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SEVEN DAYS | april 09-16, 2008 | film reviews 43A

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Taxi to the Dark Side HHHHH

I

bush whacked Gibney frames his oscar-winning film with the story of an innocent man beaten to death by U.S. interrogators.

f you think you hold current and former high-ranking Bush administration weasels such as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Yoo and Alberto Gonzales in low esteem right now, just wait until you’ve learned the role they played in institutionalizing torture since 9/11. When you buy your ticket for Taxi to the Dark Side, you may think them liars and bumblers, but you’re likely to leave the Cineplex with little doubt that they’re also war criminals. This is the second essential documentary on the subject of our nation’s recent misadventures in the Middle East with which filmmaker Alex Gibney has been associated. In addition to directing the 2005 jaw-dropper Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, he executive-produced last year’s Oscar-nominated No End in Sight. Taxi, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary, can be readily viewed as a companion piece to that milestone work. No End chronicled the arrogance and foolhardiness behind the scenes at the White House, which resulted in many of the most devastating missteps in the administra-

H = refund, please HH = could’ve been worse, but not a lot HHH = has its moments; so-so HHHH = smarter than the average bear HHHHH = as good as it gets

tion’s conduct of the Iraq war. For its part, Taxi lays out in meticulous detail the conspiracy of leaders at the highest level of government to circumvent detainee treatment protocols in both U.S. constitutional and military law, as well as in international agreements such as the Geneva Convention. Gibney frames his film with an account of the fate that befell a 22-year-old Afghan cab driver by the name of Dilawar. In December 2002, he was taken into custody by U.S. forces after being fingered by a paid informant as the Taliban terrorist behind a rocket attack. Dilawar was transported to the American interrogation center at Bagram Air Base and beaten so mercilessly that five days later he was dead. He had not been charged with any crime. The man who accused him, it turned out, was himself responsible for the rocket attack. While the story of this one man’s unspeakable treatment is an informative study in itself, the director uses the case as a window into a far broader horror. Gibney interviews the New York Times reporters who uncovered the murder, a fellow Bagram prisoner, FBI personnel, various Pentagon officials, former General Counsel of the Navy Alberto Mora, members of Dilawar’s family and the very servicemen who interrogated him. In so doing, he charts the “global migration” of illegal torture techniques from Bagram in 2002 to Abu Ghraib and ultimately to Guantanamo Bay. That progression began with the vice president, who, on September 16, 2001, famously informed Tim Russert of “Meet the Press” that, “We have to work the dark side, spend time in the shadows, use any means at our disposal.” Then there was Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, who publicly dismissed the atrocities at Abu Ghraib as the work of “a few bad apples” while privately signing off on even harsher techniques for breaking down detainees, both physically and psychologically. Next came the lackeys in high places, such as former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and John Yoo, formerly of the Office of Legal Counsel, who earned their keep by finding loopholes and playing word games.

Ratings assigned to movies not reviewed by Rick Kisonak or Margot Harrison are courtesy of Metacritic.com, which averages scores given by the country’s most widely read reviewers.

At the bottom of the chain of command, on the ground, were the young military men and women who found themselves pressured to extract valuable intelligence from prisoners with little or no training and even less in the way of clear, written guidelines. The lack of printed protocols, the film argues, was no accident. The higher-ups didn’t want orders authorizing degrading and inhumane treatment someday to be traced back to them. Taxi is required viewing for anyone interested in the truth behind the controversies about detainee treatment and the use of techniques such as waterboarding. As you’d expect from a film on this subject, it’s difficult to watch at times. Many images and most of the revelations are profoundly disturbing. I was shocked, for example, to learn that prisoners who’ve never been charged with a crime are routinely treated so savagely that many have committed suicide. I was shocked that so many detainee deaths — like Dilawar’s — have been classified as homicides by military coroners. I was shocked that women have played a role in these atrocities at every level. Sgt. Selena Salcedo was one of the interrogators responsible for Dilawar’s death. Captain Carolyn Wood was in charge at Bagram and later at Abu Ghraib. Then, of course, there’s the sad, sick case of Lynndie England. Perhaps most shocking is the film’s revelation that fewer than 10 percent of the detainees at Guantanamo were actually captured by coalition forces. How’d the other 90 percent-plus wind up there? They were turned in by locals — some of whom had personal axes to grind, and many of whom were paid thousands of dollars per prisoner by the U.S. Gibney raises questions about why, to date, none of the detainees at Gitmo have been allowed an opportunity to answer the implied charges against them. (They have been systematically denied all habeas corpus rights and the sort of hearings guaranteed by the Geneva Convention.) The administration claims the authority to hold them indefinitely. By the time the closing credits roll, the answer seems clear: If the prisoners ever do get out, so will the full truth about what they endured there.

RICK KISONAK

The Ruins HHH

M

A VINE MESS Ramsey plays a tourist trapped in — and by — the scenery in this horror flick from Carter Smith.

aybe it says something about our national fears that there’s now an entire subset of horror movies devoted to young Americans who go to the Third World, use it as their playground, and die. In the infamous Hostel films, college students running amok in an obscure corner of Eastern Europe find themselves the targets of a recreational-torture-and-murder ring. In Turistas, it’s a Brazilian organ-harvesting racket. Call it the flip side of MTV’s “Spring Break”: The kids who form the core audience of these movies seem to like seeing one hell of a comeuppance visited on their toned, hedonistic peers. In The Ruins, the trouble starts when four college kids vacationing in Cancun meet the mother of all language barriers. Couples Eric and Stacy (Shawn Ashmore and Laura Ramsey) and Jeff and Amy (Jonathan Tucker and Jena Malone) have teamed up with a young German (Brit Joe Anderson, with an egregiously fake accent) to find his brother, who hasn’t been heard from since he left for a Mayan archaeological dig deep in the jungle. They find the site easily — a massive pyramid draped with jaunty, pointy-leaved vines. But a group of indigenous folks blocks the way, brandishing weapons and yelling in a language that’s not Spanish. Naturally, the kids don’t recognize this reception for what it is: a warning. Like a good little tourist, Amy snaps photos of the angry natives, and when she steps back into the foliage for a better shot, it’s too late. Soon our heroes are imprisoned on the pyramid, surrounded by a circle of villagers ready to shoot to kill. But what’s up there with them is a lot worse.

And sillier. Scott Smith, who adapted The Ruins from his best-selling novel, is a smart pulp writer who knows how to give zing to familiar genres. With A Simple Plan, he breathed new life into the noir thriller. In The Ruins, he took an absurd supernatural-horror conceit — hint: the monster is vegetable, not animal — and turned it into a gripping, unpredictable story about five people who are doomed more by their own weaknesses than the outside threat. Hung over from last night’s party and equipped for a light hike, the characters find themselves in a life-or-death situation, and Smith relates their attempts to survive in grueling

detail. When one of them contracts an infection after a serious fall, it’s time for a makeshift amputation. And when another starts insisting the surrounding foliage is getting under his skin — well, don’t ask. All this gross-out stuff is in the movie, along with a few good scares. (The scene where the women venture into a mineshaft in search of an eerily ringing cellphone is especially effective.) But Scott has purged his own story of its ironic twists. In the novel, he defies expectation by killing off seemingly smart, resourceful characters first, leaving the happy-go-lucky ditzes to muddle through. In the movie, not so much — to the extent the kids have personalities at all, their fates are exactly what you’d expect in a run-of-the-mill slasher. Indie queen Malone (Saved!) makes the most of her role as bossy, neurotic Amy, whose drunken misbehavior the previous night weakens the cohesion of the group. But otherwise, the petty jealousies and personal clashes that took center stage in the book barely register. Despite a good setup and some tense moments, this disappointing adaptation limps to an ending that seems to have been cobbled together in an effort to please the audiences at two wildly different test screenings. Like last year’s U.S. version of British shocker The Descent, The Ruins may well use an alternate, grimmer finale as a selling point for its DVD. There’s something authentic at the roots of this gruesome movie genre, but the execution is all about marketing. MARGOT HARRISON

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