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Review: Poseidon

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Forgive me, for a second, if I gush: I consider Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, In the Line of Fire) to be one of the greatest action directors world cinema has ever produced. That will immediately discredit me in the eyes of many readers — especially those who chortle whenever anyone mentions such misunderstood classics as The Perfect Storm and Troy. And I know Poseidon is doomed in the eyes of many, who see it as a money-grubbing attempt to mix the melodrama of Titanic with the whiz-bang-boom of a summer action movie. That may be true, but attention must still be paid: The Master is at work.
    The story — borrowed from Irwin Allen and Ronald Neame’s disasterrific 1972 action opus The Poseidon Adventure — is about as bare-bones as it gets. Big-ass luxury liner hits a rogue wave on New Year’s Eve and flips upside down, and a ragtag band of plucky passengers (in the new version, they’re led by a stolid Kurt Russell and a freaked-out Josh Lucas) makes its way through the burning and the drowning and the screaming and the dying, trying to escape. James Cameron brought to Titanic an engineer’s eye: The drama there came from all the ways its writer-director imagined a ship might begin to come apart after taking on a massive hole. While Poseidon provides more than its share of stuff cracking and exploding (I am resisting the urge to call it Das Upside-down Boot), Petersen has more of a humanist’s perspective. He’s interested in the ways characters bounce off each other to create suspense. Alas, it’s for better and worse: A scene where one woman’s claustrophobia prevents a dramatic escape through an air duct is harrowing, whereas some unfortunate early moments with Kevin Dillon as an annoying, drunken gambler are just godawful.
    I suppose, like several other Petersen films, Poseidon will be remembered as a flawed but ultimately effective Hollywood action thriller, its success chalked up to zillion-dollar special effects and a streamlined running time, the kind of film destined for endless reruns on TNT years from now. And I’m sure it’ll get dissed for being just another cold and calculating summer blockbuster. But I’d like to differ — Poseidon, for all its technological sturm und drang, is a movie that lives and dies by its characters. Many will disagree vehemently, but it’s a solid example of action done right. — Bilge Ebiri

Review: Light From the East
Light From The EastIn 1991, Amy Grapell was one of several actors from the downtown New York experimental theater La MaMa who traveled to the Ukraine — then still part of a Soviet Union in the midst of Gorbachev’s reforms — to participate in a play based on the life of Les Kurbas, a legendary stage director who was killed during Stalin’s purges. She brought along her cameraman-boyfriend, Christian Moore, to document the proceedings. When they found themselves in the midst of an attempted (and briefly successful) coup by the Communist Party’s more reactionary elements, who tried to shuttle Gorbachev off to his dacha, Grapell and Moore must have felt that they’d stumbled inadvertently on a riveting story. And they had: While the first part of Light from the East is a serviceable account of the stage production, intercutting with flashes of Kurbas’ life and career, the tension builds up considerably in the second half. As the tanks begin to roll through the streets, people begin to wonder if the “openness” of Glasnost was just some kind of fever dream.
    Why the fifteen-year lag time, then, between those events and the release of Grapell’s compact, engaging documentary? To be sure, the footage does an excellent job of conveying the tension felt by its subjects — Ukranians and Americans alike — as they watch news reports of the Moscow coup, and later empty out into the streets to protest for independence. But there’s also a certain shapelessness to the film that might have prevented it from adding up to much back in the early-to-late-’90s — as if Grapell and Moore didn’t really intend to make a film, but just document an interesting period in their lives. Today’s video doc revolution has made it safe for such formless art. Light from the East isn’t going to blow anyone away with its singularity of vision, but it is a hypnotic time capsule back to the Cold War’s final death rattle. — Bilge Ebiri
Review: Refuge
RefugeBuddhism is really hip in the west! This news flash comes courtesy of Refuge, a competent but slight documentary on Buddhism and East-West relations. Not to suggest that staying on top of hot trends is really the job of documentary cinema, but Refuge isn’t really a substantial look at Buddhism’s popularity in the States — at less than an hour, how could it be? Given the presence of a hyperactive Martin Scorsese, it comes off more like an enjoyable bonus featurette off the DVD of Kundun. All that said, Refuge is admirably earnest, and it avoids the closet-orientalist tendency to mysticize the East, acknowledging that contrary to what your yoga instructor might tell you, the Eastern Hemisphere is not inherently more spiritual or sincere than the Western. It’s also hard not to be charmed by the Dalai Lama, interviewed herein. Any religious leader who admits that he’s far from infallible gains a lot of credibility. The guy should be in pictures. — Peter Smith
Date DVD: Life in the Undergrowth
Life in the UndergrowthAbout halfway through Rumor Has It — right as Jennifer Aniston and her maybe-father Kevin Costner were making out in the middle of a gala, after a trip in his private helicopter — I became convinced the stars were in fact machines. Like Disneyland’s animatronic Abe Lincoln or figures in the crown of a cuckoo clock, the two wobbled and teetered and froze. Like too many recent romantic comedies, the movie lacked any trace of an animal instinct. That’s why you’d do much better on a date with the new DVD of David Attenborough’s amazing BBC nature series Life in the Undergrowth.
   Attenborough is himself a bit sexy in an upper-crusty English kind of way, but it’s the leopard slugs who steal the show. About twenty-five minutes into the first episode is an insect sex scene like none you’ve ever seen. What? You’ve seen grizzly bears humping in Yosemite? Cheetahs banging at supersonic speed in the Sahara? Spiders in sixteen-legged sex acts? Bah! You haven’t seen anything like this. Two viscous-looking, tendril-antennaed sex freaks crawl out onto a tiny tree limb and then entwine while hanging upside down on a dangling rope of mucus until their hermaphroditic sex organs emerge from behind their heads, blossoming into this gelatinous flower twice the size of their bodies. The Wachowski Brothers couldn’t dream of a special effect as weird and hot as this. Watch it on a date and it will make even your wildest sex trick seem tame by comparison. — Logan Hill

   

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