Kids get the shaft in two new movies.

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
Sept. 23 2005 12:45 PM

Some Children Left Behind

Kids get the shaft in Flightplan and Oliver Twist

Not without my daughter ... Click image to expand.
Not without my daughter ...

When a studio keeps critics out of a big-budget movie with an Oscar-winning star (in this case, Jodie Foster) until 38 hours before it hits your local multiplex, it's like a neon sign flashing, "BOMB." So, it's always a pleasant surprise when the film turns out to be watchable. Flightplan (Touchstone Pictures) has a routine finish but up to that point is a more than decent thriller—or, given its taut self-containment, a more than decent Hitchcockian "exercise in suspense." The Hitchcock parallel is close, since the movie's premise recalls The Lady Vanishes, in which a young woman on a train notices the disappearance of an old one—who, strangely, no one else remembers seeing. The key difference is that it's a mother in search of her 6-year-old daughter, which occasions the kind of fierce anxiety that lifts the film out of the witty/fun class and into something considerably less pleasant.

As usual with this sort of thriller, the more you know in advance, the less effective it will be: So, let's stick to the premise and the style. The plane (en route to New York from Berlin) has two floors, which means that in addition to those tense tracking shots up and down the aisles, there are tense dolly shots up and down the stairs, not to mention through the innards of the plane. Foster's character, Kyle, is a "propulsion engineer," so she knows her away around said innards—leaving her well-equipped to find her daughter or else, in the event that she's a delusional wackjob, to put the plane in real jeopardy.

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That's a big issue, by the way, since Kyle has just lost her husband (she's bringing his coffin home to the States) and Foster does give off hysterical vibes. This is a gruelingly fine performance: You can always see the wheels turning furiously in her head, trying to catch up with her emotions. Given Kyle's grief state and the plethora of Sixth Sense-style altered-perception pictures, the possibility remains that the little girl was never on the plane.

The director of Flightplan, Robert Schwentke, and his chip-off-the-old-block cinematographer, Florian Ballhaus, make cunning use of color and lighting: As Kyle becomes more distraught, the blue glow of the TV monitors reinforce her sense of alienation, and the harsh white of the galley makes you wince. Peter Sarsgaard, as a fellow passenger who sometimes trails Kyle around the plane, is not too sympathetic—and not easy to read. (Sarsgaard is the perfect suspect/red herring, as he's never easy to read.) A quartet of Arab passengers trade significant looks: Are they on the verge of hijacking the plane, or are they just oversensitized to all the mistrust about? (See fired Daily Tar Heel Jill Bandes' column  that begins: "I want all Arabs to be stripped naked and cavity-searched if they get within 100 yards of an airport.")

Speaking of oversensitized: I'm not sure if it's because I'm a parent of young children, but parental anxiety movies are showing up a lot these days. Even Foster's last thriller, Panic Room, ended up turning on a mother's primal will to protect her daughter. It's often hard to tell if this is something in the zeitgeist, naked opportunism on the part of filmmakers, or a combination of the two, but it's not doing anything for my sleep.

Twisted world... Click image to expand.
Twisted world...

It's also difficult to watch the newest Oliver Twist (TriStar Pictures), directed by Roman Polanski, without one's parental ire rising. No, I don't mean because of Polanski's well-covered history of child molestation: I mean because it's a particularly vivid portrait of 19th-century England's maltreatment and malevolent neglect of children with the misfortune to have lost their parents or been born poor.

Polanski has once again brought his own childhood experiences, as a refugee in a country that wanted him dead, to bear on the storytelling, which results in an atmosphere of intense cruelty. As in Dickens' novel, the orphanage governors and many other guardians of young Oliver (played by Barney Clark) don't simply starve him—they express moral indignation when he haltingly manages to speak up for himself. (The movie reinforces the notion that Harry Potter is a fast-food Oliver Twist—ever-injured on account of his orphan status, but able to get his own back with a wave of the wand.)

Polanski's is a film in which Dickens' somewhat compensatory retribution and rescue have nowhere near the weight of his contempt. Ben Kingsley's grotesque Fagin—a character transformed into a mostly lovable rogue in the musical Oliver!—is once more a nearly toothless cretin and pimp of young girls who might feel a twinge of sadness to see Oliver murdered but would assent to his killing as the cost of doing business. And Jamie Forman's Bill Sykes is less a mythic embodiment of evil than a quick-tempered little dictator with the good luck to live in an era in which women and children weren't used to speaking up for themselves.

Polanski is an expert at unshowy spectacle, but his grim view of the world has a way of evening out the emotional tone and draining off some of the suspense. Rachel Portman's vivid score corrects for this a bit. As Nancy, Leanne Rowe has a moment or two of overacting, but she's suitably tremulous—and younger than her predecessors in the role, which gives her added vulnerability. The most effective counterweight to Polanski's fatalism is young Barney Clark, whose Oliver—although given to few words—is unshakably alive and responsive, even as he's being buffeted violently by forces beyond his control.

From the mailbag, re: my review  of Everything Is Illuminated: "You get paid for all this jew on jew navel-gazing? What a world!"—Helen Hall.

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