Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Tsunami, the Aftermath / *** (TV-MA)

Ian Carter: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Susie Carter: Sophie Okonedo
Nick Fraser: Tim Roth
Kathy Graham: Toni Collette
Tony Whittaker: Hugh Bonneville
Kim Peabody: Gina McKee
Than: Samrit Machielsen
Ellen: Kate Ashfield

HBO Films and BBC present a film directed by Bharat Nalluri. Written by Abi Morgan. Running time: 185 min. Rated TV-MA (for adult content, violence, and language).

On December 26, 2004, much of the world awoke to the first reports of one of the largest natural disasters ever seen. I know I had trouble conceiving the magnitude of the tsunami, which affected 13 countries and killed over 200,000 people. It was like a made-for-TV disaster flick, but much worse than any Hollywood producer could have ever conceived.

Now, HBO has made a television mini-series out of that terrible event. Luckily, they have taken a cue from the ‘80’s television nuclear drama “The Day After”, and focused on the events following the disaster rather than concentrating on the tsunami itself. Instead of making some mid-disaster melodrama like “Hurricane” or “The Towering Inferno”, director Bharat Nalluri and writer Abi Morgan look at the struggles and heartbreaks of the survivors in this fictional account of what happened in the days following the tsunami.

The film follows several different character storylines to give the audience a broad overview of all the different efforts that were made during the relief effort. The stories themselves are rather academic. Nalluri and Morgan tell them in much the same way the film’s website lays out facts about the tsunami. Although they have fictionalized the events, it all has the feel of some sort of classroom lesson. It is very interesting to learn about all the things that happened that the general public might be unaware of, but the film lacks some dramatic flare.

That is not to say that it is emotionally ineffective. The catastrophic nature of the tsunami by itself leaves an emotional impact. It tears lives apart, even for those who came after and did not experience the wave itself. It is almost strange that I could be so emotionally affected by a film that is not great, but merely good.

It is the actors who carry all the emotional power of the stories. The strong performances are lead by Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Inside Man”) as Ian, a father who loses his grip on his 6 year-old daughter’s hand during the wave impact. He last sees her hanging onto a tree. The mother, Susie, is out deep sea diving and returns to the devastated coast line with no idea what has happened to her husband or daughter.

The two eventually find each other; the father feels shame for allowing the daughter to get away, the mother resents him. Sophie Okonedo (“Hotel Rwanda”) handles the difficult chore of presenting a mother who is willing to replace her daughter with another displaced little girl rather than accept her own offspring’s possible death. A powerful breakdown occurs between the couple when Ian voices his regrets and lashes out at Susie for not being there at all.

Gina McKee (“Notting Hill”) turns in a traumatized performance as Kim Peabody, a mother on the same deep sea diving excursion with one son, who must search out another son and her husband. She finds the boy in a Thai hospital and tries to get help from the British Embassy to have him evacuated to a British hospital for better care before Thai doctors amputate his leg. All the while, her youngest son insists on a heartbreaking search for their father.

Hugh Bonneville (“Iris”) gives a strong performance as the British government representative on site to establish aide for British victims. He struggles with doing what he is told by the government and with what is necessary for the survivors he has to look in the eye. Meanwhile, Tim Roth (“Dark Water”) turns in a typically solid performance as a journalist with a conscience. And once again, Toni Collette (“In Her Shoes”), as a school teacher who leads the British relief effort, shows that she can turn anything she’s involved with into gold. Let’s just pretend “Connie and Carla” never happened.

There are some conspiratorial overtones to a storyline involving a hotel chain that reclaims some coastal land where locals have lived for generations. But this is the most confused area of the film. The filmmakers make a point about how the Thais are unfairly treated in terms of ownership, but they seem distracted more by the dangers of reconstruction in an area where the underwater fault line threatens to one day re-create the same catastrophe. In this sense, the corporate takeover of land is actually saving the Thai locals from future destruction, and provides a thriving job market and economy.

It is nice to see that the typical disaster flick can be transformed into a thinking man’s drama. The performances make the film worth watching and go a long way toward carrying across the filmmakers’ points. But it would be good to get a better balance between the “facts” and the awesome nature of the situation. It is a strong representation of the aftermath indeed, but doesn’t quite transport the viewer to the tragedy we desperately need to understand.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Joyeux Noel / ***½ (PG-13)

Anna Sorensen: Diane Kruger
Nikolaus Sprink: Benno Furmann
Lieutenant Audebert: Guillaume Canet
Ponchel: Dany Boon
Palmer: Gary Lewis
Horstmayer: Daniel Bruhl
Gordon: Alex Ferns
Johnathan: Steven Robertson

Sony Pictures Classics presents a film written and directed by Christian Carion. Running time: 116 min. Rated PG-13 (for some war violence and a brief scene of sexuality/nudity). Presented in English, French and German w/ English subtitles.

I’m a sucker for good war movies. There is a level of emotion riding upon the realization that these wars actually happened. And as the history of film has developed, the sophistication of war films has gotten ever greater. Also there has been a greater concentration on telling war stories that actually happened rather than those idealized John Wayne romps, or those Steve McQueen adventures. Now, war films are more likely to center on our humanity, not on our need to win for the cause of democracy.

“Joyeux Noel” is a French film that takes documented incidents from the First World War and dramatizes them in a war story of humanity, by depicting a front where the soldiers from both sides of the line call a truce on Christmas Eve. It is Christmas Eve, 1914 and on the Western Front there are three regiments of soldiers holding the line; French, Scottish and the invading Germans. None are happy to still be in the trenches when most believed the war would have ended long before the holidays; and through an unpredictable set of circumstances the regiments find their commanding officers meeting in the no man’s land between the trenches to call a truce.

It is the power of music that brings these opposing soldiers together. The German side of the story follows an Opera singer, Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Furmann, “The Order”), who is looked down upon by his commanding officer for being an artist. Sprink’s wife, Anna (Diane Kruger, “National Treasur”), uses her fame to arrange a vocal performance on Christmas Eve by her and her husband at the German command center near the front. Sprink then brings his wife to the front to sing for the soldiers. When the Scottish hear the singing they join in with bagpipe accompaniment, and soon the three commanding officers are meeting to call a truce for one night only.

The Christmas Eve festivities are brief and the officers agree that on the following morning the fighting must resume. The leaders do not anticipate the bonds that form between the men, however, during that night of sharing in Christmas tradition. In fact it seems as if it is the officers themselves who are most affected by knowing their enemy. Soon they are taking another day off to exchange and bury their dead. They warn each other about bombing raids and provide shelter from artillery to each other.

There are a great many subplots throughout the film that flesh out the characters and give them all a level of humanity deeper than can be seen in most war films. I liked many of the details that were revealed about the lead characters in each group as the story unfolded: the French Lieutenant Audebert’s (Guillaume Canet, “The Beach”) relationship with a French General who checks up on him, the Scottish soldier Johnathan’s (Steven Robertson, “Kingdom of Heaven”) refusal to accept friendship with the Germans after the death of his hometown friend in battle, and the fact that the German Lieutenant Horstmayer (Daniel Bruhl, “Good Bye Lenin!”) is Jewish and has a French wife.

The direction by writer Christian Carion is much more sophisticated than the rather sentimental subject matter might suggest. The battle sequence near the beginning of the film could substitute in any war film about the harsh reality of combat. Plus, Carion throws in subtle flashes of style that underlay great substance beneath the film’s cheery message. When Johnathan rushes out of his local parish after delivering the “good news” that they will be going to war with the Germans, all the candles the priest Palmer (Gary Lewis, “Gangs of New York”) has just lit are blown out by the swinging door. Also the film opens with a speech given by a German schoolboy about how evil the British are. That Speech is repeated almost verbatim near the end of the film by a Scottish Bishop blessing new recruits before they are sent up to the front.

The sentimental premise of this film might throw some serious film goers off; however, it is based upon several documented cases of truces called between lines during that first Christmas Eve of WWI. But the film itself has depth far beyond the notion that we are all the same and can overcome our differences if we just have the inspiration. Carion’s film is a fully realized story with the Christmas Eve truce providing only one aspect of these soldier’s lives. Their emotional journeys are served by what they bring to the war and take away from it, rather than just what happens to them during the war. This is a holiday film with its message of hope, but it is also a film that fully realizes the human spirit, both good and bad.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Clerks II / *** (R)

Dante: Brian O’Halloran
Randall: Jeff Anderson
Rebecca: Rosario Dawson
Jay: Jason Mewes
Silent Bob: Kevin Smith
Elias: Trevor Fehrman
Emma: Jennifer Schwalbach

The Weinstein Company presents a film written and directed by Kevin Smith. Running time: 97 min. Rated R (for pervasive and crude sexual content including aberrant behavior, strong language and some drug content.)

“Clerks II” is one of those films where it’s pretty much pointless to assign a star rating. If you’re a fan of Kevin Smith and his unique mythology of losers from Jersey with their brash outlooks on life, then you’re probably going to like it. If you’re not a fan, you either won’t get it or have already decided it’s all a waste of your time. Some fans may find Smith’s sentimental turn at the end of the film a betrayal and say Smith has lost his veneer of cynicism. Non-fans might see this turn as a nice change of tone for Smith and say he may yet grow up.

I am a great fan of Smith, but not a “Clerks” fanatic specifically. Smith is an incredibly talented filmmaker, and one of the best writers in the business. The original “Clerks” was a bold example of independent filmmaking and intelligent writing, but suffered from inexperienced directing and just plain bad acting. It is an irony that one of the jokes in this film involves deriding the wooden acting of Hayden Christiansen in the latest “Star Wars” trilogy.

“Clerks II” is basically just more of the same from the first film, with clerks Dante and Randall (Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson of the original “Clerks”) leading the way. This time, after losing their jobs at the Quickstop due to an in-store fire, they infuriate customers at a fictional fast food joint, Mooby’s. There is a little plot involving a love triangle between Dante, his fiancée Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach, “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back”) and his boss, Rebecca (Rosario Dawson, “Rent”).

But plot is not really what the Kevin Smith universe is all about. Mostly it is about drug-influenced, inane conversations that would be offensive to one demographic or another if they weren’t so entertaining. Even with their entertainment value, I’m sure many people find the offense before discovering the tongue-firmly-in-cheek humor of it all.

Of course, Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith) are present, fresh out of re-hab and trying not to use, but still dealing to the locals. Mewes, as usual, adds his idiotic verbal rants and seemingly off-character obsessions on music and movies. And Smith stays true to his character’s moniker until vital wisdom is needed near the end of the film.

It is a great irony that Smith writes so cleverly about idiots and inanities. He somehow makes you care for these people who do nothing to deserve anyone’s sympathy, or even empathy. This benefits Smith’s own sentimentality as an independent filmmaker who so obviously is most influenced by Hollywood fluff.

What Smith does with these “Clerks” films (and to a lesser degree with most of his other material) is essentially make a Hollywood sex comedy, but instead of showing us all the flesh, drugs and rock and roll, he has his characters perform a poor man’s philosophical debate about such practices. The subjects range from repressed Christian homosexuality, anal sex, and bestiality to racism, “Star Wars” vs. “The Lord of the Rings”, and internet message boards.

This severely limits Smith’s audience because the juvenile set prefers to see boobs, not listen to some loser talk about seeing them. Conversely, a more intellectual set would like something deeper to ponder in their talking head movies. As a member of both those demographics myself, it works for me. Smith may risk scaring off some of his devoted following, however, with an overly sentimentalized conclusion for Dante and Randall. I, on the other hand, kind of like the way their hearts come into focus for these guys, who up until this point had been fairly two-dimensional characters.

Smith has made much better films than the “Clerks” movies. The first had the benefit of being fairly original and thrived from the buzz surrounding its audacious origin. But Smith is capable of grander and more auspicious filmmaking as evidenced by such films as “Chasing Amy”, “Dogma”, and “Jersey Girl”. It is nice that he retains his affection for these original characters, but I hope this return to his Redbank, New Jersey losers doesn’t mean he’s giving up on aspirations to tackle more substantial projects. I know the Hollywood machine has not tread lightly on Smith, with studios canceling several of his big ticket projects or handing them off to other directors, but it would be a shame if a writer of his talent was relegated to fart jokes and donkey sex for the rest of his career.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth / **** (PG)

Al Gore

Paramount Classics presents a film directed by Davis Guggenheim. Running time: 100 min. Rated PG (for mild thematic elements).

It is sort of critiquing cliché to say about a film that it should be “required viewing,” but there is hardly any other way to describe the global warming documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”. And what this frightening documentary puts forth is very concerning indeed.

Director Davis Guggenheim follows former Vice President Al Gore on his lecture tour to raise awareness of the dangers of global warming. He provides a little background into Gore’s nearly life-long pursuit to bring awareness to this pressing issue, but the film spends most of its time simply capturing one of Gore’s engaging lectures.

Yes, Gore’s lecture is quite impressive. It is all very academic, but also incredibly compelling. This is not the same man you might remember from his lackluster run for the presidency in 2000. First of all, he’s funny. He begins his lecture by introducing himself as the man who “used to be the next president of the United States.” After a good laugh from the audience he claims, “I don’t see why that’s funny.”

But very little else of what Gore has to say is amusing. He accuses our political representatives of consciously ignoring the problem because to recognize the problem would also be to realize “the moral imperative to do something is inescapable.” Gore himself played down his environmental platform in his presidential run because of pressure from the Democratic National Committee that it was too leftist. Based on his performance in this film, I would say that may have been the electorate losing mistake.

The sad thing is this is not a political issue, it is a moral one. It is an irony that the “moral” right (or left for that matter) is so ruled by their financial dependency, they choose to do the easy thing above the right thing, which holds the potential for just as many job opportunities as the oil industry claims alternative fuels would cost.

I will leave the facts of the case to an expert like Gore, but this environmental “debate” reminds me in some way of the debate over the war in Iraq. Whether you supported the war from the beginning or not, it seems the general consensus is that something has to change in our approach to Iraq. While criticism of the war is high, reasonable solutions on what to do about it seem hard to come by. It seems the general public has a similar outlook on the environment. The powers-that-be (whomever they may be) seem to have the attitude that the only solution is unreasonable, and the public at large is content to accept that, but the best feature of this film is that Gore lays down some very simple, attainable solutions that will vastly affect the doomsday predictions that all the scientific evidence points toward.

Gore convinced me it is everyone’s responsibility to fix this problem that our modern society has created. This is why this film is required viewing. I would hope that this review would convince all its readers to rent the film, but since I am aware that my opinion of a film is hardly the final determining factor in my reader’s rental practices, I will attempt to do some of the work here for you.

From the website I’ve included their list of ten things you can do to help:

1. Change your light bulbs. A fluorescent light bulb uses 150 pounds less carbon dioxide per year than a regular light bulb.
2. Drive less. Walk, ride a bike, or use mass transit.
3. Recycle more.
4. Check your tires. Properly inflated tires will improve your gas mileage.
5. Use less hot water.
6. Avoid products with a lot of packaging.
7. Adjust your thermostat. 2 degrees can save 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere.
8.Plant a tree. A single tree will absorb one ton of carbon dioxide during its life time.
9. Turn off electronic devices when they are not in use.
10. Spread the word.

One of the best ways to achieve the last tip on this list is to rent this film with someone else. It is as terrifying as it is educational. I should have included it in this year’s Horrorfest. One thing this film isn’t is boring.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

A Prairie Home Companion / **** (PG-13)

G.K.: Garrison Keillor
Yolanda Johnson: Meryl Streep
Guy Noir: Kevin Klein
Lola Johnson: Lindsay Lohan
Rhoda Johnson: Lily Tomlin
Dusty: Woody Harrelson
Lefty: John C. Reilly
Molly: Maya Rudolph
Dangerous Woman: Virginia Madsen
Axeman: Tommy Lee Jones

Picturehouse presents a film directed by Robert Altman. Written by Garrison Keillor and Ken LaBeznik, based on the radio program hosted by Garrison Keillor. Running time: 105 min. Rated PG-13 (for risqué humor).

“It was the Mid West, where they think if they ignore bad news, it will just go away.”

Guy Noir speaks these words in “A Prairie Home Companion”, the final film of director Robert Altman, one of the greatest and most influential filmmakers ever to mold cinema into an art form. The quote is an observational joke that, like most of Altman’s work, captures a subtle truism of human nature existing on a level many are aware of but never articulate.

Altman made plenty of controversial films, with large casts and a distinctive style of overlapping dialogue and storylines. “A Prairie Home Companion” differs only in that it is devoid of controversy. This is a warm, loving film of songs and humor that in retrospect will seem like a fond farewell from a director who excelled at observing the human spirit and celebrated it with his unique vision.

“A Prairie Home Companion” is based on the nationally syndicated National Public Radio show of the same name that broadcasts each week from Minnesota. Hosted by Garrison Keillor, the long-running radio show tells the bemused tales of the fictional town of Lake Wobegon and runs like an old fashioned radio review, focusing on the characters who live in and drift through the town with anecdotes and songs. Keillor co-wrote the screenplay and stars as himself in the film.

The film is a fictionalized account of the radio program’s final show. (In reality, it is still going strong and probably will for as long as Keillor is around to produce it). As those words spoken by Guy Noir near the beginning of the picture suggest, the cast of the radio program do their best to approach this final show as if it were any other. This lends a simplicity to the events which contrasts with most of Altman’s convoluted character weavings.

The large cast includes an eclectic mix of Hollywood talent. Kevin Kline (“The Pink Panther”) plays Noir as gumshoe narrator and the show’s head of security. Lily Tomlin (“I Heart Huckabees”) and Meryl Streep (“The Devil Wears Prada”) play singing sisters reflecting upon their life long careers, and Lindsay Lohan (“Mean Girls”) is Streep’s bookish daughter, who gets a chance to debut her singing talents in the show’s final moments. Woody Harrelson (“North Country”) and John C. Reilly (“Talladega Nights”) are a couple of very funny crooning cowboys. And Saturday Night Live’s Maya Rudolph is the show’s put-upon pregnant stage manager.

Altman injects some of his dark twang into the proceedings when one of the cast members (the great western character actor L.Q. Jones) passes away in his dressing room after his final performance. The character of the Dangerous Woman (Virginia Madsen, “Sideways”) plays into this storyline and proves more necessary than she is dangerous. She also helps bring closure to how the cast feels about The Axeman (Tommy Lee Jones, “Men in Black”), who represents the theater’s parent company responsible for pulling the plug on the show.

Despite these more direct references to death, the film is a pleasant requiem for this family of professional performers. It’s an intimate look at the performances and the backstage choreography involved in creating this unique show. There are some wonderful musical moments that can just be appreciated for what they are, and the rest really serves those performances more than anything else.

While I doubt Altman planned for “A Prairie Home Companion” to be his swan song, he could not have chosen a more fitting project. Yes, people in the Mid West really do deal with bad news by ignoring it and hoping it will vanish, and the death of Altman last week at the age of 81 is bad news that undoubtedly will not go away, no matter how much we may wish otherwise. Like the best stories from Lake Wobegon, however, his films, will undoubtedly be with us for untold years to come; Altman, after all, was one of the greatest filmmakers to ever bless the screen with his vision.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Horrorfest 2006 report #7: Summary

Club Dread (2004) **
The Wicker Man (1973) ***½
Lady Vengeance (2006) ***½
The Eye (2002) **½
The Elephant Man (1980) ****
Doom (2005) **
Hard Candy (2006) ****
Dark Water (2005) **
BloodRayne (2006) ½*
The Omen (2006) ***½
Mark of the Vampire (1935) ***
Stay (2005) ***
Poltergeist (1982) ***½
Ginger Snaps (2001) ***½
November (2005) ***
The Forgotten (2004) *½
The Skeleton Key (2005) ***
Slither (2006) ***
Sleepy Hollow (1999) ***½
Silent Hill (2006) **
House of 1,000 Corpses (2003) **
The Fog (2005) **
The Hills Have Eyes (2006) **
High Tension (2003) ***

It has been almost a month since Horrorfest 2006 came to a close. It has been a difficult month for me, but I am still looking back fondly on this year set of films. I have written in detail about each and every film of the fest save two. Those two were the fairly lack luster remakes of two classic films originally made by two classic horror director’s. Rupert Wainwright’s remake of John Carpenter’s “The Fog” and Alexandre Aja’s update of Wes Craven’s “The Hills Have Eyes” each expand upon the reasoning and detail behind these horror originals but fail to deliver the relevance that made these stories more compelling in their initial incarnations.

The original “Fog” was a ghost story warning about the dangers of forgetting the past and how things came to be. The remake fills in a great amount of detail about that past of the ghosts which invade the sea coast town in the story. This makes their story so specific that any parallels to current or even past issues in our history become less relevant to the movie and therefore less effective as good storytelling. It is a mistake to make the people who became these ghost lepers, making it difficult to relate to their injustice for a modern audience.

Aja directed the successful festival entry “High Tension” and brings the same brand of brutality to “The Hills Have Eyes”. He also provides an incredibly tenacious hero to his Hollywood debut, as he did with his French hit, but the point against our dependency on nuclear energy has been lost since the original film debuted in the late 70s. What Aja provides here is a gruesome look at senseless brutality, but not much else.

Despite a few other disappointments like these, I was much more pleased with this year’s Horrorfest than I expected to be. My main goal this year was to clear out a bunch of titles from my Netflix queue that I hadn’t gotten to over the past couple of years. With a schedule of what had basically been rejected entries and the fact that I got started about a week and a half later than usual, my expectations for a month of incredible filmmaking was not high. I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of the films this year.

As is the norm, the two best films I saw this year were not strictly horror films, but “The Elephant Man” and “Hard Candy” are both films any movie lover should take a look at. After 24 films of a very dark nature, however, I was quite glad to return to a regularized variety of films; and since my back injury, I have really had a chance to just overload on a great many classics. I think Turner Classic Movies has been my most frequented channel since being incapacitated.

This year’s Horrorfest seemed to inspire more people to suggest movies for my future Horrorfests than in the past. This gave me an idea for Horrorfest 2007, a readers’ request Horrorfest. I have already added “The Devil’s Rejects”, “Don’t Look Now”, “Dead End”, Bergman’s “Hour of the Wolf”, and the 2006 release “The Descent” to my Netflix queue for next year’s Horrorfest. Although, considering the praise I’ve read for “The Descent” I will probably try to look at it before the end of the year so I can place it on my Best of 2006 list if it deserves it.

So I will be taking requests all year long for next year’s Horrorfest. If you’ve seen a horror film that you think must be seen to be believed, let me know. Or even if it isn’t strictly a horror film, but you feel it embraces horrific aspects, pass it on. I’ll add them all to my list and Horrorfest 2007 could be the best Horrorfest yet.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Horrorfest 2006 report #6: Women, pt. 2: The Heroine

From Ripley in “Alien” to Laurie Strode in the original “Halloween”, strong women have always been the primary focus of horror films. Is it because women are more vulnerable? Is it because women have a higher threshold for pain? Certainly the aspect of the female as mother has played a part in many a horror plot. “Rosemary’s Baby” comes to mind, or “Friday, the 13th”. Even the latter films of the “Alien” series turn both Ripley and the monster into mother figures, but the connection of the female spirit seems to be rooted even beyond their role as creators of life. The horror heroine seems to be some sort of primal scream for the female psychology. A sort of opposing reaction to the notion that the female is the weaker of our species. Four of this year’s Horrorfest films take this heroine notion of the strong female and turn it on its head.

“BloodRayne” is a vampire story set in medieval times. Instead of just being a victim, the heroine here not only is being chased by the vampires, but is one herself. Rayne is a special kind of vampire known as a dhampir, half-human/half vampire, and could be the key to destroying the vampire plague that threatens to take over the world.

Unfortunately, that is about as long as I can stand to write seriously about this joke of a film. Based on a video game, this movie plays like it was made by a bunch of D&D nerds who are so obsessed with the game that they actually dress up in costumes and act it out.

The truly sad thing is that it is cast with actual acting talents, whose presence suggest these are not the people you want to bet on in a celebrity poker tournament. Rayne is played by Kristanna Loken, who apparently was not informed that her debut performance as the third Terminator did not actually require her to act. The film also inexplicably contains performances by Ben Kingsley, Michael Madsen, Michelle Rodriguez, Billy Zane and Meatloaf. Only Zane seems to be aware of the film’s inherent awfulness and plays it as if he wants you to know he knows. Meatloaf seems to think this is Shakespeare considering the earnestness with which he approaches his brief role. And Madsen brings a whole new definition to the phrase “phoning it in.”

Perhaps even more inexplicable than the presence of capable actors in this sad excuse to spend money is the fact that after the story has finished the filmmakers felt it was necessary to recap every shot of blood and gore from throughout the film, including a shot of Loken drinking blood out of a chalice repeated four or five times.

In “November”, a much better film than “BloodRayne”, Courtney Cox plays a photographer trying to deal with the loss of her boyfriend during a convenience store robbery. She begins to remember things about the evening of the shooting that bring into question exactly what her role in the incident was and even her own memory of their relationship before his death.

“November” is one of those thrillers where the order of events it not necessarily what it seems because the facts the audience is privy to are dependent on the fact that we are subject to the heroine’s perception. After a while it becomes clear the photographer has altered her perception of events as she begins to remember the night of her boyfriend’s death differently when a photo of the convenience store from that night shows up in some of her work.

Like “Stay”, another movie I watched earlier during Horrorfest, “November” plays like an extended version of an episode of “The Outer Limits” or “The Twilight Zone”. In fact the two movies are pretty much the exact same story. “Stay” is the trippier “Outer Limits” version, while “November” is the more analytical “Twilight Zone” approach.

The major difference between the two films is that “November”’s protagonist is female. I think this counterbalances this version’s more diagnostic approach to the material. Cox’s performance is more emotion driven, while the structure of the film is more dogmatic, as opposed to “Stay” where the male leads try to figure out what is going on using logic, while the film itself is very esoteric.

The female protagonist in “The Skeleton Key”, played by Kate Hudson, is also trying to figure out events that have already happened. Not something that has happened in her past, however, but what may have happened to a man (John Hurt) living on an old southern plantation with only his wife (Gena Rowlands). The old man has entered a non-responsive yet conscious state after he supposedly fell in the attic of this mansion. Kate Hudson’s med-student/ care provider begins to suspect something more sinister when she discovers a hidden room in the attic that was once occupied by slave servants who practiced the magic art of Hoodoo.

Hudson’s character plays against the emotional female stereotype and approaches her investigation into this Hoodoo magic with a great deal of skepticism, expecting a logical and scientific explanation for all the strange occurrences in the old mansion. The filmmakers get a good deal of mileage out of reversing this gender stereotype, which plays heavily into the actual plot of the story as well as much of the misdirection of the mystery for the characters. I was surprised at how effective the twists worked in this horror/thriller, which could have easily been a fairly standard turn of formulaic devices.

Now, when it comes to plot twists, few films can out do the French horror flick “High Tension”. The eventual twist was something that I could have predicted very early on in the film, however, the story so quickly wraps you up in its messy terror that any presumptions are soon forgotten.

Two women, Alexa and Marie, are traveling to the French countryside to visit Alexa’s parents. Their get away hits a horrific bump when a serial killer breaks into the rural farmhouse and kills the entire family. The killer takes Alexa hostage while Marie narrowly avoids detection and follows the kidnapper.

Director and co-writer Alexandre Aja does a wonderful job of putting Marie into situations that leave her no other way to deal with her circumstance than by just tagging along. There are two wonderful sequences, one at the farmhouse and one at a convenience store, where the killer seems to be about to catch her and she must trick him into believing she is not there. Later, when the plot twist is revealed, the narrow escapes have a different resonance that still makes sense. Only a shot of the killer at the beginning of the film, before the girls arrive at the farmhouse, makes little sense once the truth is revealed. However, considering what the truth is, it is possible to rationalize many reasons for the killer’s actions.

“High Tension” plays heavily on the stereotypes of women in horror films, utilizing and contrasting both the notion of the fragility of the female and the woman as kick ass heroine.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Flushed Away / *** (PG)

Roddy: Hugh Jackman
Rita: Kate Winslet
The Toad: Ian McKellen
Le Frog: Jean Reno
Whitey: Bill Nighy
Spike: Andy Serkis

DreamWorks Animation and Aardman Features present a film directed by David Bowers and Sam Fell. Written by Fell and Peter Lord and Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais and Chris Lloyd & Joe Keenan and Will Davies. Running time: 84 min. Rated PG (for crude humor and some language).

As a dad, you find yourself attending films you would never even consider watching on your own. I am a fan of animation and would attend more “family” fare than your average, non-parent filmgoer; but my five year-old picks some movies that would make most adults feel they had lost 90 minutes that they’ll never get back. Every once and a while, though, one of those unappealing children’s concepts turns out to be a real treasure.

When I first saw the previews of “Flushed Away”, I thought perhaps the minds at Aardman Animation had sold out to the Hollywood establishment in a misguided attempt to enter the mainstream animation business. The small British animation studio is famous for producing the award winning Claymation shorts and features “Creature Comforts” and the “Wallace & Gromit” adventures. “Flushed Away” marks the studio’s first foray in to the overly popular CGI animation format.

Although the animation is computer generated, it is done in a style that replicates right down to the character design the studio’s trademark Claymation style. At first, I couldn’t understand the point of making a CGI film look like a stop motion animation one. On top of that, it was a story about a pet rat that gets flushed into the London sewer system, not the most promising of set-ups.

I was wrong. “Flushed Away” is an ambitious, fun, rawkus adventure, filled with clever jokes, charming characters and a vitality that is informed by the stop motion style, yet probably took much less time and money to produce with computer technology.

Roddy (voiced by Hugh Jackman, “X-Men”) is a high society pet rat living the high life. When his family goes away, his affluent life is interrupted by an intruder rat named Sid (Shane Richie, BBC’s “French and Saunders”). Sid is a rat of a more vulgar nature who knows the difference between a toilet and a Jacuzzi; when Roddy tries to trick him into the toilet bowl, Sid turns the tables and flushes Roddy away.

Roddy discovers a new world in the sewers where rats and some less savory amphibians have built their own society which mirrors the London of above. Roddy finds himself in trouble early, mixed up in a confrontation between a boat captain named Rita (Kate Winslet, “Finding Neverland”) and the nefarious underlord The Toad (Ian McKellen, “The Da Vinci Code”). At first Roddy clashes with Rita and just wants to get back to his posh life, but he eventually joins forces with her to stop The Toad’s plans to flood the rats out of Sewer London.

Description doesn’t begin to hint at the joy with which all this is presented. Directors David Bowers and Sam Fell have assembled a team of animators that infuse their pixels with life and energy and a particular knack for bringing out even the minutest details in the forefront and background of each and every frame.

The stop motion technique is replicated right down to the ever so slight jump in action from one frame to the next and the cartoon retains that intangible spark of life that is so unique to stop motion. Every smile and smirk of the characters is felt by the audience as if it were a true physical occurrence rather than some computer virtual reality.

The filmmakers of both Aardman and DreamWorks retain their particular gifts for richly layered humor. The screaming and singing slugs never fail to inspire a guffaw and a knee slap. The filmmakers continue their studios’ and the format’s history of filling their story with a great number of referential jokes, spoofing a great many popular films from the James Bond and Indiana Jones franchises to “Star Wars”, and even very adult fare like “Apocalypse Now”.

The most impressive feat of this film, however, seems to be the vitality of the vocal performances. I can’t remember an animated film that so connected its vocal performances with a real sense of life in the characters. Jackman and Winslet are spry in their vocal treatment and Ian McKellen and Jean Reno (“The Da Vinci Code”), as an assassin known as Le Frog, ooze contempt for the other characters in every period, pause and syllable of their speech. You can just feel the how much fun it must have been for these actors to report to the sound studio each day.

And that’s appropriate because the point is this movie is a whole lot of fun. It has chases, rubies and a large family with comical characters that live on a perpetually rocking boat. It has maniacal plots and World Cup Soccer, fiendish doomsday devices and jocular villains, romance and witty, witty comedy. “Flushed Away” is simply a fantastic time at the movies.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Horrorfest 2006 report # 5: Monsters

Monsters have long since been a staple in horror. Films in particular have iconized a number of monsters, most notably the Universal Studios monsters like Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolf Man. It wouldn’t be a Horrorfest without several films in which monsters took the focus. This year was no disappointment.

Along the lines of iconic monsters, Tim Burton gave us a look at one of America’s classic ones back in 1999 with his filmed version of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” with the abridged title “Sleepy Hollow”. In it very little of the original tale remains, but the monster of The Headless Horseman is envisioned with more charm and thought than ever before.

The casting of Christopher Walken as The Horseman, like any role the man seems to take on, is a stroke of genius on director Tim Burton’s part. But like any Burton/Depp collaboration, it is Johnny Depp as Constable Ichabod Crane that makes this movie such a delight. Transforming Crane from a bookish school teacher into a bold, yet still bookish, innovator of police investigation is a great example of how Burton takes this classic tale and transcends the source material to make it all his own. Horror flicks are not supposed to be this fun, but I am so glad this one is; and that it is one of my wife’s very favorite films means that I get to watch it just about every year.

One of the classic horror monsters is the Wolf Man. Our filmmaking friends to the north had an epiphany a few years ago when the Canadian film “Ginger Snaps” redefined the werewolf flick for the modern teenager.

Werewolves have always been represented by younger people to parallel the sometimes difficult transition from childhood to adulthood. “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” and “Teen Wolf” are some obvious examples of this, but “Ginger Snaps” gives the notion a fresh take with its subversively pricked lines of dialogue and a very direct parallel to the female reproductive cycle.

Ginger and Bridget are sisters that find themselves outcasts in high school and each running late in getting their period. After a sudden werewolf attack, Ginger suddenly becomes aware of her feminine wiles. She finds her fortunes turn toward popularity, all the while slowly turning into a werewolf herself. Unfortunately, a simple plot description cannot hint at the level of cleverness and droll humor with which this all comes to pass.

As droll humor goes, it has been a while since a horror flick has reached for the knee slapping level of comedy that “Slither” does. Coming across as a sort of “Critters” meets “Night of the Living Dead”, “Slither” makes great use of its star’s ability to play against all movie hero stereotypes.

Nathan Fillion, who didn’t rise to as much fame as he deserved as the captain in the underrated FOX sci-fi series “Firefly”, plays the sheriff of a small town where a meteor lands one evening. The slimy creature contained within this meteor projects itself into a host body which then goes on a feeding frenzy and turns into some sort of slug-like being and then…. Well, really this space slaughter monster has a very intricately detailed life cycle, so I’ll just tell you that eventually it turns the town’s people into flesh-eating zombies.

“Slither” is certainly unique in the way it combines action oriented comedy with some of the most gruesome gross-out horror I’ve witnessed. These two extremes could threaten to cancel each other out and become some sort of gore fest that neither frightens nor humors, but Fillion is so adept at the dry humor of a hero that only knows the motions and not the actual practice of being a hero that he holds the whole mess together.

As gross-out horror goes, however, Rob Zombie either raised or lowered the bar (depending on how you look at it) with his feature film directorial debut “House of 1,000 Corpses”. While this is more of a serial killing family flick in the vein of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, it does contain a number of monsters which come into play at the end of the picture, including the infamous Doctor Satan who acts as a catalyst for the poor group of over curious young victims.

I very much enjoyed some of the oddball characters found in this film, which at most points resembles some sort of traveling freak show than an actual movie with a plot, hero or villain. The character of Captain Spalding, played by actor Sid Haig, was the most appealing presence in the movie.

I believe the charisma of some of the more “normal” (a very relative term when speaking of a Rob Zombie production) serial killers is why his follow up feature “The Devils Rejects” has been more widely accepted by critics and audiences alike; but this first feature really starts to fall apart when the last remaining victims find themselves thrown into an unhinted at underworld where these strange grotesque killer monsters reside. These monsters seem to exist merely for their shock value than any other reason. In fact by the end of the film, even slasher movie reasoning seems to have been thrown to the wind.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Flags of Our Fathers / **** (R)

John “Doc” Bradley: Ryan Phillippe
Rene Gagnon: Jesse Bradford
Ira Hayes: Adam Beach
Keyes Beech: John Benjamin Hickey
Bud Gerber: John Slattery
Mike Strank: Barry Pepper
Ralph “Iggy” Ignatowski: Jamie Bell
Hank Hansen: Paul Walker
Colonel Chandler Johnson: Robert Patrick
Captain Severance: Neal McDonough

Paramount Pictures, DreamWorks SKG and Warner Bros. present a film directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by William Broyles, Jr. and Paul Haggis, based on the book by James Bradley and Ron Powers. Running time: 132 min. Rated R (for sequences of graphic war violence and carnage, and for language).

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a friend about relatives who were in World War II. Both of us are movie buffs, and we remembered a scene from the 1999 David Lynch film “The Straight Story” in which two elderly veterans of that war meet in a bar half a century later and express how painful it is to remember that time in their lives and how no one could understand what they’d been through. We both agreed that in our experience with our own family members, no other scene had ever hit the nail so squarely on the head about that war’s survivors.

“Flags of Our Fathers” is based on the third person memoir written by James Bradley and Ron Powers about the men who fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima, where that iconic picture of five Marines and one Navy corpsman raising the American flag atop Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi was taken. Bradley’s own grandfather John Bradley was the Navy medic in the picture and one of three men who survived long enough to be brought back to the States for a war bonds tour that helped save the U.S. from losing the war.

When I first heard of this production, I was both excited and surprised because it marked the first ever collaboration between my two favorite current American filmmakers, Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg. The two are pretty much polar opposites as directors, but they match up well together with Eastwood directing and Spielberg producing this war epic. I don’t think one could have made this film without the other.

“Flags of Our Fathers” is really like two different films put together into one. The Battle of Iwo Jima itself is a spectacular war piece. Spielberg and the special effects team go to great lengths to show the magnitude of the U.S. forces sent to take this tiny island of rock between the U.S. controlled Marinas Islands and the Japanese mainland. The landing on the beach, with its black sulfuric sands, acts as a kind of mirror to Spielberg’s own opening to “Saving Private Ryan” with its depiction of the shore landing at Normandy.
It is immediately clear that we were fighting a very different war in the Pacific than the European Theater presented in that film. Instead of the soldiers being mowed down before they even reached the shore, the Japanese allowed the first line well onto the island before engaging in attack because of the way they were entrenched into the island itself with a series of secret tunnels.

Eastwood’s straight forward approach is not wasted in the battle sequences, however.
With Spielberg providing the spectacular details, Eastwood allows Iwo Jima a stark quality that is reflected in its barren landscape. There are none of the “glamorous” Hollywood style shots of soldiers having cinematic moments that many accused “Private Ryan” of exploiting for emotional effect. There is a deliberate confusion to the sequence of events on the island and to the fate of the soldiers that marks the grit of Eastwood more so than the polish of Spielberg. The breaking of linear storytelling allows Eastwood to keep the tension of the action high despite the fact that the audience knows which soldiers make it home.

Eastwood’s strengths as a director are more clearly seen in his depiction of the 7th War Bonds tour three of the soldiers find themselves on while their buddies continue to fight and die overseas. When that famous flag raising photo captures the nation’s attention, the government comes looking for the men in the photo. Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford, TV’s “The West Wing”), a runner for the beach base rather than a frontline soldier, claims to have been in the photo and is the only soldier willing to name all of the other men in it. John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe, “Gosford Park”) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach, “Windtalkers”) are the only other surviving members of the photo.

Eastwood’s gift for intimate character based drama drives the story of these soldiers turned public relations men. Gagnon is a natural for the role of spokesman. Hayes cannot handle being called a hero for merely “[trying] not to get shot.” Doc must act as the tour’s peace keeper while trying to deal with the hell he has been through himself.

Eastwood has a subtle way of letting the audience experience the inner turmoil of these characters. You can feel Hayes’s anguish, delivered more with tears than words by Beach, in a scene where he hugs one of the mothers of the men from the picture who did not survive the battle. During the same scene, Doc must lie to one of the mothers who was told her son was there, when he had actually raised an earlier flag, not the one seen in the picture.

That the flag pictured is not the original is fairly well known today. At the time, however, it was a thorny issue because the perception that it was not the original flag gave the somewhat mistaken impression that the photo was staged. This brings to mind a great many issues about the state of war in our country today. The press in the film jump like vultures on the notion that the picture may have been set up, while the government holds firm that it was the first flag to be raised on Iwo Jima. This idea that the first report of that photo was the truth was a major factor in the success of that 7th War Bonds tour and the primary reason the U.S. did not have to retreat from the Pacific Theater. This leads to a complicated question: should we perhaps be less quick to question the choices our government makes during war, or should our government perhaps realize that our relationship with the media and the way wee get news is much different than it was in 1945?

This politicized debate, however, does not seem to be the point of this picture. Eastwood makes it very clear the telling of this story is meant to be a tribute to the soldiers who fought for their country, both the idealized version of their tale and the actual story. He intercuts both stories together throughout the film even though the bonds tour happened after the Battle of Iwo Jima, which lasted another 35 days after that famous photo was snapped.

The story of these three soldiers and their fellow Marines from that battle was not something that merely existed in some chronology of the war, but was something they, like the two old men in “The Straight Story”, continued to live with for the rest of their lives. Their story is something we all live with to this day. Their efforts for our country, both the reality and the fiction, deserve tribute and reflection; for both have shaped this country and our lives.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Horrorfest 2006 report #4: Women, pt. 1: The Mother

In my years of being a horror fan, it has not been hard to notice that for the most part horror films utilize a female protagonist. I think there is more than one reason for this, since there is more than one type of female hero to be found in the horror genre. One such protagonist often found in horror movies is The Mother.

This could be because the mother is the protector of the children. The barrier between the innocence of childhood and the difficulties of adult life. It could be because children themselves, in their unreigned, nature are closer to the chaos that feeds evil and the mother acts as a barrier in the other direction, protecting the world from the child. That’s a concept I will be talked to in the bed about. Or perhaps the mother as the bringer of life is the greatest weapon against that “undiscovered country” many of us fear so much.

I have watched four films involving mothers over the past two weeks of this year’s Horrorfest. Three involved a mother searching for a lost child. Ask a mother and they’ll tell you there is nothing in the world scarier. And one involved a child looking for her mother.

“Poltergeist” was the only one of these three that was successful. As part of my monthly film society screenings, I revisited this movie which I feel could be categorized as a forgotten classic. With a screenplay by Hollywood’s most popular director, Steven Spielberg, under the direction of the Spielberg picked Tobe Hooper, of the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” fame; “Poltergeist” anticipates the J-horror ghost story craze by twenty years.

The central relationship in the story is between the mother of a suburban family (JoBeth Williams) and the youngest daughter, who is first contacted by unknown forces through the television set and later is consumed by the house itself into a netherworld that occupies a parallel space. In one of the film’s most spectacular sequences the mother uses a rope to enter the netherworld so she can snatch her daughter and be pulled back out.

The production is a surprisingly effective blend of Spielberg’s flash and polishes and Hooper’s shocks and disgustipations. The two create many lasting horror images that people who saw it as children still remember vividly and answer many horror related questions, like why no kid should ever keep a toy clown in his room, why it is good that cable helped to do away with the airing of the National Anthem at the end of broadcasting each night, and why you should never eat chicken with the lights off. They also taught me how to tell whether a lightning storm was coming or going.

One big disappointment was the video game-based horror flick “Silent Hill”. This film also is filled with many disturbing horror moments, but there seems to be some sort of disconnect with those disturbing images and the real story at hand. I am not familiar with the video game, but from the film I suppose it involves searching for your lost daughter in the ghost town of Silent Hill, where the coal from under this mining town still burns from a massive fire that claimed most of its citizens (yet somehow left the buildings standing with only a few seared spots). It snows ash from the perpetually burning sublevels, and is infested with mutants from hell(?) that you must maneuver through to find your daughter.

Or maybe the daughter is even a construct of the screenplay. I don’t know, but it seems the setting is from a video game and the story is from a horror film. The story may be a little too much to go into in the limited space I have here, but the production design is impressive to say the least. Despite the disconnect created from the video game translation there are many memorable images, such as the burning ember children, and the cone head with the giant sword. The mood is beyond creepy from the moment the mother (Radha Mitchell) enters Silent Hill. I wasn’t entirely pleased with the ambivalent ending, however, which is not really justified by the action of the story.

“The Forgotten”, on the other hand, could have used a little of that ambivalence, because the explanation the filmmakers came up with for the action of its story is utterly ludicrous and stupid. Let me reiterate that last part. It was stupid. Stoopid. Stupid. I won’t ruin that explanation for any poor souls who might want to watch the movie; but trust me, it is stupid.

The story involves a mother (Julianne Moore), whose son died when the plane he and other children were taking to a summer camp went down. The action begins well after the tragedy, and the mother is in therapy to deal with the loss. Then one day all her memoirs of her boy disappear. She accuses her husband trying to force her to move on and he tells her the boy never lived, he was a miscarriage. Her therapist backs up her husband’s story. Soon even her husband doesn’t remember her. But this denial of her own memories by others only leads her to the conclusion that her son is not actually dead at all. Perhaps there was no plane crash.

Yes, it sounds absurd, but this is not the stupid part. All this is very well done. It is creepy. There are conspiracies involving the government. There seem to be some supernatural forces at work. And although it is hard to relate to the mother’s bond with her child because he was already gone before the story started, you want to know just where the truth really lies.

I don’t know if screenwriter Gerald Di Pego (“Phenomenon”) just wrote himself into a corner and couldn’t get out, or if he just started with the explanation, damn the fact that no story written around it could justify it. I can’t believe this story ever got green lit, let alone read without anybody slapping him in the face with contempt and firmly stating, “No! No! Bad!”

“Dark Water” on the other hand is a nice try to replicate the J-horror phenom with a Hollywood remake. It is a moody, dank, damp, dark ghost story about a recently divorced mother (Jennifer Connelly) who moves her daughter to Roosevelt Island (a small island located on the east side of Manhattan where the 59th Street Bridge crosses over into Queens) while in a custody battle with her ex-husband (Dougray Scott). I can’t imagine the real life residents of Roosevelt Island are too pleased with the depiction of their isolated mini-city in this film. It does not look like a great place to live.

There is a water issue in the apartment they move to which originates from the apartment above. Apparently there may be a little girl who still lives up there after both her parents left her. And the water seems to be constantly running.

There are some good performances by Connelly, Scott, Tim Roth, and John C. Reilly here, but the action is played more like a full on drama than a horror flick. It is good that the producers tried to avoid the typical Hollywood thrashing of this remake by hiring award winning Brazilian director Walter Salles (“Central Station”) and gathering a cast with some real acting chops, but the scares come too late in the film for the audience to care anymore. That is if any of them are still awake after the slow pace of the story.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Departed / **** (R)

Billy Costigan: Leonardo DiCaprio
Colin Sullivan: Matt Damon
Frank Costello: Jack Nicholson
Oliver Queenan: Martin Sheen
Madolyn: Vera Farminga
Dignam: Mark Wahlberg
Mr. French: Ray Winstone
Ellerby: Alec Baldwin

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by William Monahan, based on the screenplay “Wu jian dao” by Siu Fai Mak and Felix Chong. Running time: 152 min. Rated R (for strong brutal violence, pervasive language, some strong sexual content and drug material).

Rats. There is a picture drawn by the character played by Jack Nicholson which depicts hundreds of rats flooding toward a Boston cathedral where one of the main characters grew up. It seems like a small, almost strange gesture that such a man as this should draw such a figurative description of something that the film itself is about, but I liked it. So much of the rest of “The Departed” is such a visceral expression of the violent environment the characters herein have chosen for themselves that an expression of “art”, like this drawing, is a reminder that a director like Martin Scorsese does not produce films that are merely about their surface elements.

“The Departed” is actually a remake of the Hong Kong film “Infernal Affairs”. I am glad to say I have seen both films, if only because I have witnessed how two great directors can interpret the exact same material with such distinctively different visions. “Infernal Affairs” takes a look at a common them among Asian crime pictures, that of the dual relationship between criminal and policeman. It is a fluid and visually pretty film that plays like a dance between the two main characters.

Martin Scorsese’s vision is gritty and harsh, something akin to passing a kidney stone. There is a flavor of his earlier gangster films, “Goodfellas”, “Mean Streets”, and “Casino”. But the daily crime routine of the gangsters here is presented as if it has become merely a second nature to Scorsese, not as important as the plot or characters.

The story follows a cop and a criminal. Colin Sullivan has been groomed by Irish crime kingpin Frank Costello to be a plant in the Massachusetts State Police, while Billy Costigan, who attended the police academy at about the same time as Sullivan, has been hand picked by Captain Oliver Queenan to become a deep undercover operative in Costello’s crime organization. Sullivan has been an exemplary trainee and quickly moves up in the police ranks to become a State Trooper Detective; while Costigan has lived a life of lies and deception, making him the perfect candidate to infiltrate Costello’s organization to a point where he can get close to the man himself. Then each is given the task of smoking out the “rat” in each of their home organizations.

Scorsese is attracted to stories about rats, whistle blowers and betrayal of trust, and the prices paid for such actions. His “Goodfellas”, about a real-life mob informant who was placed into the Federal Witness Protection Program after rolling over on his life long buddies and ambitions, is the most obvious example. But it is a theme that can be seen his films as wide ranging as , “Gangs of New York”, “Cape Fear”, “Raging Bull”, and “The Age of Innocence”. “The Departed” is perhaps the film that deals with the direct effects of living these lives of deception in the coldest, harshest personal fashion.

Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Aviator”) is once again at the top of his form as the anguished Costigan. He brings an element of fear to his role as a mole that is often missing from such performances. Usually the good mole is someone who is played with confidence and nobility, but Costigan realizes he is in over his head even if it is his job to pretend that could never be so.

Matt Damon (“Oceans Twelve”), however, eschews his good boy image as Sullivan. He does a good job utilizing his natural charm as the promotion grubbing detective, but gives it all detached feel that makes his deception that much more devious. His deception is much more confident than Costigan’s as he seems to enjoy the benefits of the “normal” life while still working for the bad guys.

The shared dual nature of these character’s personalities is literalized in each man’s relationship with state psychiatrist Madolyn Mason (Vera Farminga, “Running Scared”), who acts as Costigan’s parole shrink and is wooed by Sullivan in an elevator. The melodrama potential runs high when both Costigan and Sullivan develop personal relationships with her, an element that is played up for its melodramatic effect in the original Chinese film, but Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan (“Kingdom of Heaven”) use this story thread more to juxtapose Sullivan’s comfort with his deception versus Costigan’s need for something separated from his false life.

While DiCaprio provides the standout performance of the film, it also contains a number of impressive supporting performances. Jack Nicholson (“Something’s Gotta Give”) brings everything Jack to his role as crime kingpin Frank Costello, which he claims to have agreed to because it had been a while since he had played an evil character. Martin Sheen (NBC’s “The West Wing”) acts as the anchoring element as Costigan’s superior, Queenan. And Alec Baldwin (NBC’s “30 Rock”) steals every scene he is in as the enthusiastic Special Investigations Unit Captain Ellerby, “Patriot Act! Patriot Act! I love the Patriot Act!”

What Scorsese proves with “The Departed” -- besides that he is one of the few seventies filmmakers that is still a master artist -- is that a good story has such richness to it, it can be told by two different filmmakers who can each bring their own singular definitive vision to it. He also proves there is no one else in the business with such a relaxed ease for crime drama and such an intimate understanding of the psychology of the rat.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Horrorfest 2006 report #3

Film is an illusion. The filmmaker takes a reality and distorts it in such a way so another reality is created. Through editing, optical effects, framing, performance, lighting and sound the filmmaker shapes a specific story he wants to tell. If the audience gets a glimpse of a microphone hanging in the shot or an extra standing in the background staring at the camera, the illusion can be destroyed. The filmmaking process is all about perception. The perception the audience has of a false reality between the restricted confines of the screen frame.

Some of film’s greatest suspense stories involve a similar sort of false reality, where the characters within the false reality of the film are served a false reality due to their own misperception of events. One of the best recent horror films, “The Sixth Sense”, involved a false reality set up. As I have discovered with my most recent batch of horror and suspense thrillers, this is a tradition that has existed since the beginning of film and continues through today’s biggest remakes.

As my wife was flipping through channels the other night, we happened upon one of my favorite occurrences during my annual Horrorfest, the unplanned horror screening. Turner Classic Movies was having a vampire marathon of classic vampire films from the 30’s and 40’s. The one we caught was a Tod Browning directed gem from 1935 called “Mark of the Vampire”. Browning was one of the masterminds behind the onslaught of Universal classic horror monsters films; producing and directing some of the enduring classics of the age, from the Bela Lugosi starring “Dracula” to the cult classic “Freaks”.

“Mark of the Vampire” also places Lugosi into the role of the vampire, but employs a much larger cast of characters, including screen legend Lionel Barrymore, in a great mystery of a town that seems to be littered with the undead spawn. Along with Lugosi, Browning also recycled some of the set pieces from his own production of “Dracula”.

Of course the key to making a vampire picture work is creating the illusion that these creatures of the night are indeed real and are monsters. In those earlier days of films they had a fairly mild idea of what a monster was. The vampire was kind of like some sort of bloodthirsty aristocrat in a tux.

There is a great shot here of one vampire flaying into a room, that utilizes some early wire work with a live actor and a wonderful winged costume design, but the real treasure of this film is something I cannot reveal. It involves a secret that changes the audience’s perception of everything that has come before. When the secret is revealed, the film shifts gears entirely and becomes engrossingly interesting.

The movies “Hard Candy” and “Stay” are not precisely of the horror genre, but both involve horrors that are inflicted upon its characters through their own skewed perceptions of reality.

“Hard Candy” does to a pedophile what we would all like to see done to someone who prays on our children. It involves a 14-year-old girl who stalks an Internet chat room predator in an even more meticulous and ruthless way than he does her. Once he takes her to his home she sets into motion a plan that is so cruel that were he anything other than a pedophile, we would demand mercy. In fact, writer Brian Nelson and director David Slade do a good job of making the man’s guilt as a child predator questionable. For much of the film we a re left wondering whether the heroine has targeted the right man.

“Hard Candy” is an excellent psychological thriller that uses misrepresentation, the very tool of the sexual predator, as a structural element throughout the film in different ways. Both characters have distorted their own portrayal of who they are to each other. Both use lies and deceit to get what they want out of the other. Even when the man is merely a victim of the girl, there is little truth he is willing to reveal. And there is one scene where the girl has the man strapped down to a table that becomes one of the cruelest games of perception for the audience and the man that has been recorded on film recently.

“Stay” runs closer to the genre of horror than “Hard Candy”, although there are no monsters or serial killers. It is more like an extended episode of “The Outer Limits” or some sort of horror anthology series like that. Once again I cannot reveal just where this film ends up without ruining it for others, but the journey to get to that point is just like one long horrific acid trip.

Along for the ride is Ewan McGregor as a psychiatrist with an artist girlfriend (Naomi Watts), who has recovered from a suicide attempt, and a new patient (Ryan Gosling), who promises to commit suicide at midnight of the next Saturday. It becomes clear fairly early on that not everything experienced by the characters in this film is real. Even when the characters treat their reality as real, it seems to the audience as if there isn’t anyway all of it could be real; and the journey for the audience becomes about trying to figure out what is real and what isn’t.

Director Marc Forster (“Monster’s Ball”, “Finding Neverland”) utilizes a unique tool to tie the characters together as they navigate this strange reality separately and together. Each scene is tied together by some visual bridging element, like when the suicidal character visits the manatees at an aquarium and in the next scene the artist has a painting of manatees in her collection in the background.

There is another rather disturbing sequence where the psychiatrist goes to visit the suicide case’s “dead” mother. There is nothing in this sequence to convince the audience this meeting is real, but the doctor is convinced of it even after he is confronted by another character denying the possibility of it by saying he attended the mother’s funeral. And even during that confrontation we are shown elements to suggest the confrontation itself isn’t real.

The truth of what is really happening is suggested in snippets throughout the film and may even be guessed at by some, but as an audience we are so well trained to think there is some semblance of truth to what we are seeing on screen that our desire for the characters to be correct in their perception of their realities has us insisting on at least some foundation of truth in what they are perceiving. The irony is that film itself is all an illusion.

“The Omen” is not a trick played on the audience, we know from the very start that the child is the spawn of the devil, even the Anti-Christ, but the boy’s parents cannot believe this child in which they have invested their emotions could be such a monster.

Actually, it isn’t as hard for the parents to believe their child might be the devil as you would think in this remake of the 1976 horror classic. Julia Stiles and Liev Schreiber play those parents in two virtuoso performances. The parents’ journey is spot on here, while only the role of the child is miscalculated in this surprisingly unforced Hollywood remake.

The truly amazing thing about this film is that I actually jumped out of my seat three times. Quite a feat for someone who has seen as many horror films as I. One of those jumps came during one of three wonderful dream sequences in the film. The mother experiences two of these dreams, the father one.

In the second of the mother’s dreams we witness a scene we think we might recognize from the original film. (Don’t worry it will be just as effective if you haven’t seen the original.) This remake runs very true to the original. The production design for this particular sequence seems very stylized (because as we find out later it is a dream). After we have been set up to think it is going where we think it is something different and utterly unexpected happens and it all makes sense that it is revealed to be a dream. But like a good scare in a dream, that shock lingers in the system until the sequence we expected comes up and we think about the mom, “We know you remembered that dream. Why did you stay in the house?”

Friday, October 20, 2006

Horrorfest 2006 report #2

A blind woman is given her sight back and begins to see things most people can’t. A mother is bent on revenge after spending 13-years in prison for a violent crime that was not all her doing. A doctor finds his humanity in an obsession with a carnival freak show star during the dawn of the industrial age. A policeman investigates a missing child case on a remote island where the inhabitants have unique ideas of spirituality. And a man named Rock hunts down mutagenic experiments at an off planet archeological dig. These are the highs and lows of the first full week of Horrorfest 2006.

The Chinese film “The Eye” was one of the early films of the J-horror genre to find some success in the US market along with the hit Japanese horror films “Ringu (The Ring)” and “Dark Water”. Although the “J” comes from Japan, the J-horror phenomenon can be found in all of Asia’s finest filmmaking countries.

The most distinctive feature of the J-horror subgenre are the ghosts. These films all seem to be ghost stories, as opposed to our American horror film obsession with monsters and devils. And their ghosts are not the wispy white Caspers which we imagine, but tend to be rather disturbing looking humans that have taken on features and characteristics of a more jarring nature. Black oily hair, blue-ish colored skin, and teeth that would frighten a piranha.

The heroine of “The Eye” is a blind woman who has surgery to have her sight restored. It is the typical body parts horror set up, where the person receiving the new body parts starts to experience what the donor of those body parts did in their life. And the recipient must then discover the meaning of these new abilities.

The first half of the film is stunningly creepy. Mostly taking place in a hospital, the heroine discovers she can see frightening things like people who turn out to be dead and these dark shadows that seem to be stealing people away. There is a particularly creepy sequence that takes place in an elevator.

But the movie falters at the point it tries to explain just what these images are all about. It seems to be made on a fairly meager budget, with what looks like digital photography, and when the special effects start to become more complicated, their poor quality negatively affects the feel of the action. It also seems that the solution of the mystery takes a way much of the horrific nature of the visions.

Another film failure in the early stages of this Horrorfest comes in the film adaptation of the popular video game “Doom”. While not really a surprise, it is a shame example of what has become of the sci-fi horror flick. A subgenre that had it peak with the release of “Alien” in 1979, it seems action has become the point rather than the payoff in these types of films.

“Doom” is a guilty pleasure of a video game, where you get to run around with different types of big guns -- even a chainsaw if you can find it -- and mutilate, mangle and destroy a series of ever bigger and uglier mutant monsters. “Doom” the movie isn’t really much more than that. The writers have come up with some sort of explanation for how these mutants came to terrorize a remote research facility located on Mars. It includes the standard set of action character prototypes: the loner hero, the intense leader, the untrustworthy scumbag and the psychotic; oh and somehow they still work in a damsel in distress.

In the sense that they replicate the mental level of the game itself, the film is a success. I did like The Rock’s commanding presence, and there were some nice nods to the game, including one sequence that recreates the point of view action of the game. Luckily they didn’t try to stretch that sequence any longer, it couldn’t have stood more than a brief treatment.

But the monsters are just monsters; and there is so little investment in the characters, that you might as well just watch someone play the video game. Missing is the sense that the human element is where the true evil comes from, and the filmmakers are in such a rush to get to the action that they forget that in order to feel scared for someone, you have to feel for them.

The desensitization of humanity, however, is one of the key themes in David Lynch’s early masterpiece “The Elephant Man”. Set during the dawn of the industrial age, “The Elephant Man” tells the true story of John Merrick (John Hurt), a circus show freak known as The Elephant Man. Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) discovers Merrick and his deformed body of medical anomalies and takes him in at the London Hospital to study him. He and Merrick discover more of their own humanity than they do of the incurable disfigurements that ail him.

Directed by Lynch in stark black and white, with an attention to capturing that calliope carnival feel to the way different classes of people treat and view Merrick as a side show freak. Lynch fills his film with images of the early mechanization of factory work and travel juxtaposed against a hospital staff that, despite a wary board of directors, opposes the typical institutional approach to medicine. They offer Merrick a home and family, and retain his and their humanity in the process.

There is nothing quite so humanizing as loss, especially the loss of a child. The Korean action thriller “Lady Vengeance” takes a deep look at the importance of family as a stabilizing factor in our humanity. In my recent review of the film I wrote of director Chan-wook Park’s visual journey for his heroine, but here I would like to look at how family, or the lack there of, directs the Kind-Hearted Geum-ja’s journey of revenge.

While falsely imprisoned for the crime of kidnapping and murdering a little boy, Geum-ja (Yeong-ae Lee) finds a family of sorts within the prison system. It is a family she utilizes when she is released from prison to enact her revenge on the man truly responsible for the little boy’s death, Mr. Baek (Min-sik Choi). Her prison sisters provide her with all the props she needs to carry out her revenge, including a direct access to Mr. Baek.

Geum-ja is a mother as well. Her infant daughter was taken from her when she went to prison and adopted by an Australian family. When she seeks out her daughter Jenny, Geum-ja finds her to be both angry and curious about this mother who disappeared from her life for 13 years. But Jenny’s desire to follow her mother is strong.

When Geum-ja finally has her chance of revenge on Mr. Baek, she finds her resolve fails her. But vengeance is served by the families of the victims Mr. Baek took while Geum-ja served her sentence.

Why doesn’t she join the victims’ parents in their revenge? Because this is not where Geum-ja’s family lies. She never really belongs to either of the surrogate families. She is not the criminal she was convicted to be, so she doesn’t really belong to her prison family; nor does she belong to the family of parents whose kids were murder by Mr. Baek, since her daughter still lives. But the cold irony is that Jenny is no longer hers either. She has grown up only knowing her white parents; and Geum-ja has lived in cold determination of revenge for so long, she can never provide the love she wants for her daughter or herself.

“The Wicker Man” may be one of the most unique horror films ever made. The story involves a police officer searching for a missing girl at an isolated island village. The villagers are standoff-ish toward the officer and change their story frequently on their knowledge of the little girl. They seem to have developed their own religion based on their yearly harvest. It is a religion that plays like a pagan cult and flies in the face of the policeman’s strict Christian background.

But it is really the story that makes this such a strange work of horror as its execution. It is more of an oddity exhibition than a scare fest. It has musical numbers. It takes place mostly during the daylight. It has a folk music soundtrack. The island’s patriarch is played like a David Koresh on acid by horror legend Christopher Lee. There are people making love in the streets and graveyards. And it has a naked Britt Eckland.

“The Wicker Man” is a scathing indictment on organized religion, attacking both the existing church with the policeman’s intolerance of the flower-power behavior that had become commonplace by 1973, when the film was produced; and the idea of organized religion as a whole in the way the citizens of the island adhere unquestioningly to their own religion, which is obviously based upon a lie to begin with.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Lady Vengeance / ***½ (R)

Geum-ja Lee: Yeong-ae Lee
Mr. Baek: Min-sik Choi
Jenny: Yea-young Kwon

Moho Films and Tartan USA present a film directed by Chan-wook Park. Written by Park and Seo-gyeong Jeong. Running time: 112 min. Rated R (for strong violent content – some involving children, and some sexuality).

There is a recurring shot in the new Korean film “Lady Vengeance” that makes a definitive statement about the choice to lead a life based on revenge. A road runs along side a large stone wall; the first time we see this shot is just after Geum-ja is released from prison after 13 years for the kidnapping and murder of a little boy. She has just made herself up for the first time since being imprisoned and found herself a handsome pair of red heels. Despite her age, she is a striking vision of beauty contrasted against the drab color of the stone wall she passes.

Geum-ja (Yeong-ae Lee, “Joint Security Area”) is setting into motion a plan to seek revenge against the man actually responsible for her accused crime, Mr. Baek (Min-sik Choi, “Oldboy”). In order to execute her master plan she needs to utilize the network of friends she made in prison, each with their own small part to play. Her red eye shadow is a stark contrast to the meek character she seemed to embody while incarcerated. During her imprisonment she became known by two names, “The Kind-Hearted Geum-ja” and “The Witch”. “You’ve changed,” utters more than one of her former acquaintances.

The second time we see the stone wall is during the last paces of her plan. This time the scene takes place at night and a couple of unforeseen elements have just crossed her path. The Kind-Hearted one deals with these two men with extreme prejudice, employing possibly the coolest looking custom made handgun ever designed for a film heroine.

This scene brings to mind a similar one in another of director Chan-wook Park’s films, “Oldboy”, in which the hero makes his way down a hallway in hand to hand combat against a dozen or so adversaries. Despite the action-thriller nature of these two scenes, both are handled with the utmost realism of execution. Both sequences are done with minimal edits, although the “Lady Vengeance” scene is much briefer. In each scene you can see the physical toll taken by the protagonist, and even sense the underlying psychological toll. Both characters act with a deliberateness that later, when they have actually attained their respective goals, fails them. These are not your typical Hollywood action heroes, but something more intelligent, despite the base motivations involved.

The last time we see the stone wall, the nature of the film’s action has been greatly changed, from one of vengeance to a more fulfilling version of closure. The primary reason for the shift in theme is the fact that much earlier in the film Geum-ja had been reunited with the child she bore just before her incarceration, Jenny (Yea-young Kwan). Jenny had been adopted by an Australian couple whom Geum-ja sought out upon her release. There is a darkly humorous shot of Jenny holding a knife to her own throat as her adoptive parents cower in fear when she demands to return to Seoul with her birth mother.

Back at the wall during a snowfall, Geum-ja offers her daughter a life lesson before she returns to Australia. “Be White. Live white. Like this,” Geum-ja tells Jenny, handing her an ivory-colored cake. Like most parents, the best advice she can give is based upon her own mistakes. But like that recurring stone wall, Lady Vengeance can never be white. It is only through her daughter that she will obtain her own redemption.

“Lady Vengeance” is the final film in a trilogy of revenge movies by Chan-wook Park. The first film in the series, “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”, was less cohesive than the later two installments and the hero gains far less sympathy. The second in the series was “Oldboy”, which earned the number one spot on my 2005 top ten list. All three films contain scenes of drastic brutality juxtaposed against images of rare beauty. Park has the ability to find and illuminate the beauty in every piece of dirt and grime in the world his heroes inhabit. It’s as if the anger that they feed on to survive prohibits them from truly seeing the world around them. This is the great and powerful irony at the heart of Park’s complex vision.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Horrorfest 2006 report #1

It is that time of year again. Leaves are beginning to turn. Oscar buzz is starting to flutter through the movie magazines. And television networks that aren’t unveiling their new shows are bolstering their libraries with horror flicks everyone has seen so many times we don’t care if they are interrupted by commercials anymore.

It is one of my favorite times of year. The Oscar buzz is just drivel at this point. Writers looking for favors from studios for giving advance word on movies that aren’t even finished editing and scoring yet. I don’t know if that is true, but considering how accurate these early predictions usually are, it sounds likely.

But, no, it is not great cinema that excites me about this time of year. Some of it is great. Most of it is bad. But for some reason, I just love horror movies.

I am a film fanatic. I revel in both good and bad cinema. And perhaps there is no other genre in cinema that can offer more of the worst and best films ever made than the horror genre.

In past Horrorfests I have looked at classic horror flicks and new takes on B level films made with A level budgets. I have watched schlock and Oscar worthy endeavors. I have watched pure horror and films that are only marginally horrific. I have watched films that honored the genre through spoof and biography. I have even watched non-horror flicks that just involve an element that could be scary in some way.

Last year in particular (which I failed to report on at the time), was a Horrorfest that seemed to include even more non-horror titles that actual horror movies. Many of the best films I watched during that Horrorfest weren’t horror films at all, and last year lead to the discovery of some gems; like the brutal winter-set spaghetti western “The Great Silence”, “Crazy Fruit”, a Japanese youth cult film that married “Rebel Without a Cause” with Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, Gus Van Sant’s harrowing film based on Kurt Cobain’s final days “Last Days”, and the wonderful bio-pic of Z movie creator “Ed Wood.”

But of course I also plumbed the horror genre for many great films, including the Francis Ford Coppola cult classic “Dementia 13”, the 2005 release “Land of the Dead”, the surprisingly fresh Stephen King adaptation “Riding the Bullet”, and the amazingly creepy Korean ghost story “A Tale of Two Sisters.”

This year’s festival promises to be another month of fun. I plan to look at the British cult classic “The Wicker Man”, which just inspired a new American version in theaters now. I’ll also revisit the freak show film “The Elephant Man”; the Steven Spielberg penned “Poltergeist”, and a werewolf flick I was turned onto just two Horrorfests ago by a friend of mine “Ginger Snaps”. For the non-horror flicks I will look at the Korean revenge flick “Lady Vengeance” and a festival favorite this year about an internet predator that gets what’s coming to him in “Hard Candy”.

But most of what I have in store are fairly recent mainstream Hollywood horror fare, like the remakes of “The Omen”, “The Fog”, “Dark Water” and “The Hills Have Eyes”, the video game inspired “Doom”, “Silent Hill”, and “Bloodrayne”, the sequel “Saw II”, the imports “High Tension”, “Wolf Creek”, and “Irreversible”, and the thrillers “Stay”, “November”, and “The Forgotten”.

I may not get to them all, but I’m gonna have fun trying.

To kick off Horrorfest 2006, I went to a group that specializes in spoofs and their send up of the slasher subgenre in “Broken Lizard’s Club Dread”. “Club Dread” was the comedy group’s second effort after the wonderfully funny police spoof “Super Troopers.” With their first film Broken Lizard proved an ability to produce a smartly written comedy of stupidity. Like so many of today’s comedies “Super Troopers” was about people acting like idiots, but it wasn’t idiotic itself.

“Club Dread” tries to plant this same strategy of smartly written stupidity into a send up of today’s typical teenage slasher flick. Unfortunately, the success level isn’t quite as high on their sophomore effort. It is almost as if they are biting off more than they can chew. “Club Dread” tries to make fun of B level slasher flicks with the comedic philosophy that the best comedy is played straight. It could stand as a slasher flick all on its own without being a spoof. And it would be better than most you run into. Much better than say the “I Know What You Did Last Summer” series, from which it steals the tropical island setting from “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer.”

A serial killer is bumping off all of the Coconut Pete’s Island Paradise employees. That basically sums up the plot. Bill Paxton (“Twister”, “Titanic”) turns in a good comedic performance as Coconut Pete, a Jimmy Buffet-esque crooner who has turned one of his songs about beaches and booze into a theme resort.

The cast (who are also the writers) have fun with the slasher flick clichés. Some work very well as comedy; like the running gag of the false crisis, a shock turning out not to be the killer but someone actually doing something rather innocent. Some are too gruesome to be funny like the plethora of different ways to kill a person utilized here. There are some very good ideas and jokes; but, like the human Pacman game here, the laughs are often too much of a chuckle and not enough of a guffaw and get buried in the earnestness of the horror delivery.

For someone who is a real film buff, as Broken Lizard themselves seem to be, this could be enjoyable watch. It may even be worth it for horror buffs, like me. But for most people “Club Dread” won’t really represent anything special.

Monday, October 02, 2006

United 93 / **** (R)

Universal Pictures presents a film written and directed by Paul Greengrass. Running time: 111 min. Rated R (for language and some intense sequences of terror and violence).

Note: I chose not to include a cast list for this review because no one performance or role is singled out by the screenplay. It is a wonderful acting effort by the cast as a whole and to truly recognize any one performance, it would be necessary to recognize them all. Also, due to the nature of the depiction of real events, honoring any performance would be secondary to honoring the lives of those people involved in the events depicted.

After watching “United 93”, one of two Hollywood releases this year about the events of 9/11, my wife and I sat in silence in our dark basement for several minutes. This was to be expected. What surprised us was that after our silence my wife and I did something that more often films based on real events should inspire. We entered into a long and involved conversation. At first our thoughts on the film and the events of that day were the major topics of conversation, but eventually the dialogue drifted into important issues of politics, religion, faith, and fate.

United flight 93 was one of four planes hijacked on September 11, 2001, in a terrorist attack against the American public. Two planes successfully reached their targets of the Twin World Trade Center Towers, one was crashed into the Pentagon. The fourth, flight 93, crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania after the passengers lead a revolt against the hijackers to prevent them from reaching their intended target.

Was it fate that the passengers and flight attendants on that that fourth airplane had the courage necessary to prevent those terrorists from reaching their assumed target of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.? What if they hadn’t? If one man can affect so many lives in a small town as Jimmy Stewart did in “It’s a Wonderful Life”, the actions taken on that day changed the world and the actions taken by the people on that flight may have immensely lessened the blow from those terrorists.

Writer/director Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Supremacy”) makes the point that although the passengers seem to accept they are all going to die, they go into their siege on the terrorists with the hope that they might actually be able to pull the plane out and survive some sort of emergency landing. His documentary-style approach places us audience members in the fray as if we are one of those passengers.

Just as the passengers on any flight are strangers, Greengrass avoids any sort of introduction to the people involved. We are all strangers in this film who eventually band together in a valiant act of bravery. In retrospect, it seems disrespectful to place myself on that flight with those people, but Greengrass does such a good job of never glamorizing or even highlighting the events on that plane that it is almost unavoidable to feel transported to those people’s reality.

He is not content, however, with simply showing us what he and the relatives of those heroic passengers imagine happened during that attempt to avoid tragedy. The actions of the UA 93 occupants only make up half of the story Greengrass wants to tell about what was done to prevent the worst on 9/11. While the second half of the film concentrates on flight 93 itself, the first half depicts the efforts of Air Traffic Control and NORAD to decipher just what is happening from the point when the first plane crashes into Tower One of the World Trade Center to the point when they realize United 93 is likely to be a fourth hijacked plane.

The early Air Traffic Control scenes of the Boston and New York controllers reminded me of a scene at the beginning Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounter of the Third Kind”. In that film, like in this one, the Air Traffic Controllers looked at what they saw on their radar screens with shock, not even comprehending what they were witnessing. The difference is that Spielberg’s controllers were in a fantasy where their reactions had little effect on the outcome of the story. “United 93”’s controllers realize that if they do not react immediately and intelligently many lives could be in danger. It is not important for them to understand what they are seeing. They do their duty to the best of their abilities, while others try to figure out what is going on.

It is here that Greengrass takes the opportunity to show the breakdown of authority that occurred. Focusing both on the National Air Traffic Controllers Association headquarters and command central for NORAD, it becomes apparent there is no communication between the two or with any other agencies that might be able to act as a deciding trust. Greengrass depicts the efforts of both NORAD and NATCA as noble and unflinching, but he does take aim at other entities that either act as obstacles in allowing a defensible position (the FAA) or just simply skip town (the White House).

Greengrass is not kind to the FAA or President Bush and his administration, but for those portrayed at NORAD and NATCA he shows us just how tough their jobs are with or without help from higher authority. Once again, little is done in terms of introduction to these characters and although it takes some time to figure out just who is who and which organizations we are witnessing, the audience is like a fly on the wall. We see these people astonished by what they are seeing, yet still able to function when the rest of the world was looking on.

This scrutiny over how the crisis was handled fed even more into the conversation my wife and I had afterward. I understand the President needed to disappear for his own protection, but why wasn’t there some sort of way for him to get authority to NORAD to protect the country’s airspace? I mean, I certainly don’t know a hell of a lot about what went on that day, but even I suspected a terrorist attack as soon as I had heard about the first tower being hit by “possibly a small plane.” Shouldn’t someone have been able to contact or get contact from the President to give NORAD the authority they needed to protect our airspace? It may not have changed much about that day, but it scares me that our government seemed to have so little concept of what the possibilities were that day. It scares me even more that we elected to keep those that dropped the ball on that day in power.