Saturday, August 19, 2006

Bite Club: “Snakes on a Plane” Unabashedly Flies Bad Movies to New Heights

If you recall my review of “Little Miss Sunshine” from last week, you’ll remember that I mentioned, “There simply isn’t a more entertaining time at the movies. All with your brain in full functioning mode.” Well if you’re desiring a movie just as entertaining, but without the need of a brain “Snakes on the Plane” delivers the corny goods. This is the 70s-esque disaster epic Irwin Allen would of come back from the grave to make. May he rest in peace in that swarm-filled upsidedown towering inferno in the sky. “Snakes on a Plane,” the film that became an internet phenomenon nearly a year before it’s theatrical release, is a combination of so bad it’s good movie and cheesey entertainment thriller. This is a movie that almost seems like more of a tribute to the mock-filled spoof “Airplane!” than to the wonderfully horrible diaster flicks that inspired it. This is a film filled with lines of dialouge destined to become classic and moments guaranteed to make you glad you paid for your admission. Turn you’re brain off and enjoy the fun.

Do I really need to explain the plot to you? The title obviously says it all. It’s about snakes on a plane. (A mob boss releases the snakes midflight to kill a witness, you’d think a gun shot would do the trick, but alas there’s be no movie!) And the picture nearly isn’t as disasterious a motion picture as you’d think it would be. Yes it’s corny, cliched and over the top. But at the same time there’s an almost underlying homage to everything we love about going to the movies. The movie KNOWS that we go to the movies to have an experience. Its sole purpose is to entertain, to take you into a world where you completely believe that a terror filled airpline ride filled with venoumous, slithering reptiles could actually happen. “Snakes on a Plane” is pure mindless entertainment and we’re all the better for it. But it accomplishes something no other film in history has. It has become a midnight cult film before anyone had ever even seen it.

I was lucky enough to catch a latenight showing of the trashy cult favorite “Showgirls.” I was amazed at the response the audience had: reciting lines of dialouge, shouting out at the screen, and appluading and laughing at all the precise moments. I found nearly the same reaction during opening night of “Snakes on a Plane.” It’s as if everyone had already seen it and remembered every horrible line of dialouge that ranged from “OK let’s go get these people their air” and the now infamous Samuel L. Jackson quip “I’ve had it with these mother%#$&*!@ snakes on this mother%#$&*!@ plane!” “Snakes on a Plane” isn’t just a movie, it’s an experience. And the audience isn’t the only one who knows it. The cast does a great job at acknowledging that they’re in a movie called “Snakes on a Plane.” We get to have just as much fun as they do. And no one has more fun than ER vet Julianna Margulies wielding an axe.

However, beneath the cult following and the “audience participation” which started way back with “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” there is still a fun, kind of shocking and at times grotesque movie (there are plenty of actual jump scares and disgusting make-up jobs) that is just a barrel of fun. Yes there are parts that are too easy to make fun of and there are so many things we’ve seen countless times before, but it all works completely in its favor. A question remains as to whether the film would be as popular had it not been for its title. Perhaps, but the film would still be the same whether it was called “Snakes on a Plane” or the boring “Pacific Flight 121.”

When a film has the courage to both acknowledge it’s cheesiness and offer you seconds as well, that is a true motion picture experience. This is a film that you not only watch but you live it. Perhaps nothing like this will occur again and my guess is there won’t be a “More Snakes on a Plane” but if there is, I’ll be the first in line, with a rubber snake around my neck. GRADE: A-

Friday, August 11, 2006

“Little Miss Sunshine” Puts the Fun in Dysfunctional Family

“Little Miss Sunshine” achieves an amazing feat. It recycles just about everything you’ve ever seen in various other movies and turns everything inside out to make a completely fresh, smart and most importantly entertaining dysfunctional family comedy-drama. We’ve got the fighting parents, the misunderstood teen, the overachieving youngest daughter, the weirdo uncle, and the crotchety old fogy. Add in a road trip in which everything that could go wrong does and you’ve got the latest indie to break out of Sundance, “Little Miss Sunshine.” It’s a wildly entertaining and well-made romp about life that has funny, interesting characters and enough dramatic wit to please those who enjoyed the wine allegories in the overrated “Sideways.” Think “National Lampoon’s Vacation” meets “American Beauty” filtered through “Happiness” and “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” This is perhaps the wittiest, funniest, most dramatic film to come out in awhile. It if were December we’d be talking Oscar buzz.

This is a movie I want to recommend to everyone who even remotely loves movies. Like I said before it has parts that we’ve come to see before in other movies. But for some reason here they just make perfect sense and seem like we’ve seen them for the first time. Greg Kinnear and Toni colliete both portray Richard and Sheryl. Richard is having some problems at work and it’s looking like his providing for the family is looking glum. Sheryl is the typical matriarch: tired of being the matriarch. They have a teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano) who is at that awkward “I’m in silent protest mode” stage. Richard’s father credited as Grandpa is Alan Arkin a sex-perv granddad we all wish we had. Frank (Steve Carell) is Sheryl’s manic-depressive brother. She has just picked him up from the institute in which he was committed after a failed suicide attempt. Are they dysfunctional yet? And last we have little 7-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) who just wants to be crowned Little Miss Sunshine.

Due to a technicality (something to due with diet pills) young Abigail who was runner-up in the regional Little Miss Sunshine pageant now gets to compete in the finals out in California. Cue the family getting into their Volkswagen van to start the road trips to end all road trips. Many things come out of this voyage. Yes it’s a voyage for little Abigail to compete in her beauty pageant, but this is an independent movie remember, so there’s more than one literal voyage. This is a voyage to the heart of this family, if there is one; I believe there is which is obvious in one of the last scenes in which the family gets together and…oh why spoil what really happens? There are plenty of oblivious mishaps along the way, but they are extremely humorous and extremely emotional.

This is a family on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Hmm interesting I wonder if their car will breakdown as well? Writer Michael Arndt has an exceptional idea of what has been done before and twisting things around so they feel fresh. Note how the family’s van’s stick shift needs to be replaced. It’s a VW so obviously the part will take forever to get. The family must push their van every time they want it to get going. Each time this happens it seems funnier that the last time we saw them do it. Arndt has this amazing ability to write scenes that are alternatively hysterical and dramatic within lines of dialogue (lines too good to ruin here). One very emotional scene, in which something rather sad occurs (don’t worry I won’t tell you what happens), before you know it, your tears of sadness suddenly become tears of laughter. Co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris add greatly to the already terrific screenplay. They make the most out of their frame. They are fantastic add emotional and comical weight to each scene.

Everything in “Little Miss Sunshine” is top-notch. The actors are great and the filmmakers are great. The lines are funny and have emotional credibility. Moments will make you cry and moments will make you laugh. There simply isn’t a more entertaining time at the movies. All with your brain in full functioning mode. Now that’s amazing. GRADE: A

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

We Can Be Heroes: Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” is a Worthy Cinematic Memorial

Oliver Stone’s new movie is respectful of everyone involved in the terrible events of 9/11. His film reflects a mournful time in America’s history, but instead of relying on shocking, disturbing images (however there’s still plenty to be disturbed by in the film) in recounting that day, he instead shows a strong sense of hope, camaraderie and heroism that was also present that day. Yes that day was filled with evil but there was plenty of hope and light at the end of the tunnel. The film takes an apolitical and uncontroversial look at the events of that day from the point of view of two real life Port Authority police officers who went into the World Trade Center that day and got caught in the rubble of the destroyed buildings. This is their story.

Stone is no stranger to controversy (see Platoon, JFK or Natural Born Killers etc) yet this time it’s not really him who is controversial; it’s the subject matter. Anyone who has the guts to make a Hollywood fiction film about September 11 is stepping into automatic controversial mode. Many questions arise. Is it too soon? Do we need a movie about 9/11? Is it disrespectful to turn a tragedy into entertainment? Why should I want to relive that day? The last question raises an interesting point. We tell each other and ourselves that we should never forget what happened. A film is the best way to show that there’s no way to ever forget the lives that were lost and the destruction that occurred. Stone’s film is, while not revelatory or as viscerally emotional as the last 9/11 film “United 93,” a very well made Hollywood story about two men who wanted to help in a crisis. It has, for a filmmaker who many consider extremely liberal, a very pro-American message about courage and survival.

One thing you’ll notice in Stone’ film, as opposed to “United 93” is the use of stars in some of the lead roles. Nicolas Cage does a commendable job of portraying Police Officer John McLoughlin. Also very good is Michael Pena, who was fantastic in last year’s Oscar-winning “Crash” as Officer Will Jimeno. I was mostly impressed with the emotional turn by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who I feel is always fine, but nothing too special. Here she brings a strong emotional weight to her role as Will’s pregnant wife. I thought she certainly stood up Maria Bello, who gave a more understated but still affective performance as John’s wife. These women probably had the hardest job to do, because they had to act like grieve stricken women without going into overboard Lifetime movie mode (a line which the film almost seemed ready to cross). However, there is one truly effective scene in which Bello conforts a total stranger, waiting to hear news about her missing son.

This is the type of film that could have easily been made into a made-for-TV movie (which I’m sure would attract a larger audience at home. It amazes me that people forget when they watch a movie on TV, even though they’re not paying for it, the networks are still working for a profit, but I digress). Stone’s film is actually filled with a surprising amount of stark colors. The scenes in which the officers’ families impatiently await news of their condition are very striking shot by DP Seamus McGarvey. These are highly contrasted to the scenes of Cage and Pena down in the dark, crumbled bowels of the building. There are also plenty of obligatory flashbacks that you typically find in conventional movies, but these scenes do affectively give more insight into these people. They are just ordinary people. And the more you realize how ordinary they are the more you realize how many ordinary people gave their lives on what should have been just any other day.

Stone succeeds in making a poignant, well-made 9/11 movie without the controversial baggage his films usually carry. In a way this works for him because he makes a more effective and respectful film in that manner. I’m sure we’ll have to wait awhile longer before anyone delves into conspiracy theory mode involving 9/11. Until that day comes, if you’re willing, Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” is a moving, well-made conventionally structured film that not only mourns those who lost their lives, but honors those who were able to survive. You’ll leave the theater with a subtle feeling of hope that in these dark post-9/11 days perhaps humanity can truly prevail. GRADE: B+

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Wheely Good: A Winning Cast Keeps “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” in the Race

I was no fan of Will Ferrell’s last attempt at sarcastic satire. That would be the skewering of 1970s TV journalism in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. I wanted to like it but I just didn’t. I guess I just didn’t get it. While others kept quoting it and laughing hysterically, I just found myself simply uninterested in it. (I did however enjoy the punting of the dog off the bridge). Now here we are two years later with the similarly titled Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Too bad the Academy doesn’t hand out Oscars for film titles, because whoever thought of The Ballad of Ricky Bobby simply just understands what this movie is about. While Anchorman attempted to satirize TV journalism, Talladega Nights brings us the wonderful red state world of NASCAR. And while no means a moving piece of American Cinema, it had enough laughs to keep me entertained due to its inspired cast who constantly gives it their all.

Like the recent summer hit Cars, Talladega Nights revolves around a winning racer in the NASCAR set who learns to slow down. Except while Cars was a colorful animated adventure, Nights is a quirky adult comedy. It not only spoofs the utterly American sport of NASCAR but it pays tribute to it as well. This is a movie where you can be a fan or a non-fan and still enjoy the film. Ferrell is Ricky Bobby the best NASCAR driver ever. He has a beautiful wife and two vulgar sons (not surprisingly named Walker and Texas Ranger) and is very much enjoying his life in both the spotlight and fastlane. That is until tragedy strikes. A car wreck (probably the funniest and most drawn out in recent memory) makes our Southern hero scared to get in the driver’s seat again.

Ferrell is pretty much perfect for the main role and while he’s very funny (although I’m not his biggest fan) I must give credit to the entire cast who takes this silly material and raises it up a level. John C. Reilly is wild in a comedic turn as Ricky’s best friend and fellow racer. Jane Lynch (Steve Carrell’s boss in The 40 Year Old Virgin) shows up as Ricky’s mother who gives birth to little Ricky in the hilarious opening scene. Gary Cole is Ricky’s beer drinking, drug-dealing father who supposedly was also once a racer. His scenes as he coaches Ricky to drive again are some of the film’s best. Sacha Baron Cohen who many may know as “Ali G.” shows up as Ricky’s French (of course he’s French, France is the enemy remember!) racecar rival. His obviously bogus accent adds to the fun; he runs with the role. And of course my favorite supporting star the indelible Molly Shannon as the team's owner's wife. She’s a hopeless drunk and her brief scenes add up to a lot more than if it were anyone else in the role. The only one who disappoints is Amy Adams. She was hysterically brilliant in last year’s “Junebug.” Here she just plays the love interest of Ferrell late in the movie. She has one mildly amusing scene in a bar but otherwise she was hardly given anything to do. What a shame.

Talladega Nights proves to be a winning comedy. It doesn’t achieve the brilliance of The 40 Year Old Virgin but it has a large amount of laughs. Even when you’re not laughing it’s still entertaining. Director Adam McKay (who co-scripted with Ferrell) has a good eye for comedic moments. You’d be doing yourself a favor to check out this fast paced comedy. GRADE: B

Friday, August 04, 2006

Monster’s Ball: Be Prepared to Scream Your Lungs Out in “The Descent”

In the tradition of other low budget horror flicks 28 Days Later, The Blair Witch Project and Open Water, Britain’s “The Descent” is a relentless film made simply and utterly to scare the ever loving hell out of you. It works because a) it’s a good movie even without the fright factor and b) it’s one of the best splatter movies of recent memory. Ah, I must declare that I do love the R rating. Just the notion that I had to have my ID checked before entering the theater gave me the satisfaction that I would be in for something either a) extremely frightening or b) exquisitely gory. Boy was I surprised that there was a third option: c) all of the above. All of that with a simple story about monsters in a cave. And they could have called it that: Monsters in a Cave. What does Snakes on a Plane think it is anyways?

The Descent was made by no one you know of and doesn’t star anyone you’ve ever heard of. Please don’t let that scare you off (the film does that all by itself). It actually makes it that much better because to have unknowns instead of seeing stars you know you’ll say “Hey that’s Drew Barrymore. I know she won’t get killed because she’s Drew Barrymore.” (Of course that didn’t really work out for her in “Scream,” but I digress.) Instead you have no idea who is going to bite the dust (or should I say get bitten) in this rollicking good time. The story involves six British women who are thrill seekers. They all take a vacation in the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina. They go inside the mountain and explore the underground terrain. They are simply sensational rock climbers, although one admits, in the film’s funniest line, that she’s “not bloody Tomb Raider.” Then of course all hell breaks loose.

The film immediately makes you feel claustrophobic, due to director Neil Marshall’s expert sense of place. He uses his frame to create suspense. We don’t know what’s just out of the camera’s lens and it frightens us. And he is certainly hell-bent on scaring the crap out of his audience. From the beginning of the film, which includes a wonderfully impressive surprise scare, he let’s us know that he’s not a man to be trusted. And when you can’t trust a horror director, you know you’ve stumbled onto a terrific thriller. Just when you think you’re prepared for the horror, it becomes even more horrific than you could of imagined. He plays with the sense of fear that he started from the beginning and doesn’t let you go until the film ends.

So what’s so scary in these caves anyways? For your benefit I will not say. There’s something (or perhaps some things) living down there that hasn’t been seen before. They are scary and like Steven Spielberg did in “Jaws,” Marshall only hints at them creating unbearable terror. You simply become terrified for these women, who all do amazing jobs at being non-clichéd, strong women who we fear for every time there’s a moment of terror.

If you’re in the mood for a simple, stylish scary ride, The Descent is your ticket. It has people you care about, in an almost unbearably frightening situation. The tension builds and builds and the events that unfold are unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Perhaps the ads are correct, this just may be the scariest thing American audiences have seen since “Alien” was released over twenty-five years ago. GRADE: A-

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Junk Food: With “Clerks II” Kevin Smith Fans Rejoice and Others Proceed with Caution

I wanted to like Clerks II. I really, really wanted to like it. I’m not much of a fan of Kevin Smith’s films. Dogma seemed over my head and was a drag to sit through. Mallrats was simply just uninteresting. And I never had any real desire to see any of the other ones. Not even the first Clerks, which was an extremely low-budget indie that broke director Smith into the mainstream and brought sexually vulgar dialogue into the limelight. From what I can tell from watching Clerks II is that it takes place many years later. The original convenient store Dante (an uninspired Brian O'Halloran) and Randal (a more inspired Jeff Anderson) worked at has burned down and so they’ve gotten new jobs working at a fast food place called Mooby’s. This is the second to last place anyone would actually want to eat (the first place winner goes to Shenanigans from the disgusting movie “Waiting…”). The film takes place over one particular day.

I’m more disappointed in myself for not liking Clerks II than I am in the actual movie. The characters do things that would be funny if your friends were doing them, but because they’re people we don’t really know it’s just kind of so-so. The problem with Kevin Smith’s humor is that you feel like you’re not in on the joke. He makes his movies with his friends and it seems as if they’re all doing things they themselves think is funny, but to an outsider just seems bizarre. And there's something to the way his jokes are delievered that just seem rather off. (Besides, I enjoy Woody Allen movies, if that's any indication of how I felt about this movie)

Smith's characters are always on the in when it comes to pop culture. This has great potential to be funny for today's “nostalgia generation.” I enjoy characters who discuss popular culture. Take for instance the scene in which the guys discuss which trilogy is better: Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. As Randal does his interpretation of the three “Rings” films, the audience roared with laughter as if it were their best friend performing the gag. I just kind of smiled. I liked it. I appreciated it but I didn’t fall down laughing.

O’Halloran, who plays Dante, seems to be acting as if he were on stage, which would be fine had this been a stage play. His body language, they way he speaks and moves his hands around. He seems to be over gesturing as if he’s performing to those who can’t really see him in the back row. Of course this is a movie about thirty something dudes that work in a fast-food place with four letter words being thrown up every millisecond so I can forgive the film for it’s lack of Oscar-caliber acting. The movie is silly and juvenile, like its characters, and it’s jokes always revolve around sexual dialogue and bathroom gags which isn't necessarily a bad thing. But look at The 40 Year Old Virgin for more inspired humor and better acting.

There is however plenty of things to like. Not only am I fond of characters who make fun of each other for liking or disliking certain movies, but those who know they’re actually in a movie. The best characters in the film (and I’m sure many would agree) are Kevin Smith regulars Jay (Jason Mewes) and his mute sidekick Silent Bob (Smith). They know they’re in a movie and we know that they know that they’re in a movie. They’re certainly the funniest and most interesting characters in the film. Jay’s tribute to Silence of the Lambs is worth the price of admission alone. I was also very pleased with Rosario Dawson’s performance as Becky. She seems like a fun person and a likable manager, laid back when it’s time to slack (which is often) yet tough and rigid when its time to mean business (like apologizing for her employee’s unintentional racist remarks towards customers) “Come back again soon!” she cries out apologetically! Like Wanda Sykes would ever step a foot inside that place again.

Kevin Smith fans will be very pleased, but it’s unlikely this new adventure will make any converts. I know what Smith is trying to accomplish and I found the film amusing. I can appreciate it without actually being crazy about it. GRADE: C+