Politics at the Movies

(Unexpected) Politics at the Movies
By Tony Sheppard

Big Miracle
Directed by Ken Kwapis

There’s one film this week that has noteworthy political content and the most surprising thing is which film it is. From a casual distance, “Big Miracle” looks like a very generic animal rescue story, essentially “Free Willy” x2.5, as assorted people try to help two adults and one juvenile whale escape from behind an ice barrier in the Beaufort Sea. It’s based on a true story of an event that captured national attention in 1988, and the film makes use of news footage from that period, with every major network anchor commenting on the situation as it unfolds.

It also embellishes the story with various formulaic characters and circumstances, including a love story, a somewhat precocious local boy, and an evil “big oil” tycoon. The basic storytelling is no less unsubtle than the recent “The Muppets,” for example. However, what’s surprising, and where the movie manages to shine on some level, are the moments during which several of the major players’ motivations are explored.

It would have been very easy to show involvement from the White House as being a matter of national pride or jingoism, especially in a movie aimed mostly at kids, but it’s described as much more of a compromise of conflicting interests.  This was the end of the Reagan administration and we’re given staff who want to send Reagan out with an episode that might help cover for a bad environmental record, while also boosting (the senior) Bush’s election chances, but only if it won’t go bad and cause an even larger stain on the legacy. Similarly, we’re shown conflicts involving the use of a Russian icebreaker ship (in reality there were two) and standoffs between the political interests and Greenpeace (as embodied by an activist played by Drew Barrymore).

Another episode depicts the oil company boss (Ted Danson) being manipulated by his wife into realizing that he can appear friendly to the environment in a way that will probably make it easier to rape it later. It’s a retrospective, narrative example of ‘greenwashing’ a company’s image at a point in time that’s almost as early as the phrase was coined.

This might actually be a good movie for kids, not just as predictable entertainment, but as a way of educating them about how the media and various political interests operate. We see rival television outlets and personalities more interested in ratings than the story, and conflicts between local and wider cultural perspectives, along with the other interests already outlined. The film also delivers little after-the-fact nuggets, like the quadrupling of Greenpeace membership following the incident.

As a story, it offers relatively little that hasn’t been done multiple times before, although this time there might be a little nostalgia for those parents who remember the story. But as a surprisingly nuanced examination of questionable motives, especially for a children’s movie, it exceeds expectations.

The Woman in Black
Directed by James Watkins

Daniel Radcliffe has made nine theatrical movies in the last decade and eight of them have been episodes in the “Harry Potter” saga. So it’s hardly surprising that when he first appears onscreen in “The Woman in Black,” you find yourself expecting his Hogwarts sidekicks to show up, or a wand to appear in his hand (not helped by an early train journey). But that slight disorientation passes and he turns in a fairly solid performance as the young father who has been sent by his London firm to settle the paperwork of a dead woman who lived in a fabulously spooky house on the far side of a remote tidal causeway.

Outside of the “Potter” films, he’s proved himself to be a versatile performer, probably more lauded on stage than on the big screen, but also willing to throw himself into almost anything as demonstrated in a recent “Saturday Night Live” (including playing the part of Casey Anthony’s yorkie). In interviews, he’s described “The Woman in Black” as simply being the best script he had read at the time he chose to get involved. And it’s a very interesting project, not just for a prospective lead actor, his fans, and genre aficionados, but also for filmmakers and those who are intrigued by the way films are made.

This is a creepy film. I’m not an easily scared person but there was no shortage of squeals and jumpiness among the audience at the press screening. Which is only to be expected from a film about disappearing children and a haunted house. But what’s noteworthy is how that level of creepiness is achieved. There are virtually no elaborate special effects in this film – it’s almost exclusively an outcome of camera angles, makeup, and timing. This is a $17m production that, in the hands of a different production team could very easily have cost two or three times as much, without being any better at establishing an atmosphere. And that also makes it a good pick for Radcliffe, who gets to headline a film that doesn’t require him to stray far from his comfort zone, and which won’t need to measure success in hundreds of millions of dollars.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have any problems – it does. You can’t afford to think for more than a moment about almost any of the plot details. And much of the logic appears to have been sucked into the marshes on either side of that tidal causeway I mentioned earlier. It’s a brief film at 95 minutes and it doesn’t pause to explain very much. It’s not a complicated story but we’re never told how or why Radcliffe’s character decides what to do or, for example, why residents of the local village never seem to ponder the possibility of moving away despite it clearly being the worst possible location in which to raise a family.

But for the right audience, none of that will matter. It’s creepy and it stars Harry Potter…err, Daniel Radcliffe.

Other film events:

Tonight (February 2nd) at 6:30pm at the Crocker Art Gallery, there’s a second chance to see the films from Access Sacramento’s 2011 “A Place Called Sacramento” competition – ten short films from local filmmakers about the local area.

The Sacramento French Film Festival hosts its fifth annual Winter Short Film Screening at 6:30pm, February 4th at the Verge Center for the Arts.

After sold out screenings this week, an encore screening of “Question One” about the gay marriage conflict in Maine has been added for 7pm, February 8th at the Crest.

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