Sunday, April 30, 2006

United 93

United by chaos...

As I exited the theater following my viewing of United 93, my mind was racing with ways to approach the review I'm writing right now. Do I reflect upon the fact that up until today, I've always felt somewhat detatched from the events of 9/11/01? Let's do that for a second. That fateful day, I was taking care of my two-week old daughter and on a schedule that basically involved me trying to get as much sleep as I could, wherever I could fit it in. As a result of sleeping in on a morning when Natalie was feeling particularly generous, I didn't hear about the incident coming down until well into mid-morning, when I turned on the TV to see a pile of smoking rubble where two giants once stood. That entire day was spent playing catch-up, switching from one news channel to another, trying to piece together what millions of other people already knew, or saw unfold right before their eyes.

Almost five years after those horriffic events, I have seen a movie that not only masterfully told a great portion of what happened on that day, but I felt like I was thrust right into the plane with the doomed passengers of United 93, and the impression was nothing if not indelible.

I was one of the many naysayers when I first heard of the making of this film. "It's too soon. They're exploiting this day and its victims, and I do not see how they can possibly make a movie that could respectfully relay that story."

Well, what can I say? I was wrong. So, so wrong.

Director Paul Greengrass not only utilized a raw, documentarian style to create this film, but he told the story in a way that avoided the use of cliches and archetypes by using a present-tense, omniscient format that ensured that the viewer didn't know anything the passengers or the people on the ground didn't know first. Adding to the realism was the use of virtually unknown actors as well as many of the FAA and ground control people playing themselves.

We've all heard the stories of the various passengers on the the United 93 flight- the rugby player, the man who almost missed his flight and was let on at the last second, the memorable quote "Let's roll" before they stormed the cockpit. None of that was underlined here. They were all just people on a plane, on a routine morning, completely unaware they were entering the last moments of their lives, and that those moments would be filled with utter terror. Even the hijackers were not viewed specifically as bloodthirsty villains here. Rather, they were determined, frightened, and blinded by religious zeal and saw thier missions as a means to a divine end. That is all we are told about them, and that was a very wise step.

Perhaps most disturbing was the utter disorder that unfolded in our various agencies and the military resources that were trying to gain control of a steadily worsening situation. Everyone knew what was going wrong, but the information was not travelling neatly down the lines the way it would "in the movies". It was a tragic, real-life equivalent of practicing a play for years and then having the stage cave in on opening night; everything that could have gone wrong that day, did. Except, of course, on that lone flight with passengers who were able to know that they were being taken on a suicide mission and were determined to divert the hijackers with whatever grim courage they could muster.

United 93 is not the conventional film one would expect. Greengrass made it his job to not answer questions, propagandaize, or point fingers, but to simply tell the story as close to the facts as possible, without any extraneous fluff. It is engrossing, disturbing, and heartbreaking. And it is, as of now, the best movie of the year.

Gouda's Final Grade: A+

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Silent Hill

Please... make it stop...


The vomit barks like a kitten in a fish tank.

That sentence retains all of the logic of the battle of non sequiturs known as Silent Hill, a new horror release that continues to prove that it's possible for inanity to reach a new peak. Of course I did say vomit, and that part does make a little sense, but I don't mean vomit in the "gross" connotation. Actually, if Silent Hill had been more gross, I'd probably be rating it a little higher, but I'll come back to that in a minute.

Vomit is essentially a substance that doesn't have any order to it; it is chaos in hot swill form, and its appearance is generally undesirable. Silent Hill actually happens to be good looking vomit, though, like the kind you get when you eat food that turns it pretty colors. The kind that makes you go "man, puking really sucks, but look at how the hues swirl together when I flush! At least there is that!" The problem is, even pretty vomit is still vomit, and puking still sucks.

You notice how I have not even attempted to describe the plot so far. Well, don't get your hopes up, because I'm not going to try too hard. It's not for lack of wanting to, it's simply because it would be like asking me to remove a giant wad of bubblegum from the coat of a wooly mammoth; it would be tedious and pointless, if not impossible. It doesn't help that the plot has about as much coherence as the twisted creatures walking through the town of the film's namesake, creatures who have the ability to look like walking uteruses trying to give birth to themselves. If that didn't make sense to you, then you will sort of know what it was like to watch this movie.

So here is my bravest attempt to describe what "basically" happens in Silent Hill. There is a little girl who has recently taken to frightening bouts of sleepwalking, and in the midst of these episodes talks about a place called *gasp* Silent Hill. Her adoptive mother decides to cement her Mother of the Year status by doing what any sane, rational parent would do: Pack up the kid and take her to this place. When she wrecks her car and gets knocked out for awhile, Super Mom wakes up to find her daughter missing, and from that point on the film takes us into a nebulous cloud of "what the fuck??". What's not helping this equation in the slightest is that the actress playing the little girl makes Keanu Reeves look like Lawrence Olivier in terms of acting ability, and that by the time she actually turns up missing, we're just relieved to not have her in the picture for the next 90 minutes. All manner of absurdity occurs that I am incapable of revealing at this point, but there were a few highlights:

- a full-body degloving of the film's most annoying character. Don't worry, you'll be able to pick her out relatively quickly, and you'll cheer when it happens.

- the visceral ripping apart of a religious fanatic, which is always a pleasure to see. (make a note that this is about as bloody as the film gets and neither of those things happen until well into the second half of the film).

- a slight, albeit unintentional, resurrection of the classic Michael Jackson video Thriller.

Perhaps the most egregious offense of Silent Hill, however, was its attempt to salvage the plot by pointless explanation after pointless explanation. If they had only realized from the beginning that we don't really CARE about all that, then they could have just focused on the whole "horror" thing. The filmmakers were so concerned that we understand every aspect of this movie that they stopped about three-quarters of the way through to sort of bring everyone up to speed with a film-stock "flashback", almost as a way of saying: "I know you've been sitting here waiting for the caffiene from that mostrous Coke you're drinking to kick in so you don't fall asleep, so we're just gonna tell you why the last hour and a half HASN'T been a gargantuan waste of your time, and we hope you won't be disappointed!"

Don't worry. You will be.

You know, this review is getting a little long, and I know I've said a lot. But I've also said absolutely nothing. That is the essence of Silent Hill. There is so much more that could have been said. I could have quoted choice bits from the underwheliming dialogue, and I haven't even gotten to the parts of the movie involving the father of the little girl and the gratuitous "twist ending" that basically tasted like a bile chaser to a poop cocktail, but that would just take too long.

Either way, I hope I've captured the essence of the latest addition to the "movies based on popular video games that make you wonder why they keep bothering with this genre" collection.

Don't climb this hill. Just. Don't.

Gouda's Final Grade: F

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Sentinel

Was it YOUR idea to get me into this movie??

On paper, The Sentinel looks like an intriguing winner. A legendary Secret Service agent, Pete Garrison (Michael Douglas), uncovers a scheme where one of their own is attempting to assassinate the President. Complicating matters is Garrison's own love life; he is having an affair with the First Lady (played by Kim Bassinger who appears to have had a refreshingly realistic looking facelift). The political fallout of such a situation requires a great amount of secrecy, which causes him to fail a polygraph exam when the Service begins investigating its own agents, thereby creating a "wrongly accused" formula that drives the plot from the second act on. But remember: this is on paper.

The reality is that The Sentinel attempted to be like The Fugitive, but it forgot to bring suspense and characters we care about to the party. It's a shame too, because there is some good acting here. Kiefer Sutherland, who plays investigating officer David Breckenridge, provides the chase, but it also comes with personal strings attached; Breckenridge and Garrison were best friends until Garrison slept with David's wife. So, there is some tension created when Breckenridge is torn between wanting to nail Garrison to the wall for the affair and to bring the right man to justice.

But it never for a moment feels real. Douglas and Sutherland look great when they are yelling at each other in an attempt to wake up the audience, but the two actors seem separated by such a gulf that it transfers to the characters themselves. They might as well have been acting with a partition between them for the same effect. Eva Longoria breaks into her first major big screen role since becoming a Desperate Housewife as Breckenridge's rookie sidekick, but she doesn't seem to serve any other purpose than to give other agents a nice body to pant after.

There is nothing wrong with doing a movie by a particular formula. In fact, there wouldn't even be formulas if they didn't work on some level. All it really takes is a decent script to bring them to life, but because this is what The Sentinel ultimately lacked, it never quite was able to leave the ground.

Gouda's Final Grade: C-

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Thank You for Smoking

No, Aaron, thank YOU for being AWESOME...


"We don't sell Tic Tacs, we sell cigarettes. And they're cool, available, and addictive. The job is almost done for us."

With one of the most brilliant satires in recent years, Thank You For Smoking makes it more than clear what the tabacco industry is about in terms of marketing and lobbying, while also managing to make the audience root for the cause of its star lobbyist, Nick Naylor, in an amazing turn from Aaron Eckhart. This is a man who doesn't care if he's right or wrong so long as he is effectively arguing his position. He is so cocky, so self-assured, that he is able to win the approval of a 15-year old cancer patient while accusing the anti-smoking lobby of wanting smokers to die. He tells his son: "As long as you argue correctly, you're always right."

He meets weekly for dinner with two other lobbyists (alcohol and firearms), a group that refers to itself as the MOD Squad (Merchants of Death), where they argue over whose product causes the most deaths per year and who would most likely be kidnapped by terrorists over it.

This is cynical stuff, but it is also hilarious, and the style of the film denotes an intelligence and quickness of wit that captures the audience from the beginning. Even in scenes where we are compelled to sympathize with the characters, there is a biting sardonic quality that keeps a crooked grin on our face, particularly when Sam Elliot's character, a former Marlboro Man turned anti-smoking activist after being stricken with lung cancer, is convinced to accept a monetary "gift" from the tobacco industry. Note the precarious balance struck between the humor, honesty, and sadness of this situation.

There are also media celebrity cameos that add a great element of realism, as well as a depiction of the shallowness of the Hollywood lifestyle that makes for some of the biggest laughs in the film, thanks to a fantastic performance by Rob Lowe. "You should try the new Nobu. Apparently everything on the menu is white."

Thank You For Smoking is essentially a smorgasbord of laughs and insight. We cannot tell who director and screenwriter Jason Reitman (who based his film on the book by Christopher Buckley) is trying to advocate or villainize more here, the smoking industry or the people who are trying to bankrupt the smoking industry. Certainly there are elements of animosity toward both, and people will no doubt leave this film with their opinions on this topic intact. What the movie seems to crucify more than anything is the art of deception involved in lobbying itself, but at least it makes us laugh out loud when it's happening.

This is a rare film.

Gouda's Final Grade: A

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Slither

Fun-goria!


I think it's safe to say that among Barbies, baby dolls, and playing dressup, hundreds of horror movies defined my childhood. Half of it was having parents who were permissive in such areas; they never really censored much of what my brother and I watched, and other than a more relaxed than most sense of morality and the occasional, still unacted upon (knock on wood) urge to hit someone in the head with a large rock, I think I turned out okay. One of my earliest memories was writing in the 2nd grade about how if I could be anyone in the world, I would be Freddy Kreuger.

So maybe my earlier self-assessment was a bit too generous.

It still serves as a great source of laughs for my parents, though, and I was kind of proud at how well I drew Freddy in that hand-made book that undoubtedly concerned my teacher Ms. Vanek. I never liked her anyway.

In general, I have been left with a great appreciation for the horror genre, particularly the one that was driven underground in the late 90s and the current decade by movies that were, to pathetically understate it, lame. And I don't mean "lame" in that they weren't scary. I mean lame in that they were relying on generating fright from tired old formulae and therefore failed miserably.

Some of my favorites from a bygone era include The Evil Dead (and Army of Darkness, of course), Phantasm, Re-Animator, the 80s remake of The Blob, Shivers, Hellraiser, anything made by George Romero, and lest we travel into the further depths of cheesy (cheesy good, that is) shock horror- Slaughter High, The Stuff, Tremors- the list goes on. There has been a recent return to the good ol' days thanks to folks like Rob Zombie, whose House of a Thousand Corpses and The Devil's Rejects harken to the days when gore and sinister, satirical humor were almost commonplace.

Slither, the most recent homage, written and directed by a guy whose most well-known achievement was writing the Scooby Doo movies (James Gunn), was nothing short of brilliant. And slimy. Slimy is good.

What was also good were the hidden in-jokes, so numerous that repeat viewings are necessary in order to catch them all. Here are the ones that I did happen to stumble upon off the bat (without trying to make any spoilers):

-A family in the movie named the Castevetes, after the neighbors in Rosemary's Baby.
-Earl Bassett High School was named after the character Earl Bassett in Tremors (there were actually a few references to that movie)
-A scene with the exact music from Predator
-A scene with The Toxic Avenger on the TV
-Obvious reference to The Fly at the very end
-The name of the mayor, J.R. McCready, was the same name as Kurt Russell's character in The Thing.

Perhaps best of all, though, was the dialogue, and there were one-liners so numerous and hilarious that they cannot all be listed here without spoiling the film, and after much consideration I have decided I would be doing the movie a disservice by providing them, because it's just one of those things where you'd have to be there to appreciate the full scope and complexity.

Okay, maybe I'll pick just one:

"Are they martians?"
"Martians are from MARS!"
"'Martian' is a general term for space fucker!"

And one more:

After seeing a zombie combine with its leader's body (an obvious reference to The Blob), the hero of the film exclaims: "Now that is just some fucked up shit!"

Slither is probably the most fun I've had at the movies in a long time. It is one of those small gems that will insert itself, much like the wormy little slugs featured in the film, into the underground pop-culture to be appreciated by geeks like me for years to come.

Thank you, James Gunn, for not forgetting about us! :)

Gouda's Final Grade: A-

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Inside Man

Clive Owen and Denzel Washington on the inside...

Spike Lee has built a career on making movies that I either love or hate. He doesn't know this, of course, but I like to think that some part of him has a bit of a guilty conscience for making me sit through Jungle Fever. In other words, of late many of his "joints" have been really arthritic.

Did I score any points for originality on that one? No?

With Inside Man, however, Lee has more than redeemed himself in my eyes. I bet he is absolutely thrilled about that, by the way. It is the smartest, least arrogant (for Spike, that is) film he has made in years. In fact, I counted only three to five attempts at racial allegory, which has to be some kind of a record for him!

It's no ordinary heist picture; Inside Man is filled with subtle twists and MacGuffins, all of which are complimented by fantastic acting on behalf of Clive Owen, Denzel Washington, and Jodie Foster. Owen in particular shines here as the criminal mastermind who is not quite what he seems, the only flaw being that his lust-inspiring face was hidden behind a mask for the majority of the film.

The taut suspense was tempered by witty dialogue and perhaps most memorably by a sequence involving Owen getting a glimpse of what a 9-year old boy was playing on his Playstation Portable.

I only found myself distracted by certain elements, such as the cinematography, where the camera panned perhaps a little too far and too fast, creating an effect that was difficult to look at without squinting. Also the soundtrack was generally cheesy and incongruent, creating a mood in some scenes that best belonged in an old episode of TJ Hooker rather than in a modern suspense film, but these are subtle marks against it, and do not detract much from what is overall one of the best films so far this year.

Gouda's Final Grade: A-