Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Flightplan DVD Review

DVD Review by Alan Green

When I first heard the pitch for 'Flightplan', I was impressed: a woman's daughter goes missing during a trans-oceanic airline flight. I had to admit I looked forward to seeing how this premise would play out, and for the most part this movie lives up to the potential of this idea--at least for the first two acts. But then it gives over to a queer mix of realistic human drama and Hollywood contrivance. The resulting third act is a mish-mash that might be described as 'flighty-earnest', whose plot devices are a bit unfinished around the edges. On the other hand, Jodie Foster is so committed to a sincere performance you could almost call the result fierce--and it is this sizzle which one focuses on, not the loose threads of plot. In general 'Flightplan' is a smooth-running, old-fashioned psych-thriller--a crafted homage to the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.

Ms. Foster portrays Kyle Pratt. After a European-style prelude by German born director, Robert Schwente, we find Kyle sitting alone in a subway station watching trains go by and looking quite haunted. Her husband meets her and they walk home in the silence of a snowy night. When they get home Kyle looks around and finds her husband is not there, and only one set of footprints in the snow. She is still traumatized by her husband's death days earlier after he fell off a rooftop, and to comfort herself, imagines he is still alive. It is this emotionally frail character that must, along with her six-year-old daughter Julia, transport her husband's body from Germany to the United States to bury him and start over.

This is the set-up for a classic Hitchcock story design: a protagonist is thrown into a stressful situation, then is wrongly accused, and left to question their sanity. Kyle falls into this role head first as, three hours into the flight, her daughter disappears. After a routine tour of the plane turns up nothing, she asks for help from the flight attendants. They dismiss her as an over-worried mom, and she demands to see the captain. When she pounds on the cockpit door she is restrained by the flight marshal, Gene Carson (played by a sleepy-eyed Peter Skarsgaard).

Here is where Ms. Foster turns on her trademark intensity and there isn't a frame of the remaining movie in which she lets up. Her performance is the most appealing part of 'Flightplan'--she employs such preternatural focus and channels so much personal pain that it makes one sit up and pay attention for fear she will reach through the screen and dope-slap you. The result is that Kyle Pratt seems so real and her circumstance so compelling it's both exhilarating and exhausting to watch as events unfold.

As Act II plays out the script avoids whiz-bang Hollywood devices in favor of focusing on Kyle's emotional trials and how she deals with each new challenge. However, this approach is no more believable than common tricks used in so many psych-thrillers. For instance, when the pilot, captain Rich (Sean Bean) informs Kyle that, as it turns out, it is impossible for her daughter to ever have been on the plane at all, Kyle protests, but in the end, accepts this. In fact, she even accepts the kind counsel of a therapist (played beautifully by Greta Scacchi), who convinces Kyle that she has been imagining her daughter was with her as a way of dealing with the pain of her husband's death. While well crafted in the writing and convincingly executed in the acting, this turn of events is not believable. This holds true for all the plot events remaining in the movie. It just makes you squirm in your seat.

Events from this point on alternate from fatiguing to exasperating. Mere moments after accepting her daughter is not on the plane, Kyle reverses herself and becomes convinced she is. Then, she begins a frantic search. Well as it turns out, Kyle is a propulsion engineer. Not just any engineer--she is the one that designed the engines of the plane she is flying in. She uses her detailed knowledge of the plane's design to access various sections of the craft, including electronic controls and guidance systems. After causing a panic and endangering the lives of everyone on board, Carson is instructed to arrest Kyle.

This sets the stage for a preposterous plan by the bad guys to convince captain Rich that Kyle is in fact a terrorist who will blow up the plane unless millions of dollars are deposited in a Swiss account. Well, captain Rich buys this at face value and has the airline deposit said cash (which takes a few minutes) then has Carson placate Kyle until the plane can land. And, we haven't even gotten to Act III yet. Suffice it to say the contrivances keep coming, we keep squirming in our seats, and Kyle keeps beating the odds.

On the technical side, the music cues, editing, and lighting all seem haphazard. Camera framing especially seemed always just a bit off. Even the sound effects were metallic and too loud. Mr. Schwentke quotes camera shots directly from two of Ms. Foster's previous movies--'Contact' (directed by Robert Zemeckis) and 'Panic Room' (directed by David Fincher). Unfortunately, neither of these are as good the originals, and one wonders what Mr. Schwentke's plan was. Zemeckis and Fincher display greater technical acumen, and Schwentke would have been better off coming up with something that wouldn't invite comparison to their work. As for the script, there are problems with motivation. The antagonist(s) never explain themselves. Except for wanting money we never know who they are or why they subject poor Kyle to this torment. In the end the desire for money is just not enough to support their actions.

It's Jodie Foster's resolute sincerity that sees us through. She convinces us, sometimes with blunt force, that Kyle is real and somehow, some way, this might just happen to us on our next flight. It's hard to imagine that Kyle Pratt's character could have been portrayed nearly as well by any other actor. 'Flightplan' is as suspenseful as Hitchcock's work, just not as believable. Ms. Foster's performance makes 'Flightplan' a cool, emotionally compelling diversion.

If you liked this review there are others at MoovyBoovy.com

Directed by Robert Schwentke; written by Peter A. Dowling and Billy Ray; director of photography, Florian Ballhaus; edited by Thom Noble; music by
James Horner; production designer, Alexander Hammond; produced by Brian Grazer; released by Touchstone Pictures and Imagine Entertainment. Running time: 93 minutes. Rated PG-13.

With: Jodie Foster (Kyle), Peter Sarsgaard (Carson), Sean Bean (Captain Rich), Kate Beahan (Stephanie), Michael Irby (Obaid), Assaf Cohen (Ahmed), Erika Christensen (Fiona) and Marlene Lawston (Julia).

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