Tuesday, September 4, 2007

United 93 (2006)

* * * * *

United 93 may be the most important film of the 21st century to date. Many will say that, because of how difficult it is to watch, this film is not for everyone, and those people are wrong. United 93 is a thoughtful, painstakingly effective portrayal of the events of September 11, 2001, particularly United flight 93 which crashed into a field in Somerset, Pennsylvania. Directed by Paul Greengrass, known for parts 2 and 3 of the Bourne series, the film employs no well known actors and many engineers, officers, and various personnel playing themselves. The direction is phenomenal as every single scene captures the raw emotion and intensity of the bizarre sequence of events. The casting of little known actors prevents the viewer from being star-struck, and eliminates the feeling of watching an actor in costume. There is no swelling, pulsing, sappy Hollywood score to tell the viewer how to feel because the emotions are right on the screen. The frantic editing and documentary-like cinematography create a window into how different people from all angles felt and acted throughout the events. Aside from the technical and artistic brilliance, United 93 is such vital film because of its presentation. The complete neglect of Hollywood techniques and marketability as a film leave behind truth and reality. This wasn't meant to be enjoyable but a chronicle of a terrible event, life lost, indecisiveness under pressure, and the sheer courageousness of humans fighting evil, grasping for their lives. A film like this could only be made about an event as tragic as 9/11, and no other film about 9/11 should ever be made. It may be too soon after the event for the brilliance of United 93 to sink in, and the fact that it was nominated (without winning) only two Academy Awards is an embarrassment to the Academy. In a country full of media and political bias divided along ideological lines, it is refreshing and necessary to take a step back and understand what happened, why it happened, and honor the life that was lost. This movie is a depiction of fact without any opinion, spin or twist. United 93 is a groundbreaking accomplishment and a landmark achievement in film that must be watched.

Good For: everyone

Bad For: overly emotional people

The Gallery
The Economist: * * *
The Film Maker: * * * * *
The Writer * * * *

The Birdcage (1996)

* * *

The Birdcage, like the club it is named after, is a fun time for the night but just something you do and forget about the next morning. Directed by Mike Nichols, the Birdcage is not as strange or subversive as Closer but flamboyant and charming. Robin Williams and Nathan Lane star as a gay club owner, Armand, and drag queen, Albert, who together raised Armand's son Val. When Val falls in love with Barbara Keeley (Calista Flockhart), the son of right-wing politician Senator Kevin Keeley (Gene Hackman), Armand and Albert agree to act as if they have no relationship for the weekend as to not scare away Val's fiancee's family. Williams and Lane are hysterical when on screen together and clearly had a great time improvising with the script. Hank Azaria, known primarily for his many characters on the Simpsons, steals the show as the couple's butler Agador. Nearly everyone line spoken by Azaria is side-splitting and when he, Williams, and Lane are on the screen, watch out. Unfortunately, the good comedic acting, and acting in general, stops here. Hackman and Flockhart put in very average performances and Dan Futterman is sub-amateur as Val. The Birdcage screenplay was adapted from a Broadway show, so there was likely little room to make significant changes and retain authenticity. The film does very little to address actual issues, and the few scenes involving meaningful dialogue are few are far between. Gay rights, homophobia, and tolerance and intolerance are briefly skimmed across and the relationships between characters are not well developed. For these reasons the Birdcage is more fun than it is important and more silly than memorable.

Good For: watching after a few drinks, ladies night

Bad For: homophobes, Larry Craig

The Gallery
The Surfer: * * * *
The Writer * * * *

City of God (2003)

* * * * *

City of God is one of the rare movies that is both entertaining and disturbing. If this film was a baseball player it would be a five-tool player, which means it has something for everyone. An urban drama about drugs and poverty, City of God chronicles a teenager's struggle to survive the slums of Rio de Janiero. The cast is almost entirely composed of amateur actors, and is narrated by Alexandre Rodrigues as Rocket, the main character. Fernando Meirelles directs and with genius combines style and purpose to create a unique film experience. The editing and cinematography are both top notch as multiple story lines and characters are interwoven into a fast-moving but deeply focused film. What makes City of God different from most urban dramas is the honest portrayal of how violence and poverty affect the development of children and young adults. The film is bleak but not without subtle bits of humor. It is this interjection of humor that allows the viewer to know and feel the young character's struggle. There are no Hollywood subplots, sappy plot twists, or exploitations of sex or violence. City of God beautifully shows a life of danger and desolation and how difficult it can be to make it out. But there is no happy ending. The film's veracious perspective of a cyclical pattern of violence and turmoil beg the question of what can be done to make changes.

Good For: genuine film fans

Bad For: those who can't read subtitles, people who liked Rush Hour 3

The Gallery
The Economist: * * * * *
The Film Maker: * * * *
The Writer * * * * *

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Mean Girls (2004)

* * *

Like far too many movies, Mean Girls comes out of the gate firing but halfway through loses steam and crawls across the finish line. The first forty-five minutes is entirely fresh, funny, and honest; the second forty-five is stale, bland, and cliche. This is a teen comedy, so the acting is nothing more than should be expected. Lindsay Lohan stars as Cady, a girl trying to fit into a new school and wade through the cliques and hierarchy that exists in a modern high school setting, and Rachel McAdams co-stars as Regina, the queen of mean. No individual performances are distinctly funny aside from SNL vets Tim Meadows as the high school principal and Amy Poehler as Regina's mother. What makes Mean Girls a success is Tina Fey's script. The film is brutally honest in portraying high school age girls and the high school experience and is entirely unique in this respect. The first half of the film is a no-holds-barred, hilarious perspective on shallowness, frivolousness, and superficiality. Almost anyone who grew up in the 90s and 00s personally knows these characters, some better than others. Poehler's portrayal of the tragically pathetic mother of the popular girl is written and performed perfectly. But, sadly, halfway through the movie Mean Girls begins to fall down the hill it climbed so bravely, and like a cliche-snowball builds and builds to the size of Lindsay Lohans coke lines. In an attempt to churn the humor into morality, Fey falls into every trap, using plot lines that have been beaten to death. Mean Girls has more than enough memorable quotes to be worth watching, but also more than enough rehash from all other teen comedies to be shut off halfway through.

Good For: fans of teen comedies, girls of all ages

Bad For: 99% of the male population

The Gallery
The Economist: * *
The Film Maker: * *

Say Anything (1989)

* * *

Say Anything could be considered a teen movie classic for being one of the first of its kind, or a film travesty for inspiring the generation of terrible teen movies that followed. With Say Anything, Cameron Crowe became the first writer/director to use the teen romance/comedy as a platform to genuinely showcase the divergence within society known as Generation X. Released in 1989, the film start John Cusack as a confused post-high school graduate and his chase after an academic superstar and soon to be high school graduate played by Ione Skye. Before even mentioning any other cast members, it must be made clear that the only performance even worth noting briefly is Cusack; the acting is definitely not the strong point of this movie and at times is painful. Cheeseball performances paired with an even cheesier 80s-synth score create the typical atmosphere you would expect from an 80s film starring teenagers. Crowe's writing, however, pushes through the cheese at some points to cast light on relevant issues. The central theme is the confusion of which path to follow to adulthood that many 17-20 year old's experience. Lloyd, Cusack's character, struggles between joining the army, like his father, and becoming a professional kickboxer all while trying to coax a girl and her father. Although this may be a bit of a stretch, the dilemma of tradition and safety versus breaking the mold all while worrying about creating an image that will scare away others is presented surprisingly effectively through Cusack's performance. The side-plot involving John Mahoney (the dad from Frasier) as Diane Court's father seems unnecessary and the ending isn't particularly illuminating, but many of the scenes seem honest and real; much of the film could have actually happened. Say Anything should never surpass the Breakfast Club in terms of classic teen dramas, but does contain its fair share of memorable quotes and scenes, especially Lloyd holding the boombox over his head. For those who can look through the cloud of sappy 80s-ness, Say Anything will be a somewhat enjoyable experience.

Good For: teen comedy/romance fans, John Cusack fans, 80s movie fans, fans of Cameron Crowe

Bad For: anyone older (at heart) than 20

The Ice Harvest (2005)

* *

Is the Ice Harvest supposed to be funny? dark? thrilling? stylish? funny? Considering a cast headlined by John Cusack and Billy Bob Thorton and direction from Harold Ramis, the Ice Harvest should be better than it is. The film attempts to be too many things at once without being really good at anything. A lawyer and strip club owner played by Cusack and Thorton, respectively, attempt a heist on Christmas Eve and madness, or dullness, ensues. The film takes place in one long night and involves a cast of shady characters strangely interacting with each other. There are a few interesting scenes of dialogue with both Cusack and Thorton including one that involves a man in a box. The only supporting actor worth noting is the typically over-the-top Oliver Platt who is surprisingly entertaining as a drunken husband and father unsatisfied with life. Richard Russo (with no previously noteworthy works) and Robert Benson (Kramer vs. Kramer, Superman, Bonnie and Clyde) collaborated on the screenplay which comes across as some sort of side project that didn't receive much attention. The plot twists are generally not surprising and by the time there are surprises you don't care about them. It seems as if Ramis had hoped to combine violence and unlikeable characters in a darkly humorous, Tarantino-like fashion but the Ice Harvest doesn't contain any of the wit or intelligence needed for this to work. What was meant to be a film noir-ish heist movie comes across as boring and worthless.

Good For: Billy Bob fans

Bad For: heist fans, those who are easily bored

The Gallery
The Economist: * *