northwest of Seattle: Pacino in Insomnia.
by Christopher Nolan
Having seen the intelligent and critically successful 1997
Norwegian film Insomnia, on which this one is based,
I wondered why Christopher Nolan, whose work in Memento
and Following has been refreshingly original, would
want to direct a remake. The answer must be Al Pacino and
the relocation of the action to Alaska, which affords no fjords
but plenty of atmosphere.
Pacino stars as LAPD detective Will Dormer, who is ostensibly
on loan with his partner, Hap (Martin Donovan), to a small
Alaskan town to assist in solving the murder case of a high
school girl. But the underlying reason for their relocation
is to escape heat being put on them by Internal Affairs for
a procedural faux pas that Hap committed. While not directly
involved in Hap’s haplessness, Dormer has a past transgression
of his own that may come to light should Hap’s guilt be discovered.
While they may have made errors in assuming that the ends
justify the means, the two are good cops who are dedicated
to their jobs. This is especially true of Dormer, well-named
for the allusion to the French word for sleep, who craves
sleep but suffers from insomnia—for a gradually increasing
number of reasons.
First, there is the particularly troubling murder of the girl
by a culprit who, Dormer is certain, will strike again. Then,
there is the matter of Hap’s decision to turn himself in to
Internal Affairs, a move that creates great tension between
him and Dormer. Matters are further complicated by an error
in judgment that causes the death of an innocent while the
police pursue the killer through a treacherous, and resonantly
metaphoric, fog. Finally, there is the killer himself, a soft-spoken
fellow who strikes up a Conradian secret-sharer relationship
with Dormer. And throughout it all there is Alaska’s persistent
sunlight, both disorienting and accusatory.
In the original Insomnia, the protagonist was played
by Stellan Skarsgård, a competent if not terribly sympathetic
actor. As a result, the film could be viewed with an almost
objective scientific curiosity. Not so here—and it is an improvement.
Pacino creates a tremendously compelling, morally conflicted
character who is caught under the relentless floodlight of
the midnight sun. From his first appearance, Pacino looks
worn out by life, and he wears that ravaging nobly, like the
battered crown of a tragic hero. The onscreen disintegration,
coupled with the rising action that Dormer also precipitates,
is hugely engrossing, and his dance with the devil is as gripping
a duet/duel as the thriller genre has provided in recent history.
So steeped is Pacino in his character that the performance
takes us on a journey of mythic significance. Of all his contemporaries
who showed great promise some 30 years ago, Pacino shines
the most brilliantly in his latter years, and there is more
excitement in his weary eyes than in a galaxy of digital special
He is ably supported by Robin Williams, who must be desperate
to escape the cuddly, benevolent characters he has played
of late. At first, when we see him as a reclusive author,
there is a troubling sense of familiarity. But due to his
own serous craft, we soon forget this and become absorbed
in his subtly nuanced characterization of Dormer’s alter ego.
In a role that could turn trite in lesser hands, Hillary Swank
contributes nicely to the suspense and helps to underscore
and heighten the high-stakes moral drama that Pacino is playing.
So, too, does Maura Tierney as the manager of the lodge where
Dormer tapes his window shades shut in futile efforts to escape
the merciless sunlight.
by Michael Apted
Breaking the complex code system used by the Germans to scramble
their communications was one of the great British contributions
to the Second World War. Enigma, from a novel by Robert
Harris, tells a fictionalized version of this accomplishment.
The story may be inaccurate as history, but it is perfectly
fine as an espionage melodrama seasoned with politics and
The Germans used something called an enigma machine to encrypt
their messages before turning them into Morse code for wireless
transmission. It looked like a typewriter jazzed up with lights
and wires, and created a code nearly impossible to break.
Yet, with the help of one of the machines retrieved from a
German submarine, it was broken at a top-secret facility in
the British countryside by a team of oddball scientists and
mathematicians led by Tom Jericho (Dougray Scott).
As the film begins, however, the Germans have upgraded their
enigma machines and abruptly changed their code. Jericho has
gone through his own personal setbacks as well, having fallen
head over heels for willowy blonde Claire Romilly (Saffron
Burrows), another employee at the large code-breaking campus,
and had a nervous breakdown when she dumped him. Jericho is
brought back from medical exile to work on breaking the new
code, but he seems more interested in renewing his pursuit
of Claire. Claire, however, has just vanished, creating suspicions
that she may have been an enemy spy.
All of this action, along with totally unexplained scenes
of German soldiers excavating a mass grave at an undisclosed
location, is presented as a complex series of flashbacks.
The strategy seems to be to make the information as difficult
for the audience to digest as the messages created by the
enigma machines. It makes an entertaining mystery, as Jericho,
joined by Claire’s roommate Hester Wallace (Kate Winslet),
tries to figure out what happened to Claire. At the same time,
Jericho must work with his equally eccentric colleagues to
crack the new code before a convoy of merchant ships are sunk
by German U-boats in the middle of the North Atlantic. Watching
over all of this is the slick, suave British intelligence
agent Wigram (Jeremy Northam, stealing scenes with breathless
ease). Wigram sensibly suspects everyone.
Director Michael Apted does a good job of keeping the tension
high, and he captures the weird, insulated atmosphere of an
oddball, non-military group doing vital military work. Tom
Stoppard’s screenplay keeps a fine balance between the competing
plot lines and keeps the larger issues in perspective. Stoppard
does see that, after all, it’s hard to care about the neurosis
of one lovesick genius when hundreds of sailors are in imminent
danger of being blown to bits.
As a character, Jericho is more to be pitied than sympathized
with, and Scott wisely does not play for sympathy. Claire
is deliberately undefined, as the filmmakers want to keep
us guessing as to whether or not she is a traitor. Good for
the plot, I suppose, but it doesn’t ask much more of Burrows
than to look pretty and take her clothes off now and then.
Winslet is charming as the underused, undervalued cryptographer
who grows to love snooping about and playing Nancy Drew.
In the end, the various plots are resolved with lightning
speed, as the action plays out from the North Atlantic to
the north of Scotland. If some of the mysteries turn out to
be a bit too familiar and pat, and if the climax seems to
borrow unimaginatively from Alfred Hitchcock, the letdown
isn’t hard enough to spoil an otherwise entertaining little
Comes Love, Then Comes Payback
by Michael Apted
Slim (Jennifer Lopez) is a waitress at a diner, where she
slings hash with Ginny (Juliette Lewis), her wisecracking
gal pal. Abandoned by her father as a child, Slim is leery
of men, even when encouraged by Ginny to play along with the
attentions of a cute customer (Noah Wyle). Turns out the would-be
hot prospect is a womanizer of the worst kind, a fact that
is chivalrously exposed by Mitch (Bill Campbell), a customer
in the next booth. Slim and Mitch (rhymes with rich) instantaneously
embark on a storybook romance that is underscored with redundant
titles such as “The Conquering Hero.”
In Michael Apted’s efficiently hash-slinging Enough,
Slim, an Everywoman with low self-esteem, is transformed by
a homicidal marriage into an empowered and avenging Force
To Be Reckoned With. The plot is laid out like a storybook,
with the couple’s milestone scenes (joyous wedding with approving
in-laws, setting up house in the ’burbs, the birth of a baby
girl) following in sequence like blocks of action in a comic
book. This marriage, it’s made groaningly obvious, is too
good to be true; and sure enough, Mitch reveals his sinister
side at Slim’s bedside, cradling his newborn daughter with
unhealthy possessiveness. When Slim discovers Mitch’s infidelity,
her ideal husband responds by beating her up. “I’m a man so
it’s no contest,” he says smugly. It’s a statement calculated
to have women audience members groaning in recognition, yet
like most of the button-pushing dialogue, it scores a direct
What makes Enough more absorbing than its predecessor
in the trusting-wife-psycho-husband genre, Sleeping With
the Enemy, is the casting. Lopez is warmly believable,
conveying both vulnerability and gumption with radiant naturalism.
Campbell is Lopez’s equal in low-key believability, imparting
an electric sense of menace into a weary cliché: Mitch is
yet another Master of the Universe who carries his killer
instincts from the construction site to the dinner table.
“I’m a very determined man,” he says over potatoes au gratin,
threatening Slim with the same suave self-assurance that attracted
her in the first place.
With the collaboration of her diner friends, Slim and her
daughter go on the run, but there’s nowhere to hide from Mitch’s
legal—and illegal—connections. The odds are stacked against
her because Mitch has money and she doesn’t, expanding the
conflict from a case of domestic abuse to a battle between
inexhaustible wealth and very limited funds. Her cuddly ex-boyfriend
(Dan Futterman) in Seattle is no match for the high-priced
goons Mitch sends after her, but it isn’t until Mitch takes
a whack at their little girl that Slim decides she’s had enough
and takes matters into her own hands—hands that she learns
to hold in front her face, poised for action, in self-defense
classes taken with a trainer who imparts Zen-like lessons
on self-confidence along with ducking-and-feinting maneuvers.
cheats on its own grippingly deployed clichés by bringing
in Slim’s long-gone father just in time to bankroll her empowerment
sessions, but then again, personal trainers with skills in
metaphysics don’t come cheap. When payback time arrives (Mitch’s
trendy taste in concrete walls proves to be a real liability),
Slim’s hard lessons provide just enough excitement to make
Apted’s hash worthwhile.
Stallion of the Cimarron
by Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook
we ever going to get to see a film in which all members of
the U.S. Cavalry aren’t depicted as shifty, violent psychopaths,
and in which all the Native Americans aren’t shown as nothing
short of saintly children, or childlike saints? Call it revisionist
history, call it p.c. movie-making, but it stinks on both
counts. Which doesn’t say much for the new DreamWorks production,
Spirit—Stallion of the Cimarron, which tries to capitalize
on our reeducated sense that white man always bad, red man
Even for my children, who are only 4 and 6, such simplistic
storytelling is boring. To some extent, so too was the animation,
which was supervised by Kristof Serrand, and seems more reminiscent
of My Little Pony than any of the latest and best animated
films (Shrek, Jimmy Neutron, etc.). Thankfully,
my kids didn’t seem to pick up on the weird aspects of Spirit
(voiced by Matt Damon) and Rain (presumably mute) draping
their long-maned necks over each other in a manner that recalled
those romance-novel book jackets for which Fabio modeled.
Rain may not have a bodice to rip, but the intent is all there.
Oh, yeah, the story. Suffice it to say that Spirit is, like
the name suggests, of nature and all things bigger than man,
and he spends the majority of this slim story trying to escape
from his imprisonment at the hands of the U.S. Cavalry. Like
the stallion, Lakota, brave Little Creek (Daniel Studi) does
all he can to escape the white man’s burden, presumably so
that he may be reunited with his utterly peaceful folk, in
a village that seems more museum diorama than Cimarron encampment.
So noble is this brave that, when he discarded the bridle
that the soldiers had harnessed Spirit with, I was shocked
that the filmmakers forgot to depict Little Creek deftly melding
it into some useful gadget from which the whole tribe could
Despite one thrilling chase through canyons reminiscent of
John Ford’s beloved Monument Valley, most of the movie is
utterly lacking in excitement and tension. Damon does an OK
job avoiding comparisons to Mr. Ed, but even he can’t surmount
nonsensical monologue, such as when Spirit says to himself,
“I hoped and prayed that they would be alright.” Shrek I can
imagine digging wax out of his ear to use as a candle. The
Monsters, Inc. critters I can buy punching a time card.
But a horse, animated or no, asking for supplication on behalf
of the herd? This is almost as bad as the sound of Bryan Adams
straining his gravelly chops to convey the pain and emotional
anguish of our guy Spirit, in a series of power ballads each
successively worse than the last. Hard to believe that any
movie or song would have me yearning for the likes of Cher’s
“Half Breed,” but Spirit earns that questionable accolade.