Saturday, April 29, 2006

“United 93:” The First 9/11 Film is a Stirring Account of America’s Darkest Day

Much talk has come from director Paul Greengrass making a Hollywood film about the events of September 11, 2001. In what will most likely be one of the two most controversial films of the year, (the other being Oliver Stone’s take on 9/11 “World Trade Center” coming in August) Greengrass simply wants to present America with a story of ordinary people, on an ordinary day, who were forced to deal with unbearable tragedy. Perhaps most of us aren’t “ready” for Hollywood films to address the subject of 9/11. But does that mean filmmakers shouldn’t have the option to tell a true American story?

United 93 focuses mostly on the events of that day that seem to not be as well known. We all have the images of those two planes striking the World Trade Center. The rising smoke being the only thing in the bright blue sky. Those pictures are etched in our minds. The Pentagon in DC was also hit, but there were a lot of other things going on that day. One of which was the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93. It took off from Newark and was en route to California, when it too was taken over by hijackers with the alleged intention of crashing into the Capital or White House in Washington DC. Because of certain complications, this flight was different from those of the three other planes. This is United 93’s story.

The film is simply and undoubtedly an observation. The film takes us into the national air traffic controls and airport towers in New York where we see normal people at work. The film basically reenacts the events of that day in real time. The film opens on the hijackers praying and preparing in a hotel room the night before. Perhaps the filmmakers chose to begin the film like this because many refuse to believe those responsible for that day’s horrible events were, in fact, other human beings. A haunting aerial shot of NYC the night before depicts the city unaware of the doom to come. No attempt is made to introduce characters. There is no backstory. The acting is naturalistic and most of the unfamiliar actors are not even actors at all. What we have is one of the most unconventional Hollywood films I’ve ever seen. And that is the way a film about 9/11 should be probably be made. There is no attempt to turn this story into a "Pearl Harbor" or "Air Force One." All that clichéd stuff is thankfully, and not surprisingly, thrown out the window. The film is more like a documentary and doesn’t turn the passengers into inhuman action stars.

The film is intense, gripping, emotional, and unflinching in its reenactment of 9/11. Any film dealing with the subject matter is going to be, but the movie is never exploitative. Director and writer Paul Greengrass doesn’t use the horrors of 9/11 to make the film “entertaining.”He simply depicts events. The film accurately portrays the pandemonium and confusion going on while certain flights were being hijacked. Phone calls to the president come with no response. There was a certain lack of communication that day and the film masterfully shows the disbelief that so many planes could be taken over all at once. The film never steps out of the air traffic towers or from the plane. We don’t get to see what’s going on elsewhere. It makes no political statements and doesn’t blame anyone.

As the scenes on-board the plane progress it becomes extremely heart-wrenching. However, the passengers and crew on this particular flight were able to plan to counteract the hijackers in hopes of just being proactive. These were everyday people who were faced with an awful situation. Because their flight was delayed and they were able to make contact with the ground, they learned of the other plane's fates and felt something could be done. They sensed vulnerability in the hijackers, which was true. After all they too were human and nervous and the film doesn’t portray them as invincible supervillians. Scenes crosscut with the passengers praying along with the hijackers doing the same. Phone calls of passengers saying their goodbyes are heartbreaking.

The film honors those that gave their lives on 9/11 and doesn’t exploit their tragedy for our sake. The film wants to be accurate in every detail and refuses to sensationalize what happened. This is a difficult, moving piece of American filmmaking. The film doesn’t want us to forget the events of that day. Like any of us ever could. GRADE: A

Saturday, April 22, 2006

When Politics Go Pop: “American Dreamz” Serves Up a Slice of Americana

I have two confessions to make: I’ve never actually voted for anybody on American Idol, but I have recently gotten into the show. Fortunately, I DID vote in the presidential election so I am partially free of director Paul Weitz’s (American Pie, About a Boy) pop culture/political firing squad known as American Dreamz. At first a satire of the wholly popular reality show American Idol and the Bush Administration felt like an awkward fit. Like trying to stick a square peg in a round hole. But really the more you think about it they go hand in hand. It’s our American right to let our voice be heard not only when it comes to who runs our government but ALSO who gets to win a coveted record deal on one of the country’s favorite TV shows. I guess it would take someone like Weitz who could see the connection between adolescence and baked goods, to come up with a film that throws terrorism, the presidency and pop culture into a cinematic blender. Of course the big question is did he pull it off?

I was excited to see American Dreamz, so I have to admit that the film didn’t quite live up to my high expectations although I would call it a moderate success. The actors are all good and well cast. We have Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant) as the producer & host of American Dreamz (a mix of Ryan Seacrest with a dash of the caustic Simon Cowell). Then there’s the wanna be superstar Sally (Mandy Moore, who seemed wildly appropriate for this role) and her loving yet pushy mother (the always wonderful Jennifer Coolidge) But Sally’s not the only one who loves the song and dance. We get Omer a Middle Eastern teenager who finds himself singing show tunes while in terrorist training camp! Martin is sick of the Sallys who always seem to make it onto his show; he wants some “variety.” Then we get dumb President Staton (a silver-haired Dennis Quaid, doing his best Bush impression) who’s been out of the public’s eye for weeks for who knows why. The public believes he’s had a mental breakdown but Staton’s Chief of Staffs (Willem Dafaoe channeling Dick Chaney, without the rifle) insists he do something to gain attention. So naturally he should appear as a guest judge on America’s favorite television show: American Dreamz. If this all sounds ridiculous it is. Weitz knows it is and he has fun with it. But alas this is not all.

There’s a terrorist plot brewing amongst Omer’s radical terrorist trainers who want the young man to unleash a WMD on live television (what a ratings grabber that would be!). There’s hardly any seriousness in the situation but an underlying sense of wit works nicely. We’re not really supposed to take what’s happening seriously. After all one of the film’s main targets is our media-obsessed society. I mean are the advertisements correct in notifying that this country would rather vote for a pop idol instead of their next president. I’d be afraid to believe it, but wouldn’t deny it if it were true. What one can gather from the film is that reality shows like American Idol is completely staged for the camera and that any idot can run our country and that even terrorists use their TiVo to rewind while watching live American television.

If there’s anything truly wrong with the film its not that it’s mean-spirited although it is. Or that is mocks our government and its sense of American pride, which it does. Or that it turns its characters into clichés, which it does. It’s that really the whole thing isn’t as flat out funny as it could have been. Believe me I welcomed the terrorist plot and the mocking of our president and the skewering of America’s strange obsessions. But when it came right down to it, the premise seems better than the final outcome. The actors have a great time lampooning everything American, but while they are having a great time, we wish we could get just a little bit more in on the fun. GRADE: B-

Friday, April 14, 2006

Diary of a Mad White Scary Movie Fan: 4th Installment More Like “Scary Movie Bore”

Spring 2000: Airplane! being my favorite movie of all time entitles me to experience joyous rhapsody every time a new spoof movie comes out. When I first heard of the news that there is going to be a parody of popular scary films, most notably Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, I was unbearably excited. The Waynes Brothers are the writers with some other guys thrown in. Anticipation ensues. Later, I find out that the R-rated film will be released exactly on my 17th birthday: July 7, 2000. I’m later disappointed to realize the one other person that will see it with me, my best friend & fellow critic, will not be 17 until November.

July 7, 2000:
It is my 17th birthday. I’m finally old enough to buy tickets to R-rated movies. And what could be better than the movie I’ve been waiting to see all year opening on my birthday? My underage friend and I approach the ticketseller only to be turned away. For I cannot purchase two tickets. Alas, we buy tickets for The Perfect Storm and then have to sneak in. My dream of buying my own R-rated ticket for the first time on my own birthday is crushed. Flash forward 2 hours. I exit the theater practically in tears. Everything in Scary Movie went right. It was funny and not only was it a spoof movie, but it parodied movies that I love so much: slasher films. Critics basically hate the film, because of its gross out humor. I could care less. I would go on to see the film in theaters two more times that summer.

July 2001: I am vacationing in Ireland with my family. While I tour ancient Irish castles and kiss the Blarney Stone I think about how everyone in America is able to go see Scary Movie 2 while I have to drive around a foreign country for two weeks. My friends being my friends, wait to see the movie until my return to the States. I go see Scary Movie 2 and while I enjoyed it wholly. It was not nearly as good a film as the original. Of course on repeat viewings it gets funnier even though the poorly put together film is basically a bunch of sketch-like scenes sewn together. The cast is funny if not wholly inspired. Perhaps this was to be the last of the Scary Movies.

Early 2003: News breaks that a 3rd Scary Movie installment will be made without the Waynes. Airplane! co-writer/director David Zucker takes the helm. I wet my pants just a little. I finally have a marriage of one of the Airplane! guys with his own directorial take on one of my favorite film franchises.

October 2003: Scary Movie 3 opens to poor reviews, except for me. I loved the film’s humor and its take on the various film parodies. People seemed to be turned off by the lack of disgusting gross-out humor that was the first two films’ staple. Oh well. Mr. Naked Gun himself Leslie Nielson shows up. I almost wet my pants a little again. If Mr. Zucker were to direct a 4th Scary Movie, I’d be the first in line.

Late 2005: News breaks of a definite 4th Scary Movie film. I, unlike many others, am ecstatic. Anna Faris is returning, as is Regina Hall. I hear Leslie Nielson is back and even Molly Shannon has decided to join the cast according to Yahoo! Movies. One of the spoofed films will be War of the Worlds, which was one of my favorite films of 2005. This can’t get any better…

April 14 2006: Scary Movie 4 opens with a thud. Ten minutes into the movie and I’ve barely cracked a smile. Dr. Phil and Shaquille O’Neil? Come on. They had nothing funny to say. Ok, so Hot Shots! alum Charlie Sheen returns, but his one scene involves swallowing a bunch of Viagra pills. We get to watch him cavort around with his gigantic erection while a fake cat takes a liking to it. Jim Abrahams, one of the Airplane! guys, has been credited with the screenplay along with SM3 writer Craig Mazin. The writers surprisingly rely way too much on visual gas such as people getting hit in the head. This occurs every five minutes. My own head began to hurt after awhile. It wasn’t even really funny the first time. Hardly any of the dialogue is funny. What happened to lines like, “A hospital? What is it?”
“It’s a big building with patients, but that’s not important right now.”
It’s as if the writers have catered the jokes (which must of seem funnier on paper) to get laughs from 10 year olds. There were plenty of kids in the audience that were having a much better time than me. The film’s posters were funnier than most of the film’s jokes. Perhaps the marketing department should have written the film.

What about the actors? Anna Faris is funny, but never really gets a chance to shine like she did in the other films. The same with Regina Hall as best friend Brenda and Leslie Nielson as dopey US President Harris. When Molly Shannon shows up in a bit part its funny JUST because it’s Molly Shannon! The problem with the humor in Scary Movie 4 isn’t the “been there, don’t that feeling,” it’s that the jokes really aren’t all that funny to begin with. It’s one thing to recycle old jokes but there’s nothing really here that sticks out or goes somewhere even remotely memorable.

The shoestring plot revolves around an alien invasion ala War of the Worlds while Anna Faris solves the mystery of her new haunted house ala The Grudge. Other films spoofed include Saw, The Village, and Oscar winners Million Dollar Baby(?) and Brokeback Mountain. I laughed here and there but I found myself scratching my head for most of the film’s duration. Where did it all go wrong? If I’m surprised by anything, it’s that my initial reaction after seeing the film was, shockingly to my saddening surprise, I hope there’s no Scary Movie 5. (Of course when this movie comes out on DVD, I’ll probably end up buying just because the Scary Movie pedigree is good enough for me) GRADE: D+

Sunday, April 02, 2006

A Slug’s Life: “Slither” is a Delightfully Disgusting Monsterfest

Slither is gross. Slither is disgusting. Slither is revolting. Slither is stomach churning. Slither is sickening. Slither is nauseating. I can’t think of any better compliments for such a film. What do you expect from a B-movie opus hell bent on being a creepy, crawly monster gore fest from the writer of the Dawn of the Dead remake? Those who like their films on the level of The Toxic Avenger, Night of the Creeps and how about The Squid & the Whale, oh wait, scratch that last one, will be delightfully pleased by this gooey monster movie homage. If you have an iron stomach that is.

Slither wants to repulse you. That’s its goal. Otherwise, it would have trimmed all the gross stuff to let 10 year olds in. The movie is slimy and gross the way Species was. However, that movie took itself WAY too seriously. The movie is comfortable in its roots of paying tribute to campy horror films the way Cabin Fever was. However, that movie didn’t take itself seriously enough. Slither is completely outrageously implausible, yet it knows it, and it runs with it. Writer/director James Gunn pays homage to everything from The Blob to Night of the Living Dead to The Fly.

So what does Mr. Gunn present us with that is so revolting (in a good way!)? The setting is a small southern town. (Isn’t it always?) Starla (Elizabeth Banks) is married to Grant (Michael Rooker) and their marriage seems to be on the fritz. (Isn’t it always?) One night Grant stumbles out into the woods drunk with a lady friend named Brenda (Brenda James). They stumble upon what seems to be a meteor of some sort, and something slimy has crawled away. (Aren’t things from outer space are always slimy?) Not being the sharpest knives in the kitchen, the two decide to follow the trail. (Don’t they always?) They come upon a gooey slime ball that shoots something into Grant’s chest. Grant suddenly isn’t exactly himself. They return back to town as if nothing happened. (Of course)

The next day Starla notices something peculiar about her husband. The audience knows a lot more than her. He begins to eat raw meat at a staggering rate. (Even a low rate wouldn’t seem normal correct?) Before we know it Grant has impregnated Brenda, hid her in a shed in the woods, where she too devours raw meat along with woodland creatures. She begins to balloon up. Grant begins to transform as well. The police get a look at one of his gangly arms after nearly attacking Starla, and reference him as looking like a squid creature. For most of the picture it is Grant as this continually morphing wormy, squid creature, who attacks animals and devours them, that gives most of the grotesque moments. But for as many times as we’re grossed out, we’re also laughing. The film is filled with your typical comical characters from the bigot mayor to the fumbling deputy. And it’s up to Officer Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion) to save the day.

Before we know it Brenda, the size of the Goodyear Blimp, erupts releasing thousands of slithering CGI slugs. The slugs seem to have a mind of their own and want to penetrate people’s mouths so they can gross us out even more. And alas the entire townspeople are turned into mindless zombies.

Obviously this isn’t a film for every taste. Those who enjoy their scares with slimy gore will rejoice (as did I). The film won’t win awards, but its fun and entertaining. The film always has its tongue planted firmly in cheek. The characters don’t spend time in mindless exposition in an attempt to fill us in on what exactly is going on. We don’t care. We just want to see nasty creatures get it on with the townsfolk. The film is obviously not without its flaws and for me, there was too much Computer Generated Imagery. It’s very easy these days to tell what’s really filmed and what is added with a computer. Computer effects, especially when it comes to horror, always seem to lessen the thrills. However, I found little to complain about here. After all, when a B-movie homage has no other purpose than to make you want to reach for a vomit bag intentionally, you can’t ask for anything more. GRADE: B (what else?)