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Starz/Anchor Bay
2007 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic widescreen / 91 min. / Street Date September 16, 2008 / 26.97
Starring Tim Robbins, Bridget Moynahan, William Hurt, Margarita Levieva, Gabrielle Brennan, María Ballesteros, William Baldwin
Cinematography Andrij Parekh
Production Design Kelly McGehee
Film Editor Julie Carr
Original Music Phillip Johnston
Produced by Henry Bean, Susan Hoffman, Meike Kormrumpf
Written and Directed by Henry Bean

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Henry Bean's Noise is an unabashed "issue" movie that doesn't concern itself with national politics or foreign policy. It's an extremely effective scream against the noise pollution that plagues our cities, but that few citizens take seriously. Writer-director Bean (The Believer) calls his film a comedy, but we find ourselves getting involved on a more sober plane. When something in the city is wrong, what can an individual do to fix it? When does issue advocacy become obsession?

Our hero David Owen (Tim Robbins, never better) starts by questioning a problem that millions of New Yorkers seem to take for granted. His ability to read, to think, and even to make love to his wife has been stolen by the constant din of car and burglar alarms. The alarms go off because someone touches the car, because another alarm goes off -- or for no exact reason at all. They go off so frequently that nobody pays attention to them, not even the police. It doesn't take long for Owen to become an urban vigilante, smashing offending cars and disabling their alarms. Some passers-by applaud his actions, but the police have little choice but to run him in. At three in the morning a screaming car alarm is keeping an entire neighborhood awake, but the man who neutralizes the nuisance is considered the criminal.

Noise is a curious hybrid film fashioned from parts of extinct subgenres. The frustrated David Owen has no place to vent his rage, like Michael Douglas in the bitter white backlash film Falling Down (1993). Calling himself "The Rectifier", Owen defies the jerk mayor (William Hurt), much like the rebel hero of 1984's Turk 182! Most importantly, when David Owen tries to effect positive change through the political system, he becomes the 2007 equivalent of Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. David Owen's referendum campaign to ban car alarms isn't exactly world-shaking, but it's the best example of grass-roots democracy we've been given in quite a while. In fact, when is the last time we've seen a contemporary film that believes that any personal activism can have positive results?

Henry Bean's film takes David Owen's adventure in interesting directions. Despite an advertising campaign labeling the film as a black comedy, it refuses to exaggerate its message and become an all-out satire. David Owen's activities jeopardize his entire life. His understanding wife Helen (Bridget Monynahan, excellent) cannot dissuade him from ignoring the alarms, and their marriage starts to crumble when she realizes that he has no intention of curbing his illegal activities. Tossed into jail for 30 days, David loses his job. Helen asks him to move out. He chooses one of the noisiest neighborhoods in Manhattan to carry on his campaign. The papers eagerly follow the escapades of The Rectifier, but David realizes that if he's caught again he'll go to jail for a year.

This is the point at which Noise goes in its own, highly original direction. Falling Down was content to show Michael Douglas' overreaction to losing his job, and lost itself by identifying his bitterness as racially motivated. David Owen seeks philosophical answers to his dilemma, and looks to Hegel to help him decide if he's battling car alarms or is actually fighting something inside himself. He meets the beguiling Ekaterina Filppovna (Margarita Levieva), a young Russian philosophy student who sees through his secret identity. Ekaterina piques Owen's interest by framing the problem in an unorthodox way. She reasons that Owen needs the car alarm threat because it's an inanimate and uncaring force for him to struggle against, and give his life meaning. A screaming car alarm is a one-way conversation that forces us to listen but "doesn't care" how we react. By destroying car alarms, Owen recovers his lost potency.

Owen and Ekaterina begin a political affair -- she encourages him to go legit and collect thousands of petition signatures to outlaw car alarms in the five boroughs. Ekaterina even confronts Mayor Schneer on the issue, hoping for his support. Puffed up with his personal power, Schneer is too intent on nailing The Rectifier to realize that his citizens will enthusiastically support the car alarm ban. He instead senses that Ekaterina is sleeping with his nemesis and hits on her. Schneer invokes an election technicality to derail the ballot petition campaign, forcing Owen to rethink his strategy. Does Owen have any constructive alternatives? How about taking the agony of car alarms directly to the Mayor?

What makes Noise exceptional is that it doesn't wallow in hopelessness and despair. Like a 30s Capra hero, Owen finds a way to channel his antisocial behavior in a positive direction. Director Bean also acknowledges that becoming an activist is risky business. Owen sees what obsession can do when slips into "terrorist" mode: his destruction of private property only alienates people. Owen gets a perspective on his own mindset when he meets a fervent "crackpot anarchist". She offers support, but only if he'll subscribe to her pet causes. Ekaterina is blessed with an Old-World pragmatism. She knows that Owen's one-issue car alarm petition will get results, and restrains him from diluting it with a manifesto about myriad sources of noise in the city.

In his commentary and interview Henry Bean discusses the fact that making Noise is his personal way of dealing with a problem he thinks is insane: city dwellers are allowing their quality of life to be poisoned by unnecessary noise. Happily, he frames his argument in a frequently amusing format. Tim Robbins is a stubborn conservative who wishes he could fully understand Hegel, and knows darn well that his behavior is completely unacceptable. We side with Owen's vigilante attacks even as we worry about what will happen to him. Helen's understanding goes only so far. Owen's daughter Chris (Gabrielle Brennan) pointedly compares him to Odysseus. Tormented by the singing of The Sirens (car sirens), David is tempted to drive his ship (family) onto the rocks.

Structured as a partial flashback, the funny and engaging Noise falters only when it delves into the sexual details of Helen and David's breakup. The alliance with Ekaterina leads reasonably enough to an affair, but their political fervor brings in Ekaterina's friend Gruska (María Ballesteros) for a celebratory three-way sex party. It's nice to see the uptight David letting his hair down, but the brief sex content is a tangential distraction.

William Hurt provides an impressive character turn as the blowhard mayor, a fairly despicable character with an outrageously inflated sense of personal power. Hurt and his petty-enabler chief aide (William Baldwin) show the kind of personalized obstructionism that Owen is up against.

Starz/ Anchor Bay's DVD of Noise presents Henry Bean's show in an attractive enhanced transfer with excellent color. The careful sound design comes through well within the limits of the Dolby 2.0 track. Bean's commentary is accompanied by a score of interviews with cast members and the producers, and a behind-the-scenes short is added as well.

New Yorker praised Noise in a review back in May of this year. It's a shame that it didn't win a wide theatrical release but this DVD may raise public awareness. Noise pollution is a real threat to our quality of life, and a relatively easy problem to address, one step at a time. We in Los Angeles are also plagued by loud (and illegal) gas powered leaf blowers. Unless one lives in Beverly Hills, roaring helicopters beaming down ultra-bright searchlights are a common nuisance as well. And Noise is spot-on about car alarms -- when they go off, nobody cares, notices or even bats an eye. Let's phase them out.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Noise rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary, cast and crew interviews, making-of short subject
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 1, 2008

Presented by arrangement with

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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