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Entries in true story (2)

Friday
Mar012013

Phantom

Phantom, which is inspired by largely mysterious, but believed-to-be-true events, runs into a very significant problem right off the bat. It takes place almost entirely on a Soviet submarine and all of its inhabitants are Russian, yet all the actors, or all the major players at least, are American. Despite an opening title card sequence that sets the time and place in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, it takes some time to realize that these characters aren’t actually American, partially because nobody even tries to hide it, seemingly forgetting that they’re, you know, actors and should be capable of crafting a character of a different ethnicity. This is just one of many blunders in Phantom, a tepid thriller filled with empty dialogue and clichéd plot turns.

Ed Harris plays Demi, the captain of the vessel, and his mission is vague, written on a piece of paper and locked inside a safe onboard. Additionally, he has a few straggler technicians that have been sanctioned to accompany them for reasons unknown, the leader being Bruni, played by David Duchovny. Bruni is the forceful type and demands he follow his orders, despite a chain of command that places Demi at the top. Eventually, Bruni’s sinister intentions become clear and the boat splits into two sanctions. An underwater battle is about to ensue and the victor will either save the world or destroy it.

Phantom sounds exciting. A war between friendlies turned against each other inside of an underwater metal tomb full of claustrophobic spaces and unforeseen consequences should lead to the type of tension that causes nail biters to file them down until their fingers start bleeding, but such is not the case here. Up until the final sequence of events when the tension is admittedly palpable, the most exciting thing that happens is a slight bump with a cargo ship. Such an event is surely dangerous in real life, but it doesn’t make for a particularly exciting movie.

Perhaps aware of this, the filmmakers give Demi a haunted past, a past that is burdened with bad memories and difficult decisions. This gives way to hallucinations that recall that troubled past. There are fires, floods, collisions, blood and more, most of which make sense given that these moments he’s recollecting took place during a doomed expedition, even if they are superfluous to the actual story at hand. Now, the ghost dog that jumps out at him, where that came from is anybody’s guess.

Due to some surprisingly committed performances, particularly from the great Ed Harris, Phantom is at its best when it isn’t talking. The actors say more with their eyes than they ever do with their words, especially given that much of it is drab Navy dialogue that all but the already underwater initiated will find boring. There’s lots of plotting courses, ordering dives, readying the weapons, reaching thermocline and more and most of this dialogue is yelled into the intercom to the crew rather than spoken through character interaction. This type of dialogue will fail to resonate with most and it doesn’t do much to help craft compelling characters either.

Furthermore, the editing of the film fails to keep its place consistent, particularly in the placement of certain characters in relation to others. When one quietly sneaking sailor rises out of a cover in the floor to an imposing boot, one naturally believes he’s accidentally stumbled onto an enemy, but in reality, he’s come full circle and is back with his comrades. To make matters worse, most of these characters are extraneous in nature, so it’s difficult enough to separate them into good and bad camps, much less keep track of what they’re doing and where they’re heading.

Phantom is a mess. At times, particularly during the final sequences (at least before its hokey ending that plays up the crew’s sacrifices), it’s an enjoyable mess, but its few positives certainly don’t outweigh its general sloppiness. Submarine thrillers aren’t exactly oversaturating the market, so if that’s your cup of tea, I suppose Phantom will scratch that itch, but everybody else can steer clear knowing they aren’t missing much.

Phantom receives 2/5

Friday
May202011

The First Grader

Movies based on true stories are a normalcy. We see so many of them these days that it would be unusual to see them disappear. Most of them, however, do not match the inherent inspiration present in the actual events. They tend to flounder, relying too much on filmic techniques to draw out the emotion rather than simply letting the story do it itself. National Geographic’s latest release, The First Grader, is a prime example of this.

This true story follows an 84 year old Kenyan man by the name of Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge (Oliver Litondo). Just recently, the government declared “free education for all.” Hearing this, Maruge decides to enroll in primary school with the children in his village. Despite her initial reluctance, Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris) allows him to come in, seemingly inspired by his dedication to learn. All he wants is to know how to read, but the African people are none too happy with his inclusion in the school, which is already underfunded and forcing five children to every one desk. They believe the young ones need all the attention because, after all, they are Kenya’s future.

There’s no doubt in my mind that The First Grader’s intentions were good. It wanted to share the importance of learning. It wanted to show how it’s never too late to start and, as Maruge puts it in the film, you never stop learning until “there’s dirt in your ears.” It’s a wonderful and truthful message, one that is needed in a world that seems to be getting more apathetic and lazy. But the message crumbles under the weight of an overly dramatic and tonally inconsistent screenplay.

As the opening text of the film tells us, Maruge was a part of the Mau Mau Uprising and fought against the British Army in the 1950’s as they came onto their land and took everything he ever loved away from him, including his wife and child who were both killed in front of his eyes. Listening to Maruge detail the tragedy and seeing the sadness on his face is more than enough to convey the turmoil he went, and is still going, through. However, The First Grader constantly relies on unnecessary flashbacks, some literally within minutes of each other, to show the horrific events, which too often take emotional control away from the more than capable actors. The film doesn’t so much tell its story as it does force it down your throat.

This approach presents a lack of focus. It jumps back and forth so much, and at seemingly random times, that you never truly settle into either of the two stories, despite their intrinsic relationship. While much of this is simply due to the written presentation of the story, much of it also comes from the haphazard editing, which presents many continuity problems. An example of this comes from one sequence that begins at school, then cuts to a group of random people talking about Michelle Obama, then to Maruge sitting in a dark room, then to a flashback before finally winding up back at school. Too many of the scenes existing outside of the classroom could have been edited together in any way and the effect would be the same.

As you can tell, The First Grader is a messy movie and its lack of focus pervades its entirety. About halfway through, it switches its focus from Maruge in school to Obinchu dealing with the backlash from teaching him. Because of all these problems, the film feels disjointed, never fully able to connect its pieces together in a satisfying manner. Something that should be inspiring comes off as much less.

Even though you might not personally feel joy for the old man as he learns to read and write, you’ll see it in his face and no doubt think about how truly amazing his story is. It’s just a pity we don’t get to see it.

The First Grader receives 2/5