Monthly Archives: April 2006

Stay (2005)

This is a movie that piles on the mystery and clues but once the finish does arrive I was left saying, “That’s all there is?” There’s so little to this film that, in retrospect, it’s simply blowing off the dust on An Occurrence at Owl Creek (I may have said too much). The trickery Stay throws at you is slightly intriguing but mostly confounding and, once the reveal tidies everything up, wholly unsatisfying. Part of the problem is that I didn’t care about any of the characters, so I didn’t really care about their plight. Yes I get it that there is a reason for how shallow they are, but the only thing Stay had to keep me going was my waning interest in what the hell is going on with everything. I’m not the biggest fan of Marc Forster (Finding Neverland) as a director, and he serves Stay to good and harmful effect. Forster gooses the film with all sorts of visual trickery like jump cuts, using twins and triplets as extras in backgrounds, repeating scenes, playing around with blocking, and lots and lots of spiral staircases (hello, Vertigo). And you do realize that most of these disorienting stylistic decisions have a seemingly coherent reason in retrospect, but it also effectively pushes the audience away from the story, aided by the fact that no one can get into the characters. The entire affair seems pointless and empty but it is pretty to look at. I’m sure I’d garner more from a second look, but I really just don’t want to see Stay again.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Howl’s Moving Castle (2005)

The flick is wonderfully imaginative, as to be expected from Miyazaki. The Pixar people really do an excellent job of bringing these films to an American audience and treat the English dubs with reverence. I’m not someone who’ll bemoan an English dub when it comes to anime but it’s nice to see effort and respect. The story is a bit similar to Princess Mononoke with the warring factions, the mystic and the industrial, and Miyazaki’s refusal to paint in black and white. There are so many delightful touches here from the fire demon to the door portal to one segment that just involves two old ladies ascending stairs for three minutes. And yet it’s the spirit Miyazaki infuses and the attention to story and character that sets his films apart. There’s a genuine sense of magic while watching his films and Howl is no different. The only bit of contention I had with the movie is how abrupt the ending is. Howl’s Moving Castle is a bit soaked with confusion and some narrative cop-outs (“Surprise! I’m the prince responsible for the war!”). I would have loved another 30 minutes in this world as well as a better opportunity for Miyazaki to bring his story down with a smoother landing. Still, saying this is a slightly lesser Miyazaki film is like saying a million dollars is less awesome than 2 million dollars. Howl’s Moving Castle is another sterling addition to a master storyteller.

Nate’s Grade: A-

United 93 (2006)

I’ve heard a lot of talk about whether America was ready for United 93. Almost every magazine or newspaper article you’d read about director Paul Greengrass’ real time account of 9/11 began with the question, “Is it too soon?” That’s mostly a personal decision. My response: of course not. They were making World War II movies while Europe was still burning and while Pearl Harbor was still recovering. Speaking of which, doesn’t anyone feel that a 9/11 movie would be much more powerful and respectful now, five years removed from one of the worst days in American history? We can still remember that awful day, and most importantly, we can use art as a means of catharsis when the subject remains relevant. Does anyone seriously want to wait 20 years down the pipe for a 9/11 movie to be produced by Jerry Bruckheimer? Was 2001’s Pearl Harbor the kind of movie we’ll get when it’s “not too soon?” While I’d never insist people see United 93 if they weren’t ready, I will say it’s definitely a movie that demands to be seen sooner rather than later.

On September 11, 2001, four planes were hijacked in the sky by members of the terrorist group Al-Quaeda. Two crashed into New York’s World Trade Center building. Another crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. A fourth plane, United 93, was delayed on its initial takeoff, meaning the four hijackers on board were already behind schedule. After the hijackers had taken control of the plane and turned it back around, presumably headed toward the White House, the passengers started making phone calls from the flight and piecing together the scenario. They weren’t going to land at any airport; they were a bomb on wings. The passengers came together with a heroic plan to take back the plane and use a fellow passenger, with flying experience, to help them land. Their valiant effort ended in United 93 crashing in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

United 93 is one of the most nerve-racking movie going experiences I have ever seen. Because of our prior knowledge of the events, every little thing carries so much dread, from a man who just makes the plane to simple phone calls, unknowingly their last, that end so regularly in “I love you.” Hitchcock said tension was watching a happy couple unaware of a ticking bomb below their picnic table, and he was right. United 93 is grueling to sit through, but that doesn’t mean the film isn’t rewarding. We’re going through the same situation and harrowing steps of realization as the passengers. The final phone calls on board may be the most emotionally wrenching thing I’ve seen in a movie since 2000’s Requiem for a Dream. The final 30-minutes of the film, concentrating on the passengers retaking the plane, is some of the most intense cinema I’ve seen in years. My heart was beating outside of my chest and I was shaking, even after I got out of the theater. I spent the next hour at my house walking around trying to shake it off but I couldn’t. This is an incredibly powerful and sobering film that will stay with you like a bad dream.

Witnessing the unfolding events of United 93, a spellbinding example of you-are-there cinema verite, you really feel like you’re watching a living documentary. There’s nothing sensational or overly political that happens within United 93. Greengrass even has the temerity to present the hijackers as human beings, granted human beings capable of ferocious acts of horror. The first moments of the movie are the hijackers preparing, praying, reciting the Koran, and going about their plot. You see them sweat, get antsy, and the lead hijacker evens seems a bit hesitant about following through, especially since this coordinated attack was botched by United 93’s delay on the tarmac. Some would call such a portrayal ludicrous, citing a scene where a hijacker calls his girlfriend to say his last “I love you” as apologetic claptrap. Some would take offense that the hijackers are not demonized, have horns sprouting from their heads, or laugh maniacally at spilled blood. But just like Spielberg’s portrayal of Palestinians in Munich, human evil is much more nuanced than simply painting a mustache on. United 93 shows every side to 9/11 like what a good documentary should do. This isn’t propaganda, this isn’t exploitation, this is respectful filmmaking. Yes, we?ll never know what happened on flight 93, and much of the film is speculation, but it’s speculation built around research and reverence.

Greengrass is in fine form, recreating the same sense of building desperation and terror that he so elegantly assembled in 2002’s Bloody Sunday. The antic handheld camerawork may give people some headaches, but no filmmaker does a better job of putting you in the moment than Greengrass. His decision to use real people portraying themselves, like FAA head Ben Sliney, creates a greater feel for authenticity, even having the film’s stewardesses played by real United stewardesses. None of it feels gimmicky, nor is Greengrass interested in telling a jingoistic, hyperbolic action adventure. The famous “Let’s roll” line is just another line said amongst many in the planning process for taking back the flight. The violence is sudden and shocking but never sensationalized. United 93 ends exactly as it should too. You?ll probably hear sobbing in your theater at that point; I did.

There have been complaints that the character development in United 93 is lacking. But really this is a story about 2 hours on one morning, told in real time, and how much talking do strangers do on a flight? Some, sure, but not a lot. To answer critics, if we’d gotten to know these characters extensively it would either break the fabric of reality and turn these people into eagerly sharing, easily emotive figures, not people, or would require extensive flashbacks which would remove us from the visceral feeling of the story. That’s why Greengrass cuts back to NORAD and the FAA, because there’s stuff happening there; the slow realization of fright, the disbelief, the staggering amount of confusion and miscommunication. They can’t even get anyone from the White House on the phone to even establish a chain of command. If we had staid onboard we would be watching people read magazines or eat peanuts for 30 minutes. I never once felt less for these people because of the characterization concerns.

The “ordinariness” of the passengers is what works best, because it just as easily could have been you or me, but would we have reacted the same? Had it been “Tom Cruise starring in United 93″ then it never would have worked. This excels on how realistic everything comes across, and any Hollywood moment that would shatter that realism is absent (thank God there’s no product placement). One of the more amazing aspects of United 93‘s conclusion is just how fast everything came about. These people had little time to act, much less take stock of the waking nightmare the day was turning into and formulate a plan. The movie is a touching tribute to a group of ordinary people that became something more on one of our darkest days.

Naturally, United 93 is not going to be a film for everyone. It’s unflinching, grueling, and altogether hard to sit through. It does a stupendous job of recreating that tragic day and allowing our own knowledge of the events to build an overwhelming sense of dread. Greengrass excels in this arena of storytelling and he’s worked his docu-drama magic once more, painstakingly allowing the viewer feel like they are a participant, to the point where we even get a rush of hope that maybe the passengers could take back their plane and save themselves. The question of whether it’s too soon for a major 9/11 movie has to be decided on an individual level. I don’t recall anyone griping about the thousands of documentaries and the A&E Flight 93 TV movie, all of which, yes, made money off 9/11 too. I think for us as a society, we need this movie to remind ourselves of the heroism and sacrifice of a few. It’s very easy to get lulled back to complacency, but the masterful United 93 will not allow that. This is a powerful story told without a hint of melodrama and it will be guaranteed to be near my Best of the Year list when 2006 rolls to a close.

Nate’s Grade: A

Scary Movie 4 (2006)

David Zucker was apart of the team that gave the world Airplane!, The Kentucky Fried Movie, Top Secret, the Naked Gun flicks, Ruthless People, and even Ghost. When the Wayans brothers left the Scary Movie franchise for greener pastures (greener meaning richer), it was Zucker and his stable of writers that came in and gave Scary Movie 3 a fresh kick. Now less than three years later we have Scary Movie 4 poking at the same material, and once again this franchise is starting to feel like a bore.

Cindy Campbell (Anna Farris) is in the home health care business looking after a supposedly haunted house. Inside the house resides those pale, wide-eyed, meowing ghosts from The Grudge. Next door resides Tom Ryan (Craig Bierko), a crappy father watching after his two crappy kids for the weekend. Things get a tad hectic when giant Tr-ipod robots rise from the ground and start zapping everyone. A war of some worlds looks to be in progress. Cindy and Tom go their separate ways, each trying to stay alive and return to each other. Cindy meets her old pal Brenda (Regina Hall) and they journey into the heart of a secluded village, one surrounded by monsters. Somehow they’ll find a way to stop the aliens from destroying the planet. Meanwhile, President Harris (Leslie Nielson), briefed that the country is under attack, is very interested to know what happens to a duck in a children’s story. The only thing missing is a Passion of the Christ parody (talk about a horror movie).

This is a franchise of diminished returns. Zucker and company feel like they’re badly grasping for something. Scary Movie 4 relies far too heavily on juvenile scatological behavior (a urine sponge bath is simply gross, not a gross-out) and very repetitious slapstick. Your level of enjoyment with Scary Movie 4 will rest solely on the question of how many times you can laugh at someone getting hit in the junk. Zucker’s gone practically overboard on the physical comedy, making this the filmic equivalent of “Football in the Groin.” The sad thing about this franchise is how safe it all feels now. It seems to have its demo sights set squarely on teen males, less discerning folk who will pee their pants with groin kick #86 and roll in the aisles uncontrollably with groin kick #113. I’m no prude when it comes to slapstick mind you; a well-timed kick to the groin can be downright Shakespearean, but when an entire film is stuffed with people knocking the stuffing out of themselves, then the joke loses its original flavor. No one wants to keep chewing on something once its flavor has long vanished.

I seriously think there should be a one-term limit when it comes to the comedy teams working with the Scary Movie films. Scary Movie 2 felt like a bad Xerox copy of Scary Movie, heavily smudged and lacking definition. Seriously, how many times can you go back to the giant semen geyser well? So too does Scary Movie 4, Zucker’s second in the series, resonate with the same hackneyed feeling. Zucker’s first movie dialed down the raunch and upped the PG-13 slapstick, and now his second film feels like a less executed duplicate. In Scary Movie 3, the joke was that the creepy psychic kid could never foresee his own clobbering. Therefore, there was an extra comedic layer to watching a kid accurately predict when a woman would start her period but not when a car back into him. In Scary Movie 4, it’s simply been reduced to watched a kid get beaten a lot. Jokes rarely connect when you rob them of context or set-up or just repeat them ad nasuem. Scary Movie 4 feels a bit overly content just to be a copy of a copy. That’s simply depressing.

Even the jokes feel out of touch, smacking of a minimal effort. The Scary Movie franchise was never a place for biting satire, but everything seems so curiously outdated. Viagra jokes in 2006? I guess so. When the film does reference modern items (Myspace, Yahoo maps, Michael Jackson) it still feels awkward. The Brokeback Mountain parody, while shocking in how comparatively restrained it is, comes across dead in the water because our market is over-saturated with gay cowboy jokes. It’s like in 1999 when even your invalid grandmother was doing a Blair Witch Project parody (turns out the witch was just the nurse trying to get her to take her pills). I do realize that the plot parodies are mostly a jumble, bits blended together to house the film’s rapid-fire gags. The Million Dollar Baby parody is probably the best sequence in the film and even that spoofs a cultural event 10 years old. If Scary Movie 4 is targeting teens, to the detriment of the film’s funny, then why even bother referencing pop-culture outside their cognizance? I wonder if the inevitable Scary Movie 5 will have a pointed satire on the Iran-Contra scandal.

Zucker just feels too pleased with himself. His movie parodies are spot-on when it comes to technical execution, replicating even the camera angles from his source material. It’s a pity he has little to add with his tweaking. Any form of comedy gets old with repetition but slapstick especially. I would think a man like Zucker would know this.

Farris is the best thing that Scary Movie could have ever hoped for. She’s one of the most gifted comedic actresses working today. She’s at home whether it’s the physical, whether it’s delivering a silly line with pitch-perfect dumb blonde finesse, or whether it’s just making exaggerated facial contortions. There’s a music montage of Farris making funny faces that works so well because of how much Farris throws herself entirely into the joke. Too bad the movie lets her down.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Silent Hill (2006)

Video games will never be translated into a good movie. There, I said it. I caught some grief before by this opinion. Think about it. Unlike say comic books, video games are dependent on user interactivity, on game involvement, and not necessarily story or character. A video game requires an audience to be interactive, whereas movies require an audience to be passive, letting a story envelope around them and take them some place. Video games just aren’t structured in a way that lends itself to storytelling. Just look at some recent results: House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark, Doom, Bloodrayne, Double Dragon (remember that movie?), Mortal Kombat 1 & 2, Street Fighter, etc. Granted three of those are Uwe Boll films, but what does it say when the best video game adaptation yet was Super Mario Brothers?

Now comes Silent Hill based on the very popular horror video game series. The screenplay is written by Roger Avary, who used to be Quentin Tarantino’s writing partner and wrote and directed one of my all-time guilty pleasures 2002’s Rules of Attraction. I guess I foolishly expected more, but with Silent Hill what I got was further fuel to my theory that no video game will make a good movie.

Rose (Radha Mitchell) and her husband Christopher (Sean Bean) are very troubled about their adopted girl, Sharon (Jodelle Ferland). She has the habit of sleepwalking and uttering “Silent Hill” repeatedly. So what’s a 21st century mother to do? Look up Silent Hill online, put her tyke in the car, and drive to the ghost town herself, much to the dismay of her husband left behind. It seems that Silent Hill was a town in West Virginia that had a horrible coal mining accident in the early 70s, killing many and condemning the town. We’re told the fires are still burning underground to this day. Along the way, a roadside motorcycle cop (Laurie Holden) gets suspicious of Rose and chases her. They crash their vehicles along the road and wake up to falling ash. Rose’s daughter is missing and she looks inside the nearby Silent Hill, a presumably deserted town. Then there are routine air sirens warning of an approaching darkness. The world changes form and nasty creatures come to life, like disjointed bodies, charcoal-skinned children, and malevolent evil spirits. It’s about here where I’d just say, “Oh well. I can adopt again.”

The movie is paced and structured like a video game, which means it’s just as tedious to sit through. The first two acts of Silent Hill center on Rose going from Point A to Point B, finding clue that leads her to a new point, and repeating this tiresome exercise. There?s a scene where there’s a giant hole in the floor and Rose has to navigate across scattered beams to get to the other side. It’s portrayed exactly like a video game level, as are most of her encounters. Worst of all, the movie follows a code of logic that dares to only exist in video games. Why does Rose instinctively know she needs to reach inside the mouth of a corpse to find a sign? How does she know a hidden room lay behind a portrait? Why does Rose know that light attracts the “Thriller” dance team/nurses with potato sacks on their heads? How come the evil presence that basically created this limbo world of the undead cannot penetrate a church? The plot is mostly incoherent and intentionally surreal, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that the story is just plain awful.

Silent Hill completely collapses once the third act begins. It was plodding up until that point, but now the film becomes downright ridiculous and painful. We’re amongst a crazy group of fundamentalist witch burners that, for whatever reason, dress in hazmat suits to venture outside their grounds. It’s at this point that the surreal nature stops and we find the answer to our questions: another vengeful spirit from beyond the grave. Ho hum. The protracted climax goes overboard and practically rapes the stellar ending of Carrie. Also, Silent Hill expects its Big Reveal to be shocking or surprising, but it cannot be anything except redundant because the film spelled it out an hour ago.

The dialogue is howl-inducing. There’s a moment that Rose says, “Don’t worry honey, everything’s going to be okay. You’re going to be alright.” And this immediately precedes the little girl watching the religious cult burn someone’s face off. There’s another moment, more than an hour in, where Rose says, “Something bad happened here.” You think? All of the dialogue can be fitted into two categories: either expository or instructional. It’s like to be true to a video game they also decided to lift the terrible dialogue as well. The plot meanders for the longest time, allowing Rose to visit place to place, and then Avary decides to bludgeon his audience with a 5-minute chunk of exposition meant to clarify everything up to that point.

The acting is pretty bad. Mitchell gives a valiant effort and has a nice scream, but she can’t escape the dead weight of the dialogue and total lack of characterization. Bean is entirely wasted and his “American” accent seems to waver quite a bit for such short screen time. Holden is more a fetish figure fantasy than a character, evidenced by her tight leather pants being the first thing we ever see of her. Still, it’s somewhat interesting seeing the romantic lead from 2001’s The Majestic kickin’ some unholy ass. It’s hard to say if any actors of any caliber could have redeemed the film, but this collection of thespians doesn’t even try to put a polish on the dialogue. You can tell because the howler lines are still howlers.

Lest I forget, this thing is OVER two hours long. There’s no reason Silent Hill should even be teetering over 100 minutes, especially for a film as sparsely plotted as this one, that is, before Avary’s exposition head rush. I don’t know why the filmmakers included the pointless subplot involving Christopher on the search for his wife. The subplot adds no deeper insight, affords no opportunity to help shape the plot, and only serves to whisk the audience out of the moment and remind them how pointless Silent Hill is quickly becoming. And is it ever pointless.

Director Christophe Gans (Brotherhood of the Wolf) has a great taste for visuals, Silent Hill‘s only positive marks. Some of the images in this movie are truly horrifying and have, reluctantly, stuck in my head days afterwards. The Pyramid Head man, with a 20-foot sword, makes little sense but is a jarring and memorable image. When those loud sirens sound there is a slight amount of dread, but really it’s more of a morbid curiosity at what kind of hellish transportation will happen next. The excellent production design and cinematography also contribute to the film’s eerie, striking, sometimes suffocating atmosphere. But, alas, an interesting visual palate cannot save a slow, dimwitted, inane movie. Otherwise What Dreams May Come may have worked. But it didn’t.

Silent Hill is pointless, plodding, incoherent, far too long and far too boring. The bad dialogue, acting, and plot don’t seem to help matters either. Gans creates a moody atmosphere with some powerfully nightmarish imagery, but that’s the only thing Silent Hill has going for it. Whether it be a man with a Pyramid for his head ripping the flesh off someone like a coat or a little demonic girl dancing in a literal blood shower, Silent Hill has its small potent visual moments. However, these small moments of visual potency cannot make up for the giant black hole of suck. This movie is simply dreadful and designed too faithfully as a video game adaptation, which means the same gaps in logic and pacing are present. I certainly expected better from Avary. I told my friend Dan that I was embarrassed we’d forever know we saw Silent Hill on its opening night, so much so that I bought him food after the show to make up for dragging him along. This is the first movie I’ve ever attended where I heard booing afterwards from my audience. I would have joined them but I was too busy getting out of the theater as soon as the end credits rolled.

Nate’s Grade: D

Thank You for Smoking (2006)

As soon as I saw a trailer for Thank You for Smoking I was in love. I found the book for cheap and read it with months to spare before the film reached my local theater. Admittedly, my expectations were high because the book was wonderful, and Thank You for Smoking as a movie is equally wonderful and a very good film adaptation.

This is a wickedly funny satire that skewers all sides in the political debate about Big Tobacco, and the film doesn’t take a stand, which is refreshing. It has a firm grip on its humor and gleefully gives its finger to political correctness. There?s a lunch group called the M.O.D. (Merchants of Death) squad where reps for Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco, of course, argue over whose product is harder to spin. It’s likely the snort-because-you-can’t-believe-they-said-that movie of the year. The tar-black humor in Thank You for Smoking rolls off so casually. This is a comedy that respects the intelligence of its audience and doesn’t dumb down its barbs or its satire. Aaron Eckhart was born to play the role of Nick Naylor, tobacco’s master spin artist and public charlatan. Naylor is conniving, slippery, and yet immensely likable not in spite of these traits but because of them. Eckhart is downright charming and you can see how he could dupe a nation, even if he’s only doing it for the challenge. Thank You for Smoking has one of the finest assembled casts in a long time, and every member fires on all cylinders. This is a film brimming with confidence and it’s evident with every frame. You almost might feel guilty for wanting to capture a contact buzz from how polished, assured and witty the flick is.

I never thought I’d say so but it sure looks like adapter/director Jason Reitman has a far more promising future right now than his dad, Ivan. Jason, the son, keeps the movie brisk, packed with characters, subplots, jokes, and a visual whimsy. This is a terrific adaptation of a terrific book, and Reitman really hones in on the mechanics of debate and lobbyist practices with aplomb. A scene where Nick teaches his adoring son the tricks of debate with ice cream is outstanding. Thank You for Smoking crackles with dialogue to die for, like Nick’s boss BR (J.K. Simmons) saying, “We sell cigarettes. They’re cool, and addictive, and available — the job is practically done for us.” My only complaints with the film, besides that it’s too short at just 90 minutes, is the manufactured danger seems a bit too slight and too easily overcome. Nick quite simply vanquishes whatever threat his reporter sex buddy Heather (Katie Holmes) posed. Otherwise, Thank You for Smoking is a superb movie all around and there’s no reason you shouldn’t see it. Take the hit.

Nate’s Grade: A

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