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Sleepless northwest of Seattle: Pacino in Insomnia.

Shadows and Light
By Ralph Hammann

Directed 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 effects.

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.

Secrets and Lies

Directed 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 sex.

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 film.

—Shawn Stone

First Comes Love, Then Comes Payback

Directed 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 hit.

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.

Enough 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.

—Ann Morrow

My Little Phony

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron
Directed by Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook

Are 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 always good.

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 benefit.

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.

—Laura Leon

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