There's been a spate of films about putting a small community under quarantine in recent years, but none has combined as many different phobias in one closed-off area. Check it: fear of seclusion. Fear of farms. Fear of mad cow disease. Fear of genetic tampering. Fear of science run amok. Fear of childbirth, dying, lactose intolerance they've got about every barnyard fear and dairy dread covered here. And it works.
A superb cast of five expertly plays out this dark melodrama about an Irish cow farmer who unwittingly allows his bovines to become part of a biotech experiment that's supposed to generate fuller-bodied calves but instead sees them growing prematurely even getting pregnant without leaving the comfort of the womb. Lots of icky monster-hatching a la Alien and stomach-stirring infections ensue. To say anymore would give the churned milk away for free. Seek this movie out. It's suspenseful, unpredictable and (insert groan) udderly terrifying. Serene Dominic
This documentary's title is intriguing but, as we learn, sarcastic. The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair is one of many personal stories to emerge from the fiasco of the U.S. government's terrorist prisons. We just had The Road to Guantanamo, which chronicled the wrongful imprisonment of the Tipton Three in Guantanamo Bay, and The Prisoner continues in the same vein. Even more Kafkaesque in its absurdity, the film tracks Iraqi journalist Yunis Khatayer Abbas and his two brothers from their inexplicable capture through eight months of living in squalid conditions at Abu Ghraib, and for what?
The U.S. military claims they followed a lead that Yunis was building a bomb in an attempt to assassinate Tony Blair, though no evidence supporting the claim turned up. Nonetheless, Yunis was thrown into Abu Ghraib's Camp Ganci, the lowest-priority division of the prisons.
The film, directed by Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein (Gunner Palace), is a scathing indictment of the thoughtless, callous, herd-them-up policy that causes resentment around the world. It isn't a matter of the directors siding wholeheartedly with the suspected terrorist, a criticism leveled by some at Michael Winterbottom about The Road to Guantanamo. In fact, there seems to be no defense whatsoever for his imprisonment, judging by the U.S. military official interviewed for the movie and the internal memos leaked to the filmmakers containing phrases like "completely innocent."
This shouldn't be a surprise for anyone closely following the dirty actions of these prisons, but it puts a human face on the harrowing statistics, and a unique face at that. After a critical article about an Iraqi embargo in the late '90s, Yunis was imprisoned and tortured by Uday Hussein. A photojournalist, Yunis was on the front lines of the U.S. invasion and occupation, documenting the destruction that's presented here in a photo essay culminating with the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue. While locked up at Abu Ghraib, he continued to be a reporter, documenting the deplorable conditions on underwear and cigarette foils. Not only does Yunis appear to be nonthreatening and anti-Saddam, he seems an essential component in bringing the truth to the Iraqi people.
Tucker and Epperlein spell out this fascinating story freshly. Rather than dramatizing the prison conditions with actors, the filmmakers rely on a graphic novel-style translation, adding comic-book pulpiness to a story that sometimes feels like a morbid fantasy.
Yunis is able to laugh about his imprisonment in hindsight, free again to photograph his beloved country. As for the alleged target, it's safe to say that the now gone-from-office Tony Blair isn't worried about Yunis Khatayer Abbas. John Thomason
Prison of the Psychotic Damned
Not all films aspire to greatness. It's a good thing to remember when you start to watch a movie called Prison of the Psychotic Damned. So, you lower your expectations, dim the lights, curl up on the sofa and press play. Still, in the back of your mind you entertain hopes that you'll be pleasantly surprised or at the very least get a snicker from a guilty slice of cinematic cheese. After all, a movie entitled Prison of the Psychotic Damned must have some redeeming quality, right?
Uh, wrong. Like some steaming pile of shit squished into the component tray, this film will likely stink up your DVD player for months. The paper-thin premise five people investigate a haunted and abandoned train station for an alleged documentary is a shamelessly straight cop of The Blair Witch Project and the underrated Session 9. Writer David Williams must have balls of steel to plagiarize two greats and then burp up a script this inept. Dialogue is laughable when it ought to be serious, infantile when it should be funny. Actors deliver singularly schlocky performances, and episodes of MTV's Fear or the Sci-Fi Channel's Ghost Hunters have better scares and camerawork than what director David Kann offers here. Sure, Prison was made on the cheap in little more than a week but do you really want a cinematic black hole that will mercilessly suck exactly 1 hour and 23 minutes of your life away? Paul Knoll
Big Easy to Big Empty
Subtitled "A Greg Palast Investigation," Big Easy to Big Empty is a whole lot of the titular reporter's floppy hat and accusatory sensationalism and not much else. Filmed a year after Katrina, this skimpy half-hour piece projects much of its ire at Innovative Emergency Management the firm contracted to assist in the evacuation which was filled with Republican cronies and, accordingly, had no idea what it was doing. Newsflash: The South is well-stocked with incompetent political toadies, and deals fall into their laps all the time. While Palast is proud of himself for showing up at the IEM offices without an appointment and for getting various people to attest to the company's lack of experience, he does his own thesis a grave disservice by the thin reporting and jumbled constructions he uses to push it forward. That thesis? Letting New Orleans drown was part of a White Power Real Estate Plan. While nobody will debate that deep-rooted racism infects the Louisiana power structure or that the government's post-storm response was half-retarded, half-evil, Palast pushes the envelope of credibility by filling his latest "investigation" with hollow bomb-throwing rather than substantial reportage. Jason Ferguson
Critics ravaged this movie when it played at Cannes, so much so that it never received proper stateside distribution. For most of us, this Tartan release is the first we'll see of The Bow, South Korean director Ki-Duk Kim's follow-up to 2004's astounding metaphysical experience, 3-Iron. The film proves that there are few better visual storytellers in the business. The Bow comprises an elegant repetition of motifs aboard a rickety boat in the middle of an ocean, where an old fortuneteller lives with a 16-year-old girl he's raised on the dinghy for a decade. Grooming her to be his wife and using a bow and arrow to ward off horny men who pass by, he plans to marry her on her 17th birthday, but the appearance of a kind younger man puts a wrench in the plans. The girl never speaks (as in 3-Iron), but this time her silence feels more like a stunt. Add to this the smooth-jazz soundtrack, and you have nowhere for those spellbinding images to go except for Kim's self-indulgent conceit. John Thomason
Send comments to [email protected]