Phoebe in Wonderland. In reading reviews of this movie, one might get the idea that it’s about a little girl who finds refuge in an imaginary world, that of Wonderland as in Alice’s Adventures in…; it’s not, as one unfortunate parent discovered at the screening I was at as she left with her children, frustrated at waiting for the whimsy to start. It’s actually a very, very serious character study of a little girl with a form of tourette’s. Once you get past this little misunderstanding, you are left with a very moving, at times very powerful, story of a person caught in a nightmare world where her actions are not her own; but the worst part of it is that she doesn’t know why. Though at times a tad arch, much of the film is wondrous, especially the scenes where Patricia Clarkson’s drama teacher is helping the children discover how to perform a play based on Lewis Carroll’s classic tale of a little girl who follows a rabbit who’s late and finds herself trapped in a world she can’t find her way out of. The acting is first rate and is one of those films where recognizable actors are not recognizable (like Campbell Scott). It has its problems. The fantasy sequences are not all that well thought out (the characters assigned to people to play in Phoebe’s fantasy Wonderland seem arbitrary); the subplot revolving around the principal’s desire to get rid of the drama teacher seems over manipulated, unmotivated and unnecessary; and the ending is way, way, way too After School Special (it also doesn’t help that the ending seems to imply that Phoebe’s parents will now live happily ever after when the surface of their immense problems has barely been scratched). What perhaps is the weakest aspect of the script is how long it takes Phoebe’s mother (Felicity Huffman) to figure out what is wrong. Everybody in the audience knows almost immediately, so the mother’s protestations that it’s her fault seem forced in the presence of something so overwhelmingly obvious; her road to discovery is therefore not suspenseful or dramatic, but annoying at times. It’s also not quite believable that the father (Bill Pullman) has no idea the extent of Phoebe’s problems; this would require that Phoebe never showed any real symptoms whenever he was around, which seems a bit too convenient. But in spite all the negatives, this is an impressive first feature filled with heart and soul by writer/director Daniel Barnz.
Shuttle is one of those films made on a small budget, but not on small talent (like Splinter, The Blair Witch Project and Following). Often these are first, or near to first films, and fall into a commercial genre (horror, thriller, suspense, etc.). One might even call them thesis films because they are often more an audition for bigger and better things hopefully to come rather than something the writer and director made for its own sake. Shuttle is certainly very effective. The suspense and thrills never let up. The characters are above average for this sort of thing (Tony Curan, the main bad guy, also stars in the highly recommended Red Road). And there are enough plot twists that will keep you saying “oh, shit” (even if most of them are predictable). It also has one of the problems that films like these also have when it’s written and directed by the same person: it’s effective, but not always believable while watching it, and unbelievably unbelievable after it’s all over and one actually starts to think about it (like Christopher Nolan’s Following). The main plot problem here is that the bad guys’ plans get a bump at the beginning, requiring them to improvise their way out of an unexpected situation. But their improvisations are so brilliant, so well planned, they couldn’t have been improvised; and some of them (like the stopping by the store for supplies) weren’t even necessary (just go to the store later when everyone’s locked down or disposed of). It also depends on such things as cell phones not getting a signal (never convincing) and the director willing to sacrifice realism for Friday the 13th type thrills (the main bad guy is resurrected from the dead more than Jason Voorhees himself; he’s stabbed a couple of times; battered around; involved in two car crashes; is shot; has lost an immense amount of blood, yet can still overcome a much younger and by the end, much stronger person with little difficulty). There’s also something a little unbelievable about how long the bad guys have gotten away with their actions and the number of victims they’ve abducted; at the risk of sounding politically incorrect, it’s one thing when the victims are prostitutes and drug addicts of some ethnic minority living in ghettos; it’s another when it’s all white girls in their twenties from middle and upper middle class backgrounds; the implication here is that four to ten women a week could have been victimized and the police have yet to do a thing about it. But when all is said, there is much talent done here in Edward Anderson’s direction and the film is quite worth seeing. The problem is that as a writer, Anderson may not have all that it takes and it might be even more interesting to see what he does with someone else’s script next time around.