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Is that the radio? Keaton in White Noise.

Dead Air
By Ann Morrow

White Noise

Directed by Geoffrey Sax

A quasi-realistic horror film along the lines of the Japanese cult thriller Ringu (and its American adaptation, The Ring), White Noise concerns EVP, or electronic voice phenomena—the psychic phenomena du jour that holds that you can hear dead people amid the static of electronic transmissions. And if you’re really patient and don’t mind a bad case of eyestrain, you can see them, too. Written and directed by TV alumnus Niall Johnson and Geoffrey Sax, White Noise, about a widower who sees his wife’s image in the blur of a detuned TV screen, gradually ratchets the tension to a promising level and then abruptly discards its own internal logic.

Jonathan Rivers (Michael Keaton) is the widower whose adored wife, Anna (modelesque Chandra West from NYPD Blue), vanishes without a trace. Jonathan is a successful architect; this is important because his house, an angular modernist structure in sterile white, provides a key setting, while his income allows him to spend lavishly on TV sets, computer rigs, and other pricey components necessary for a home EVP station. But that comes after he makes the acquaintance of Raymond (weirdly vivid Ian McNeice), an empathetic EVP specialist who has been receiving transmissions from Anna. A day later, Anna’s body washes up on a riverbank. After hours of listening to tapes played backward through Raymond’s high-end equipment, Jonathan is able to make out Anna’s voice. He also hears some other voices, and they are not amused at being intercepted, growling and hissing with disembodied menace. On a monitor behind him, three wraiths flicker in the static like a backup choir for Marilyn Manson. As the film makes spookily evident, communiqués from beyond the grave come at a price.

As the news of Anna’s death plays on TV-news stations, it seems that White Noise may be working around the idea that a dead person’s electronic remains—such as videotapes and phone recordings—could give them a whole new vocabulary with which to speak from the other side—surely an advance over sputtering candles, slamming doors, or waiting for someone to get out the Ouija board. But no, Anna’s shadowy appearances are meant to warn Jonathan of impending doom for other grieving people. To help him interpret her cryptic messages, he visits a clairvoyant, who is alarmed by what she intuits. Jonathan doesn’t seem to believe in good ol’ ESP, however, which puts him in danger.

Most of the film’s suspense comes from the glowering cinematography, which concentrates on cold, modernist interiors and bleak industrial backdrops that are as devoid of comfort as a lunar landscape. Eerie monitor images provide a few jolts, and there’s a well-done scene involving a car crash and a telephone pole that rains down sparks. But after this creepy high point, the film is unable to sustain its mood of ephemeral, paranormal dread, and drifts into increasingly bewildering and out-of-bounds phenomena. Understandably, Keaton’s performance goes flatline.

White Noise certainly isn’t the only movie with a tense and atmospheric buildup that leads to a cut-and-paste resolution. But what does distinguish this post-millennium thriller is how its carefully cultivated atmosphere of sadness turns into a David Fincher-style downer (complete with instruments of torture) simply to provide a shock (actually stock) ending. It’s as if the filmmakers suddenly had their channel changed.


Poor but happy: Vega in Spanglish.

Garbled Languages

Spanglish

Directed by James L. Brooks

The holidays are over, gentle reader, but the holiday movies linger on. If a recent visit to the multiplex is an indication, Adam Sandler’s latest attempt to recalibrate his image, Spanglish, is still drawing respectable weeknight crowds.

God only knows why. The film is smug, self-satisfied and offensive to a degree one would not think possible, even allowing it was made by smug, self-satisfied, overpraised writer-director James L. Brooks.

As the title suggests, it’s all about the mingling of cultures. Or, that’s what it pretends to be. It’s hard to tell; see what you think. Mexican illegals Flor (Paz Vega) and her teen daughter Cristina (Shelby Bruce) are making a new life for themselves in El Lay. Flor, who speaks no English, gets a housekeeper-nanny job with the Claskys. John Clasky (Sandler) is a loving, caring dad who also happens to be the greatest chef in America. His wife Deb (Téa Leoni) is newly unemployed and in full crisis mode. Their kids Bernice (Sarah Steele) and Georgie (Ian Hyland) are more-or-less normal; Deb’s mom, Evelyn Norwich (Cloris Leachman), is an amusing drunk.

Flor and her daughter are well-adjusted, poor but hardworking and delighted to be Latino. The Clasky family are dysfunctional, wealthy and—like most white folks—unaware that they belong to any group other than “us.” That’s about it for trenchant social commentary; every other plot point related to race or class is a hopeless muddle. Example: When John tells Flor that he’s concerned his daughter will be affected by her snooty private school, Flor reassures him that she won’t, because Bernice has “heart.” Yet, when Flor has the same reservations about her own daughter (who has just as much “heart” as Bernice) being among Anglos, the movie presents Flor’s attitude as correct. Does this mean it’s good for white kids to learn to become ruling-class assholes, but Latinos should not? Maybe Brooks is just reassuring himself that his own help are happy as they are.

The film’s biggest crime, however, is wrapping itself in the holy mantle of Protecting The Children. (Warning: spoilers ahead.) Flor is a good mom; Deb is a horror who makes her daughter feel bad for being fat and, also, cheats on her husband. John is a good dad; Flor’s absent hubby is a deadbeat. Flor and John have the hots for each other, the film seems to suggest, because they’re such good parents. But they can’t get together precisely because they’re good parents.

Bullshit. Deb is a complete monster, and easily the most repulsive female character put on film in recent memory. She’s selfish about everything, from other people’s children to her own orgasms—and Brooks, in an act of filmmaking misogyny rare outside of snuff films, allows her no redeeming qualities. None. There is no way that Deb is anything but a plague on her children, and the idea that the Sandler character should stay with her amounts to child abuse.

Brooks wants us to think that his film is “serious” because it honors self-sacrifice and family values. But the characters are so shallow that his serious aspirations are laughable. The only way Spanglish would have worked is if John kicked his rotten wife and her drunken mom to the curb and married Flor. That, however, would have made the film a conventional romantic comedy, and Brooks thinks himself too good for that. He’s a hack who doesn’t have the balls to be himself. That fact needs no translation.

—Shawn Stone


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