'Amelia' doesn't get far off the ground

Amelia Earhart vanished over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937. She was attempting to circumnavigate the globe at the equator, something that had never been done before. Her success depended not only on her flying skills but on the ability of Fred Noonan, her navigator. On the Pacific leg of the flight, he would have to find a mere speck of land, Howland Island, in a body of water so vast that there would be no second chance. Told that it was dangerous, perhaps reckless in the extreme — there was a good chance she would run out of fuel — Earhart was committed to trying. She left Miami on June 1 and began what would be her final journey.

Earhart was driven to fly, consumed with an unrelenting passion to be in the air, no matter the craft, no matter the challenge. She broke records, flew solo across the Atlantic in a gorgeous, red Lockeed Vega 58, landing to her delight and surprise in Ireland.

Her passion for flight was unequivocal. What the film "Amelia" is unable to do is capture that bright, burning need to be aloft. Had the movie focused on flight, her desire since childhood to pilot airplanes and explored the serenity she found aloft with the discomfort she found on land, then this would have been an examination of her as a person and not just a quickly glimpse into the life of this highly commercialized heroine.

Hillary Swank, portraying Earhart, is a dead ringer for the fresh-faced, tossled-hair, androgynous flier. But for reasons known only to the screenwriters, Swank, an accomplished Oscar-winning actress, is never asked to stretch in the role. Earhart was controversial, she was self-absorbed, single-minded and independent in a time when women were too often seen and not heard. In the years leading up to World War II, most women were still home in the kitchen; of course, the war changed everything and women in pants and leather jackets, building airplanes and then flying them, become far more common.

"Amelia" misses a wonderful opportunity to say something interesting about this woman who was so adored, so famous, whose disappearance — without a trace — remains all these 70 some years later a subject of intense fascination.

Bright Star

"Bright Star," set in the early years of the 19th century, not long before the reign of Queen Victoria, is a film of compelling contradictions. While it tells the story of an intense love affair between the Romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw), 23, and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), 18, it is framed by an abiding restraint. It was a time of multi-layered formality and an abiding public reticence regarding overt displays of emotion.

And so restraint sets the tone and the pace of director Jane Campion's film. "Bright Star" is a deliberate character study of two people who cautiously circle each other, the only thing filling the space between them, initially, are words. Fanny is curious about Keats and his poetry, the things he's written and published, and he is taken with her outspokenness and willingness to aggressively spar with his fellow writer, Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), with whom he is boarding in a house next door to Fanny's.

Keats is penniless, pursuing a path that will only marginally support him; never a wife or family. And Fanny is smitten, opening herself to love for the first time, soon consumed by emotions that build like an approaching storm.

Writer Campion is unafraid to allow the film to build slowly, as if offering an antidote to the frenetic and intense Hollywood romances that so often grate. She assumes that the audience that finds "Bright Star" (the title taken from a Keats poem about Fanny) will be drawn to their relationship as it begins, falters and begins anew.

Of course, history has already disclosed the fact that their love story will not end well. But then this is a story about a journey and not about a destination.

Photographed by Greg Fraser, "Bright Star" is stunning, some scenes so lovely and lush they are breathtaking. Campion (or perhaps Fraser) relishes windows, and often Fanny sits or lies near a window as the light, a mixture of milk and gold, streams in, a whisper of wind lifting diaphanous curtains. There are long, languid shots of spring meadows and summer fields, a quilt of green-yellow grass and deeply blue wildflowers. Or trees, covered in winter snow, their beauty stark and lovely and luminous. Film can indeed be an art form.

A brief word about the performance of Abbie Cornish: As Fanny, she displays a range that is remarkable given that she must sustain a reserve that is unrelenting and repressive. What she is feeling, the intensity of her emotions, must be conveyed by her carriage and her expressions: a look, a quick exit, a long moment seated on a chair holding a cup of tea, standing in a bedroom, her forehead pressed against the gray wainscoting, her fingertips caressing the wood. It isn't until act three that she unleashes the emotions of frightful loss and the fact that her love will now and forever be unrequited. A reality that all but overwhelms her. It's a superb performance.

Paranormal Activity

"Paranormal Activity" is a phenom. An event. It's seismic. And who knows when it will happen again. But it will. It's also a faux movie.

Made for some $16,0000 by director Oren Pell, it was shot in one week in his home in San Diego with a handheld camera.

Picked up by Paramount and eventually released on 159 screens in 44 cities, the film has generated phenomenal word of mouth. And the promos have been brilliant. The trailers for "PA" show no footage from the film; instead, just shots of the audience watching the film and being terrified. Mouths drop open. Eyes go wide. Arms are raised. What are they freaking out about? Buy a ticket and find out.

Is the film truly and wickedly scary? Beyond creepy and crawly with hair on the arms standing on end and shivers moving up and down the spine? Not really. And if shown in a lighted room to, say, five people? Not scary at all.

But here's the thing: Like "The Blair Witch Project," or "Cloverdfield," this film is a study in communal film watching. If you ever assumed that sitting in a crowded movie theater isn't a collective experience, well, believe. Moviegoers (teens, twenty-somethings) arrive fully prepared to be scared. They're eager to be launched straight out of their seats. And when seen with a full theater, well, the tension is palatable, a gestalt of emotions.

All this is to say that very little has to happen in "PA" to make audiences scream. And they do, loudly, and mainly because they want to. Not because of anything concrete that is taking place on the screen.

Tangentially, "PA" also demonstrates moviegoers' willingness to suspend their disbelief regarding all things paranormal at the drop of a hat. No matter the evidence to the contrary, no matter that no one has ever had a sit down with a spirit of any kind, no matter that ghosts have yet to make a seriously documented appearance. We eagerly embrace all things spooky. We peer into the dark of night and shudder. We wake long before dawn and listen, wondering, who or what might be out there? That's why films such as "PA" have a very low threshold to get over.

Is it a remarkable event for the filmmaker? You betcha. It's the equivalent of being struck by lightning while waiting outside the Paramount Studios for a producer to emerge to hand out a big break. What are the odds? But it does happen. And "PA" is proof.

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