Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Water, water everywhere...

...and not in the way the Ancient Mariner meant it. More like the Biblical great flood way. I was in dear old New England this past weekend, where it rained to the point that the governors of both New Hampshire and Massachusetts had to declare a state of emergency. Appropriately, I saw two movies that were filled with water imagery and water-driven narrative. That, however, is the only point of commonality between them.


directed by Wolfgang Peterson
starring Josh Lucas, Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss, Emmy Rossum, Jacinda Barrett, Mia Maestro, Kevin Dillon, others

I’m still scratching my head at the notion that an opening weekend gross of just under $50 million makes “Mission: Impossible III” a box office disappointment. Be that as it may, this much I know: after grossing less than half that amount and failing to unseat “MI3” as the #1 movie in its first weekend, “Poseidon” is a bona fide, unmistakable belly-flop. Like its eponymous ship, it will likely stay afloat and visible for a little while longer before it sinks inevitably into the depths of obscurity. This is what everyone thought would happen to “Titanic,” nearly a decade ago.

It’s a pity, because between the two, the leaner, meaner “Poseidon” annoys me much less than James Cameron’s witless, waterlogged, wildly overpraised aquatic opera did and still does. Besides, “Poseidon” isn’t a bad flick of its kind; in fact, I enjoyed it, apparently more than most critics did. But then, I’ve never seen “The Poseidon Adventure,” and I tend to enjoy movies that take place on big boats. There’s something inherently fascinating about the spectacle of human beings at sea—something about watching them maintain that floating microcosm of human society and that hairpin balance between navigating and submitting to the elements, that at its best, adds up to truly riveting drama (think “Master and Commander”) or at the least, makes for a good ol’ popcorn & disaster movie.

“Poseidon” falls into the latter category. Directed by boat-movie veteran Wolfgang Petersen, it operates on a refreshingly simple premise: Gigantic vessel, engulfed by even more gigantic wave, flips completely over; a small band of passengers attempt to make their way up to the ship’s bottom, which is now at the top. (No social symbolism there, alas: the have-nots are in no better position than the haves.) In this remake, the passengers and their back stories have been rewritten for the present times. There’s the leader, Dylan (Josh Lucas), a professional gambler and former Navy man; Ramsey (Kurt Russell), his chief competitor in heroics and survival knowhow, who happens to be an ex-fireman and former mayor of New York; Ramsey’s nubile and highly irritating daughter (Emmy Rossum) and her Ken-doll boyfriend/fiancé (Mike Vogel); a single mother (Jacinda Barrett) and her scrappy young son; a despairing gay architect (that may sound like a joke, but it isn’t) played by Richard Dreyfuss; a lovely, claustrophobic stowaway (yes, that’s a deliberate contradiction) played by Mia Maestro; and a couple of other, even less developed characters.

None of these folks evolve beyond those thumbnail sketches, but it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the visceral thrill of watching them struggle to move up, up, up, past sealed doors and hatches and across yawning chasms, desperately trying to outrace fire and water—especially the latter. And Petersen knows how to provide the thrills, and how to pace them. “Poseidon” clocks in at substantially less than two hours, largely because it spends hardly any time in the preamble. (That’s probably a good thing, given that the dialogue is nearly as tin-eared as anything in the first half of “Titanic.”) We are given just enough time to catch a glimpse of the luxury liner and the New Year’s Eve celebrations on board, a dash or two of suitably heavy foreshadowing, and a brief introduction to all of the major players before the master of ceremonies shows up: the 100-foot “rogue wave,” which materializes mysteriously out of a calm sea. From there, as the phrase has it, all hell breaks loose.

The actors acquit themselves respectably for a movie of this nature, with Lucas and Russell well matched as the men of action and Dreyfuss somewhat subdued as the man of thought. Josh Lucas is shaping up to be this decade’s Matthew McConaughey: groomed as a potential Next Big Thing, he’s likely going to have to settle for something less, especially in light of his record of summer bombs (“Stealth” one year, “Poseidon” the next). Luckily for him, he looks like Paul Newman, but has a more feral intensity that serves him well in this role. Among the women, only the stowaway, Elena, really registers as the outsider whose fear of small, enclosed spaces makes the situation her worst nightmare.

But this being a disaster movie, the real star of the show is the water—the water that capsizes the ship and then proceeds to infiltrate and submerge its entire interior. In a movie without villains or pursuers, water fills both roles far more effectively than any humans would. Relentless and omnipresent, it serves as a constant reminder that the very element man needs and uses most can also overwhelm and obliterate his very existence. The most sobering, and at the same time bracing, aspect of “Poseidon” is that it’s less about man reasserting control of the elements than it is about man narrowly escaping their inexorable power. In a world still recuperating from last year’s natural disasters, that theme may have an unintended resonance.



directed by Deepa Mehta
starring Lisa Ray, Seema Biswas, John Abraham, others

At pole’s ends from the would-be blockbuster, the other water-themed film I saw this weekend had a much more serious objective than to supply thrills, chills, and spills. “Water,” the final chapter of director Deepa Mehta’s elements trilogy, is clearly intended to educate as well as entertain. For the most part it balances the two goals pretty well, but too often it has the feel of a consciousness-raising documentary slapped onto the framework of a Bollywood movie. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the fusion isn’t seamless.

“Water” is set in India of the 1930s, when Gandhi was just beginning to catch fire and the country was still mired in a mixture of British imperial culture and deep-rooted religious traditions that, to put it tactfully, were less than liberal in their treatment of women. The traditions examined here are those of Hinduism, which, in its strictest form, treated widows as unclean outcasts. At the film’s outset, eight-year-old Chuyia (Sarala), who doesn’t even remember being married, witnesses the death of her husband and finds herself deposited unceremoniously at an ashram for widows on the banks of the Ganges, never to see her family again. After a short bout of weeping, Chuyia adapts to her new home, for she’s a spunky, inquisitive little thing who fortifies herself with the daily fiction that her mother will come for her, if not today, then definitely tomorrow.

Seen through her eyes, the ashram takes on a vaguely fairy taleish quality, complete with a maternal goddess, Shakantula (Seema Biswas), a beautiful angel, Kalyani (Lisa Ray), an old crone (Vidula Javalgekar) who craves only sweets, and a fat, ugly, tyrannical ogre named Madhumati (Manorama) who presides over the place and is the only one who actually gets to eat sweets. Overlaying the child’s perspective, of course, is our own view of what amounts to little better than a gulag, filled with half-starved women with shaven heads and threadbare robes. And there’s a still darker twist to this forgotten world, which is apparently not altogether forgotten in some quarters: Kalyani, the only widow who’s allowed to keep her hair long and luxuriant, is sent covertly across the water to prostitute herself to wealthy men, while the proceeds, ostensibly for the upkeep of the ashram, principally end up fattening Madhumati’s purse and stomach. Ironically, it’s Kalyani who retains an undimmed faith in the very religion that oppresses her, while the outwardly pious Shakantula inwardly seethes against the unfairness of it all. The natural beauty of the river (which was actually shot in Sri Lanka, as protests and death-threats forced Mehta out of filming on location) only accentuates the division, in the name of faith, between the widows and a society that simultaneously rejects and exploits them.

But “Water” takes a turn into the land of star-crossed romance (pure Bollywood, or for that matter Hollywood, territory) as Kalyani, following the will o’ the wisp Chuyia, runs into Narayana (John Abraham), a young Brahmin law student who happens to be as pretty as she is. Narayana, as it turns out, is a follower of Gandhi, and suddenly becomes doubly inspired to free the widows—or at least one widow—from their grim plight. The love story is sweet and rather slight, and doesn’t quite hold up under the symbolic weight that Mehta ends up placing on it. There are glimpses of some interesting tensions between Kalyani’s faith in religion and tradition and Narayana’s liberalism (equal parts British education and fledgling Gandhism) that aren’t fully developed until the film’s tragic climax. Far more powerful, if even more melodramatic, is the galvanizing effect of the latter on Shakantula. Biswas is riveting as the one woman who’s inspired by the predicament of her fellow widows, rather than her own, to question the forces that have entrapped them all. Wisely and fittingly, the movie ends with a close-up of her face, caught in a wonderfully nuanced mixture of hope, fear, and underlying intuition that she is watching the dawn of a new era—in which she herself may be too old to take part.



Blogger LVJeff said...

Great review and perspective of Water there. Methinks you went a bit easy on Poseidon though ;-)

1:39 PM  

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