Film Reviews 

Wednesday, Oct 25 2006

BABEL See film feature

THE BRIDGE Eric Steel’s The Bridge opens with a captivating coup de cinema: real footage of a man hurling himself off the Golden Gate Bridge. Steel apparently spent all of 2004 photographing the bridge, filming many of the 24 jumpers who leaped to their deaths that year. In addition, he interviewed many family members and friends of these suicidal individuals — including one man who miraculously survived the 225-foot drop. These talking-head interviews are intercut between stylish, time-lapse shots of the San Francisco Bay and post-card images of its iconic suspension bridge. The result is an attractive, well-intentioned film that is surprisingly dull and uninvolving. Unlike Tad Friend’s 2003 New Yorker article “Jumpers” (which inspired Steel’s project), The Bridge has no authorial perspective or editorial grace. Steel resists conventional nonfiction techniques (he doesn’t use a narrator or voice-over) but his story simply doesn’t speak for itself. More testimony than documentary, the film’s dry, clinical style seems intentional; but the personal histories recounted demand more intimacy — and greater context. Without it, the impact of the startling scenes of real people literally on the edge of death is diminished. Alex Heffes’ tasteful but bland Thomas Newman–esque score further distances the viewer from the lives depicted and from any deeper ideas on the psychological mysteries of suicide. (Monica 4-Plex; Playhouse 7) (James C. Taylor)

CATCH A FIRE See film feature

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CONVERSATIONS WITH GOD Less a rousing religious tale than a fawning rags-to-riches biopic, Conversations with God recounts how a lost soul became a literary sensation after he asked God for a sign and ended up writing several self-help best-sellers about their supposed exchange. Henry Czerny plays real-life author Neale Donald Walsch. Director Stephen Simon introduces Walsch at the height of his celebrity in the mid-’90s with the publication of his first God book, but then focuses on the lean years that preceded the writer’s notoriety when a serious car accident and unemployment wiped out his finances and forced him to live in a park scrounging for food. At first, Simon seems to be delivering a sermon on the importance of respecting the poor, although the film’s lethally squeaky-clean tone ensures that the homeless people Walsch encounters all have good hearts and exhibit not a speck of mental problems or drug addiction. Soon, however, God’s higher purpose presents itself, and we become trapped in a hokey, unexceptional tribute to Walsch’s ascendance from unhappy bum to wealthy, New Age-y spiritual messenger who somehow manages to sell more than 7 million books while spouting groan-inducing insights along the lines of “don’t work a job you don’t like.” Beyond a lack of enthralling characters or convincing plotting, though, what’s most glaringly missing in this self-promotional marketing tool is, of all things, God, who gets only a bit role as Walsch’s muse in a few scenes. He really oughta fire His agent. (Selected theaters) (Tim Grierson)

CRUEL WORLD A disgruntled former reality-TV-show contestant (Edward Furlong) takes over the camera-rigged house where he was humiliated and sets up a new contest, exclusively for his entertainment, where losing participants get killed. It’s amazing it took this long for a horror movie to employ such a premise. As with the best classic slasher setups, Cruel World allows us the vicarious pleasure of seeing annoying archetypes get decimated (the would-be mack daddy, the sexually manipulative Southern belle, the smart-ass gay guy, the wholesome country boy, etc.), but director Kelsey T. Howard (Scorched) doesn’t take things as far overboard as he needs to, at least at first — the kills aren’t graphic enough, you don’t fear for the leads, and the tropes of the reality-TV genre aren’t parodied as effectively as they could be. But once the story gets going, things do become a bit more inventive: Furlong is more fun to watch as he goes over the top, and the late introduction of Daniel Franzese as his demented brother is a good call. Watchable, but not quite a cult classic. (The Bridge; Cinespace) (Luke Y. Thompson)DEATH OF A PRESIDENT Manufactured history guarantees a manufactured controversy: Gabriel Range’s Death of a President, which docu-dramatizes the 2007 assassination of George W. Bush, has been preceded by a long, raucous fanfare. Excoriated on talk radio, damned as a snuff film, banned by two theater chains, the British production has also garnered celebrity dis-endorsements. Dramatically inert, but a minor techno-miracle, Range’s movie is a faux documentary with fake talking heads and seamless digital effects. Invented characters are gumped into actual news events and vice versa. The editing and audio sleight of hand are nearly as impressive. Bush is but a special effect. Death of a President is really a movie about 9/11 — an essay on a national tragedy used to create an even greater tragedy. It’s also a movie about itself — a demonstration of reality shaped to fit a particular hypothesis. But the film’s warning about blow-back has its own unintended consequences: What follows the assassination is so awful that anyone might be excused for leaving the theater convinced of the urgent need to keep Bush alive. (Selected theaters) (J. Hoberman)

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