint—and extrapolate to the inevitable air-tight, red-herring, false conclusions because the film is so stylistically seductive. The opening credits are gangstered from the Flavor of the Month Club, of course, complete with the requisite Psycho-killer qu’est-ce que c’est crossfades, backmasking and regulation heartbeat dub, but cinematographer Florian Ballhaus’ camera work was nicely done (including a really sweet three-sixty, John Gaeta-like, around Foster at a climactic confrontation) and the sanitized, indirect lounge-lizard lighting was as polite, cold and removed as the “understanding” stares of the flight crew. Foster, looking beautiful and mature (she might want to consider dropping the “Jodie” in favor of “Alicia Christian” at this point), ratchets up the psychosis effectively right out of the starting blocks and the film builds so nicely we’re not sure who’s crazy, her or us, but the discontinuity of hysteria ultimately leads to the film unspooling after reel two and devolving into a TV movie of the week. Aaaaaand… cue the requisite expository menace at the end by the Nasty, who for some reason hasn’t killed the little girl, who takes the handcuffs off Foster when logically it’s the last thing he should do, yadda yadda yadda… you’re not going to see this film so there’s no spoliation.
Foster’s magna-cum-laude-in-English-from-Yale intelligence was severely under-utilized, resourcefulness being substituted for real-life wits in the script, even if she was working it emotionally (although she probably should have pulled a coupla all-nighters to get really fragged.) She’s not a Method actor so I’m guessing she can just turn on the juice from living all that behind-the-scenes pathos as a child star at Disney’s. Peter Sarsgaard, on the other hand, appears to have spent a little too much time talking Stanislovski in Malkovich’s trailer on The Man in the Iron Mask and not enough time preparing his performance. Sean Bean’s heavy breathing is understandable around babe flight attendants Fiona (Erika Christensen) and Stephanie’s (Kate Beahan) couch cushion lips but pilots, who are notoriously blasé—their usual last words before face planting a Boeing into a mountainside a resigned “Oh shit…”—would not get that excited about a child gone missing in “a tube” (as one of the passengers refers to the jumbo jet.) Greta Scacchi’s gear-changing cameo as a therapist who’s asked to talk it out with the seemingly delusional Kyle is the last bit of maturity before the film crashes and burns and the emergency slides are engaged… even the actors couldn’t take the ending seriously.
If Jodie Foster hadn’t replaced the injured Nicole Kidman in Panic Room (2002) the fright plan might have been acceptable, but back to back it’s a bit much (and then the part of Kyle was supposedly written for Sean Penn, too—but casting must have seen him in The Interpreter and changed their minds.) The international casting and director would imply euro-financing and the typical resulting muddle unless the director is tyrannical, which is where the constructive criticism for the director comes in: Robert—can I call ya Bob, schatzi?—you’re a wonderful craftsman, next time insist on final cut so you don’t have to settle for the industry clichés and the dead air.
By: Chris Panzner
Published on: 2005-12-05