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Oh crap, that’s not snow, is it? (l-r) Cruise and Fanning in War of the Worlds.

An Almost Perfect Apocalypse
By Ann Morrow

War of the Worlds

Directed by Steven Spielberg

It’s the 21st century, and time has caught up with the science-fantasy novels of H.G. Wells. In Steven Spielberg’s grippingly cataclysmic version of Wells’ The War of the Worlds, the special effects are impressively futuristic—it’s the storytelling that lags behind. But that isn’t noticeable until the final stretch. For more than its first half, the film is a spectacle in the best sense of the word, building a convincing, worst-case scenario for the imminent demise of the world. Tom Cruise is efficient, if not spellbinding, as Ray, a divorced heavy-machinery operator with two kids he barely knows. Tough and fast on his feet, Ray is definitely the kind of guy you want to hang with when the concrete starts to crack wide open.

Ray is given his kids for the weekend when his ex-wife, Mary Ann (Miranda Otto), and her second husband go to visit her parents. The kids, teenager Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and grade-schooler Rachel (Dakota Fanning), are none too thrilled to be dumped off with their distant, grease-monkey father in his run-down house. And then lightning lights up the glowering skies. Lightning, but no thunder. And as Ray notices, the wind is blowing the wrong way. This deftly ominous shift from family dysfunction to unnatural phenomena—lightning strikes and keeps striking—ably sets up the coming apocalypse. The streets buckle, crack, and implosively cave in. A church splits in two and crashes to the ground (an astounding CGI simulation), and something rises from the crater, something mechanical, mammoth and malevolent. Ray and his neighbors stand around in stunned fascination, but those who run fare no better than those who are rooted to the spot by fear. When the towering tripods fire their heat rays, all that’s left of the townspeople are their clothes, which flutter to the ground with an eerie finality. By now, most audiences will be pinned to the back of their seats, and probably will stay there until the aliens arrive.

To his intense consternation, Ray can’t just fend for himself. Adding almost fatally to his own fear and confusion is Rachel’s heedless terror and Robbie’s panicky impulse to jump into the fray. When Rachel wails for her mother, it gives Ray a constructive course of action, and he hotwires a car and heads for Boston, pretending, for his sanity, that this one city will be spared even though, as a traumatized news reporter shows him on a monitor, the alien tripods are exterminating the human race almost everywhere on the planet. At a ferry crossing in Athens (the down-homey Catskills town serves admirably as a movie location), Ray encounters mob hysteria in a genuinely disturbing sequence. The director’s use of panic, from Ray’s tightly controlled fear to the brink-of-madness terror of other characters, is his most effective ploy, and it does produce shivers of the dread and despair that have been associated with The War of the Worlds ever since Orson Welles’ infamous radio broadcast in the 1930s. Though the film has minimal dialogue and character interaction, this mostly works in its favor. Much of the interpersonal tension is created by an attention to frenzied detail, such as the reappearance of Ray’s next-door neighbor, a single mother, at the ferry, or the well-meaning couple who try to take Rachel away with them.

When Ray finds refuge in a basement inhabited by a shell-shocked home owner (Tim Robbins), the story gets to its point, which is the chilling extremes that Ray is willing to go to protect his offspring. His newfound paternal instinct transforms him from reluctant parent to wily savage, and his bond with his children deepens the more he proves himself as a capable protector. And then the aliens show up, and the film runs out of steam with an almost audible hiss. Looking like a cross between Alien and the fleeter dinos from Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, the aliens are a big letdown from the creatures that we’ve imagined within those tripod death machines. Spielberg falls back on some familiar ploys, such as the clever hunting techniques of the raptors in Jurassic Park and the stalking mechanical eyes from Minority Report. But the biggest problem is the genius of the story’s decrescendo ending, which can easily turn anticlimactic, as it does here. One of the reasons is that Spielberg’s use of post-9/11 imagery is left without resolution. That the characters would assume, at first, that the alien invasion is a terrorist attack is natural and part of the contemporary mindset. But the inclusion of grief-stricken placards and memorials takes the analogy too far, and is indicative only of the lack of imagination that overtakes the film. It seems like the aliens’ creeping red effluvium (the one less-than-convincing visual) is sucking the life out the filmmaking along with the landscape.

And to cast Morgan Freeman as the astronomer narrator—whose scientific explanation is crucial to the ending—is a brainless mistake, especially coming so soon after Freeman’s voice-over for Million Dollar Baby (rightly criticized for being too evocative of his work in The Shawshank Redemption). Why not just hire a British guy as a stand-in for Wells? The only element of the conclusion with any impact is a visual lifted from the 1953 classic. So much for the progress of 21st-century cinema.

Face the Music and Dance

Mad Hot Ballroom

Directed by Marilyn Agrelo

In the spirit of Spellbound, which followed a group of youngsters as they traversed the world of spelling-bee championships, Mad Hot Ballroom takes viewers on a similar jaunt, but this time the sport is ballroom dancing and the kids a much more disparate, often highly vulnerable stable of competitors.

Directed by first-time filmmaker Marilyn Agrelo, Mad Hot tracks the students at three New York City schools, where ballroom dancing has been a mandated course for the past several years. Each year, schools throughout the boroughs compete to bring home a towering trophy, symbol of their commitment and overall excellence. In true “road to the big game” fashion, we are immediately thrust into different cultures, each of which plays almost as important a role in the futures of the children as does the music or instructors.

There’s the Tribeca school, which features precocious kids and a deeply sensitive, highly annoying teacher who worries about the competitive nature of the activity. There’s the Washington Heights school, PS 115, which is populated mostly by Dominicans and other Latinos. And there’s the Brooklyn school, by far the most diverse population, featuring Asian- and African-Americans as well as working-class Italian-Americans. The filmmakers intersperse scenes of the kids practicing with those in which they talk candidly about the opposite sex, the future, neighborhood hazards like drugs and violence, and, of course, the big competition.

There’s much to be admired in this documentary, most of which comes from the kids themselves. However, the most fascinating, even disturbing thing about it seems to come about accidentally; it’s in how both kids and teachers of the runners-up teams discuss their respective losses. “But we did everything right!” bemoans one bespectacled girl, while a well-meaning but dumb teacher tries to soften the immediate blow of defeat with advice more suited to a Lamaze class, like “Breathe deep!”

Mad Hot Ballroom tells us much about our love-hate relationship with competition, and about the way we, as a culture, have indoctrinated our youth with the idea that if they “do all the right things,” they will succeed or win whatever prize is up for grabs. We worry that giving them any indication that life doesn’t always seem fair—that sometimes we lose no matter how hard we try—will crush their gentle psyches. Readers of my Kicking and Screaming review will know how I feel on that score, but as for this movie, it deftly, if unintentionally, displays the preposterousness of this ideal.

By the movie’s end, even as we’re rooting on the remaining teams, one can’t help but feel shortchanged by the dearth of coverage of the main competitor—in this case, the Forest Hills team. We catch a brief, almost scathing glimpse of them pre-competition, but during the “big show,” the camera remains solidly on the “home team.” Moreover, we hear parents and administrators narrate how much the ballroom-dancing program has changed the lives of the kids, many of whom had major academic and behavioral issues beforehand, and while we hope that this is true, it would have been nice to allow the competitors themselves, the bright-eyed kids, have the chance to share their thoughts on their moment in the sun. In missing this opportunity, Agrelo robs us of a bigger, more heartfelt payoff.

—Laura Leon


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