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 clich├ęs. 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.