National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
At the Movies
Issue Date:  June 18, 2004

Two taut, timely films show cost of war

'Control Room' and 'Strayed' engage; 'Shrek' falters


Given the level of movie entertainment available for children these days, there is reason to be grateful for Shrek 2, as long as this DreamWorks production doesn’t keep parents from reading William Steig’s book to them. Millions have been waiting for the return of the grumpy ogre (voice of Mike Myers), his green-colored bride, Fiona (Cameron Diaz), and their ever-present sidekick, Donkey (Eddie Murphy). There are even some pleasant additions, especially the swashbuckling Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas), who soon becomes another friendly hanger-on for Shrek.

The plot is mostly an excuse for some mild satire of Hollywood, here seen as the pseudo-medieval land of Far Far Away. Despite his qualms, Shrek goes there with Fiona to meet her royal parents (voiced by Julie Andrews and John Cleese). The reconciliation fails because the king is unable to accept an ogre son-in-law and soon begins plotting with the sinister Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders), whose spoiled son, Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), was once engaged to Fiona.

Directed by Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury and Conrad Vernon, the movie provides un-frightening fun for kids who already own Shrek dolls while providing some laughs for adults as well. Banderas and Murphy liven things up with their rendition of “Livin’ la Vida Loca,” but efforts to entertain older audiences with mild bawdiness are less successful. Everything moves at a breakneck pace; by the time of Shrek’s climactic showdown with Prince Charming, we’ve met Pinocchio, Little Red Riding Hood’s Wolf and the Gingerbread Man. Although it’s good to be reminded that ogres have a right to love each other, “Shrek 2” seems more contrived than spontaneous. Its overall effect is far more mechanical than last year’s delightful “Finding Nemo.”

Control Room is an especially timely documentary, a close look at Al Jazeera, the satellite TV news network with the widest audience in the Arab world. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has dismissed Al Jazeera a spreader of anti-American propaganda, but Jehane Noujaim, an Egyptian-born, Harvard-educated filmmaker, observing the station’s operation during the war in Iraq, finds their standards higher than those of most U.S. media outlets. Sameer Khader, Al Jazeera’s senior producer, though clearly suspicious of American intentions, is primarily concerned to develop a critical Arab audience. Too many Arabs, he believes, remain in a state of passivity while the world is changing around them. He plans to send his own children to U.S. universities. Khader rebukes an assistant for broadcasting an interview with an American academic who roundly criticizes U.S. policy. Such material, he insists, must be labeled opinion, not news.

Most of the footage was shot at Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Cent-Com, the media village in Qatar where the U.S. military gives briefings to journalists from all over the world. The location facilitates a series of exchanges between Hassan Ibrahim, a former BBC journalist working for Al Jazeera, and Lt. Joseph Rushing, a U.S. press officer who believes in the American mission in Iraq but comes to recognize the costs of war for Iraqi civilians. Rumsfeld is shown on the TV screen minimizing such losses: “Any war has human costs.” Though Ibrahim is more ironic and sophisticated than Rushing, the latter is extremely likable and honest. Their inconclusive exchanges illuminate the complexity of journalistic “objectivity” and U.S. ignorance of Middle Eastern history and culture.

The documentary captures the uncertainty and confusion of military operations. A moment of special tension occurs when one of Al Jazeera’s correspondents in Baghdad, along with two other journalists, is killed by an American rocket. Inevitably, there is suspicion that they were explicitly targeted. When there is news of American prisoners being taken, the screen shows Rumsfeld righteously insisting, “We expect them to be treated as well as the U.S. treats Iraqi captives.”

“Control Room” is constantly absorbing and surprisingly entertaining, a rare chance “to see ourselves as others see us.” When Khader sums up U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East as “Democratize or we’ll shoot you!” one gets a basic understanding of why it won’t work.

Strayed is a subtle, tightly organized French film that captures the mood of panic between the fall of Paris and its final surrender to the Germans in 1940. It opens on the desperate exodus of people and vehicles heading south to avoid enemy planes that occasionally swoop down and drop bombs. In this stream of humanity the camera singles out Odile (Emmanuelle Béart), traveling by car with her 13-year-old son, Philippe (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), and 7-year-old daughter, Cathy (Clémence Meyer). They rush from the car when planes threaten again; an instant later, their vehicle is a wreck.

When Yvan (Gaspard Ulliel), a lean, self-reliant 17-year-old, suggests they set out through the woods and look for a place to hide, Odile is hesitant but Philippe insists on following Yvan. They find a handsome abandoned house, and Yvan climbs up the side of the building and gets in by breaking a window. The heart of the movie is the gradual process by which four people establish a precarious, temporary home amid the beauty and simplicity of nature. They all expand and grow, but Odile, a schoolteacher who lost her husband in the war more than a year before, remains unable to shed her middle-class resistance to Yvan’s undisciplined approach to life.

Yvan is a survivor, able to catch fish and set traps to get food; he also steals money and weapons from dead soldiers. Philippe is drawn to him as an older brother, but the latter retains an emotional distance. Still suspicious, Odile hides Yvan’s gun, but softens when she learns he is illiterate and hears him use the word “reformatory.” Starting to teach Yvan to read and write, she is both shocked and touched when he suddenly says he wants to marry her.

A film of delicate nuances, “Strayed” refuses to impose a solution or simplify its complex characters. Suddenly, the French have surrendered, and police arrive to remind those who have taken over the boarded-up house that the owners will soon return. Like the audience, its temporary occupants are left to reflect on the complex meaning of their intense idyll in the woods.

Joseph Cunneen is the regular movie reviewer for NCR. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, June 18, 2004

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