Cinema Psycho

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Archive for August, 2006

Summer Catch-Up #3: Auteurs Gone Wild

Posted by CinemaPsycho on August 30, 2006

Well, we’ve got a lot to catch up on, so we might as well get right to it (in the order in which I saw them):

Lady in the Water – see, I like M. Night Shyamalan’s films. I even think The Village is a misunderstood masterpiece (no, I’m not kidding). But I don’t konw what the hell he’s doing this time. It’s almost as if he was actually trying to piss people off.

It’s not that Lady is a horribly bad film; it’s more of an “interesting failure”. Stylistically, it’s of a piece with Night’s previous four features. But narratively, it’s a huge mess, and that’s a crushing disappointment from a writer whose best work is disciplined, focused and “old-fashioned” in the best sense of the term.

It seems that Night decided to call this a “fairy tale” so that he could simply make shit up as he went along, without having to explain anything using logic, reason or simple common sense. Fine, but even a fairy tale has to operate under a set of rules, regardless of how fanciful the story might be. Throwing out the rulebook only works if doing so has a particular purpose or point that serves the story well. Here, the lack of a cohesive structure only serves to confound the viewer and prevent anything meaningful from sinking in.

It’s not just the ridiculous new language he’s come up with, including words like “narf” (did he steal that from Pinky and the Brain?) and “scrunt”, which sounds vaguely dirty in any form (“I’d narf that scrunt!”). Nor is it the fact that the heroine, a literal fish out of water named Story (rrrright) played by the alluring Bryce Dallas Howard, comes from a “blue world” (huh?) and somehow knows that the residents of this specific apartment building are the only group of individuals who can help her get back there (but didn’t she go there to help them in the first place?). I guess I can buy all that, as bizarre and random as it may seem.

It’s the way the story is told that keeps anything from gelling. Lady lacks the combination of genuine surprise and inevitability that are the main ingredients to Shyamalan’s other, better films – instead of walking out going, “Oh, that’s why all that happened”, we are left wondering “what’s the point to everything that happened?” The switch from one set of answers to another (prompted by the critic’s misdirection to the main character) only leaves us feeling duped and cheated by our all-knowing storyteller. Each possible resolution is just as much random bullshit as the other (the kid reads messages off cereal boxes that no one else can see? Does that make any sense to anyone?), and we’re just left with the sense that Shyamalan is jerking us around. I know, I know – Shyamalan was making a comment on the nature of storytelling and how it can be easily misinterpreted by the cynical, blah blah blah. I think it only reminds us how necessary good storytelling is for a movie like this to work.

And let’s talk about that critic, played as a mild-mannered, buttoned-down nebbish by Bob Balaban – how arrogant and foolish was that? Not even Kevin Smith would have the balls to include a plot element like that. Let’s piss off every movie critic in America! Hey, since that worked so well, I should write a review stating that “anyone who reads Internet movie reviews is a slack-jawed idiot”. Yeah, that would endear me to the multitudes, wouldn’t it? Seriously, casting a movie critic as the ostensible (if unintentional) villain of your piece just smacks of sour grapes. It’s certainly not a flattering portrait (or accurate, except maybe people like Leonard Maltin), but beyond that, the idea that movie critics are “bad” because they don’t understand what Shyamalan is trying to do is defensive to an irrational extreme. I assume that his next film will feature a mean Disney executive as the target of his ire. Or perhaps he’ll just attack the audience verbally for not supporting his last film. Dude, you get to make movies and do it your way – what the fuck do you care what people think? Spielberg didn’t bitch and moan about the critics after he made 1941, OK? He sucked it up and made Raiders of the Lost Ark. And even that has its detractors, misguided as they are.

I can’t help but feel like there was potentially a good Shyamalan movie in this idea – if only he hadn’t mucked it up with all this pseudo-intellectual (or is it anti-intellectual?) nonsense. If only he had focused on just telling a good story and executing it the best he could, which is the main reason I liked his films in the first place. Despite strong performances from Paul Giamatti and the genuinely otherworldly Howard (I kept wondering why he didn’t try to bang her though – I mean, come on, you’re a lonely middle-aged man and this young hottie shows up? Give me a break), there’s not much here that really works. It’s all too coincidental, too convenient, too out-of-thin-air. But it’s not like Lady is an unwatchably bad film. It’s certainly not generic hackwork. But it’s not the film it could have been either. Night could have another great one in him – and I genuinely hope he makes it. **

Clerks II – how far has Kevin Smith come in 12 years? Well, I remember seeing Clerks at a tiny art-house with maybe 3 other people in the entire audience. Now the sequel gets to play on 2,000 screens nationwide – if that’s not progress, I don’t know what is. Here’s another cult director coming off a widely derided flop, but unlike Night, Smith actually delivers a decent film that reminds us why the cult started in the first place. Let’s face it, at this point you either like the guy’s movies or you don’t, and if you don’t, I’m not here to convert you. But if his particular brand of humor appeals to you, Clerks II is a ton of old-school fun. Despite what Joel Siegel might think, few people find his raunchy humor that shocking anymore – back in 1994, hearing movie characters frankly discuss “deviant” sex practices was a novelty. Now, in the age of the Internet, not so much. But regardless, there’s still a lot of funny stuff here (you have to love a movie where people discuss doing ass-to-mouth with underage girls – um, don’t you?). And I found it genuinely moving to see Dante and Randal go full circle professionally (even if the business side of it is a bit naïve – hey, somebody give me 50 grand and I’ll open a video store too!) and finally discover their calling in life. Plus there’s Jay and Silent Bob, and you can’t have too much Jay and Silent Bob, can you? Of course not. Even if it speaks only to the Cult of Kevin, Clerks II has a lot to say to that fanbase, and it’s the one movie I’ve seen this summer that still sticks with me a month later. ***1/2

Miami Vice – you have to admire Michael Mann, in a perverse way, for taking the one brand-name potential franchise he’s connected to and basically destroying it by turning it into the kind of movie that no one expected, or really wanted. The whole ad campaign seemed based around the concept that “this isn’t the old Miami Vice”, ignoring the fact that, you know what, people liked the old Miami Vice. Unlike most TV shows turned movies, it was actually a good show! Mann’s new Vice is way darker (both literally and figuratively), combining the hard-R violence and cops-and-criminals theatrics of Heat with the murky HD photography and “you are there” verite feel of Collateral. The result is a movie that’s good for what it is, but never feels fully formed or developed. It’s almost like watching a movie in progress, a rough cut that needs some trims and adds before it’s really done. We never really get to know any of these people in anything but an offhand way – it’s the kind of movie where ass shots substitute for character development. Yet there’s an undeniable badass power to the action scenes, which is what Mann seems primarily concerned with anyway, and on a purely visceral level it ranks with his best work. I just kinda wish it had made me care about anything that was going on. Still, I have a feeling this Vice will develop a cult following on DVD, primarily among fans of action films and gangster movies whose tastes have not been served that much lately. ***

The Descent – easily the best horror film of the summer (which isn’t saying much, mind you, since it’s pretty slim pickings out there). British director Neil Marshall follows up on the promise of Dog Soldiers (the best werewolf movie of recent years) with what’s far and away the best movie about female cave explorers attacked by freaky Gollum creatures ever. Tense, claustrophobic and brutal, not to mention well-written and acted superbly by a mostly unknown cast. My only problem was that I thought they were a bit stupid for going down there in the first place – but there wouldn’t be a movie if they didn’t, would there? I’m probably the only person in the world whose favorite character was the cute little brunette, the one who was studying nursing. Too bad she won’t be around for the sequel. ***1/2

Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby – more fun than a barrel of rednecks! Seriously, what’s not to like? While I didn’t find it quite as riotous as Anchorman, the second Will Ferrell-Adam McKay production yielded plenty of laughs, as well as memorable lines and characters. Yes, the setting is basically just a backdrop for the actors to improv against, and the movie doesn’t have anything in particular to say about its subject, but when the movie’s this funny, who cares? Strangely enough, my favorite characters were those evil, rotten little kids – they were just so wrong that I found them absolutely hysterical. As recent SNL graduates go, I’ll take Ferrell’s particular brand of lunacy over Sandler’s any day. And you have to like a movie where a recent Oscar nominee goes all Tawny Kitaen. You just have to! It’s all ridiculous, but it’s still better than Driven. That counts for something in my book. ***

Snakes on a Plane – ah yes, the motherfucking snakes on the motherfucking plane. It’s pretty funny how the media has blamed the “Internet hype” for the movie’s lack of boxoffice power, when all the interest originated from people commenting on how ridiculous the concept was in the first place. They thought it was funny that Hollywood was making a movie about snakes on a plane – that doesn’t necessarily mean they wanted to see that movie. It was all bound to backfire, and frankly basing the ad campaign around the ‘Net hype was a strategy doomed to fail. If you say, “they’re talking about it on the Internet”, that just drives people away, man. Nobody takes the Internet seriously, including everyone who’s on it. As for the movie itself, I thought it was a decent little B-movie that lived up to its title. You want snakes? You want planes? You want Sam Jackson swearing? You got it, buddy! No one really thought it was going to be anything more than it was. To their credit, I thought the filmmakers pretty much did everything they could possibly do with that concept. It’s an entertaining enough movie, with one really great, inspired moment (throwing the dog to the snake – now that was fucking funny) and the rest is pretty disposable. I would’ve liked to see the hypochondriac rapper get bit though – can you imagine his reaction to having poison coursing through his veins? Talk about a missed opportunity. And while I hate to nitpick a movie as intentionally silly as this one, I did wonder exactly how they got the snakes from LA to Hawaii. Anyway, I thought it was fun for what it was, and I look forward to the inevitable sequel, Lizards on a Luxury Liner. Fun with alliteration! ***

Little Miss Sunshine – how ironic that my last summer movie also turns out to be the best. This is just a pitch-perfect little character comedy-drama, with no less than six truly great performances (Kinnear, Collette, Carell, Arkin, Paul Dano and especially Abigail Breslin). This kind of material has been covered before (beauty pageants, dysfunctional families, etc.) but it’s all done so well here that the movie transcends any expectations. By the end, these characters seem like real people that you know and root for, despite (or maybe because of) their obvious flaws. It’s funny, sad, heartbreaking and triumphant without ever being cloying or sappy – it’s like a real movie. Remember those? Talk about a breath of fresh air – this was just what we needed to remind us what a movie can be. Kudos to video directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris for making a film that’s nothing like what their resumes would suggest. This is the best film of its kind since Sideways, and one that’s well worth getting your ass to a theater for. It’s the kind of movie that sneaks up on you, and in a summer full of overhyped, gargantuan productions, it’s worth seeing to remember what that’s like. Great stuff. ****

That about covers it for now. That’s summer! I’ll get back to writing reviews (and regular columns) soon. Later.

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Pulse

Posted by CinemaPsycho on August 16, 2006

Directed by Jim Sonzero/screenplay by Wes Craven and Ray Wright, based on the film “Pulse” by Kiyoshi Kurosawa/starring Kristen Bell, Ian Somerhalder, Christina Milian, Jonathan Tucker, Rick Gonzalez, Samm Levine/Dimension Films – Distant Horizon

A group of college students discover that spending all their time on their cell phones and computers can be hazardous to your health.

Well, they finally released the damn thing! And based on the reviews, you would think that Pulse was the worst thing to hit the planet Earth since cancer. Jesus Christ people, it really ain’t that bad! OK, it’s not great, but it’s hardly “The Worst Horror Movie of the Decade” as one site so hyperbolically put it. Come on – have you seen Renny Harlin’s abomination Exorcist: The Beginning? This doesn’t even rank compared to that piece of shit! For sheer misguided foolishness and obscene stupidity, that is easily the worst horror movie (and possibly worst movie, period) of the ‘00’s. I may avoid Harlin’s films for the next 15 years or so just based on the sheer idiocy of that film (and that includes The Covenant, whose trailer makes it look like the gayest horror movie ever, and by gay, I mean gay). So don’t even come near me with that horseshit.

I’m not saying that Pulse is a particularly good movie – hell, it’s not even the best horror movie this month (that would be The Descent). It’s not a movie that I would defend to the death or anything. But there are some good things about it that keep it from being a total disaster. Not the least of which is the performance by one Kristen Bell – but I’ll get to that later. If you look at it from the right perspective… it’s actually quite the bizarre little moviegoing experience. And I’ll take that over the more generic likes of Step Up and Zoom any day of the week.

This is, of course, a remake of the 2001 Japanese film by noted director Kurosawa (Cure, Doppleganger), whose films are generally serious meditations on modern alienation than they are “scary horror films”. The original Pulse is no exception, which makes it kind of an odd choice for a Hollywood remake. I actually avoided seeing the original until after the remake came out, because I wanted to walk into the remake not knowing what to expect. As it turns out, I need not have worried, since the two films are as different as night and day. It goes without saying that Kurosawa’s film is better than Sonzero’s. Duh. You expected otherwise? But the makers of the remake (the remakers?) have made a valiant effort to at least try to keep some of the style and themes of the original in there, rather than turn it into yet another Scream variation (and if you’re wondering why Craven’s name is on the script, he was supposed to direct the film a few years ago, and they apparently left his name on there for some cache among the horror crowd).

Truthfully, I think a lot of the backlash comes from the film being yet another remake of a Japanese horror film (and a more general backlash towards Asian horror in general, which just a few years ago was considered the potential “savior” of the genre). It’s also a PG-13 film, which means it’s not “hardcore” blood-and-guts horror; a big no-no to those who believe (wrongly) that horror should be one thing and one thing only. My response to that is, if you just don’t care for these kinds of films, don’t fucking go then. I don’t see why that’s a problem. The job of a good critic is to look at the film that’s on the screen and evaluate it based on its merits, not to arbitrarily decide that it’s “not my kind of film” and dismiss it outright. I shouldn’t have to explain that, but apparently I do. So there.

Anyway, the movie stars the lovely and talented Ms. Bell as Mattie Webber, a college student in Columbus, Ohio (yeah, sure) whose boyfriend is apparently some sort of whiz-kid computer hacker. If you know anything about computer hackers, you know they generally do not have girlfriends, much less of the quality of Kristen Bell, so we’re already stretching credibility right there. Nonetheless, Josh (Tucker) has downloaded a virus which somehow allows spirits from the netherworld to invade our world and, as the kids say, fuck some shit up. The emaciated Josh winds up hanging himself while Mattie is in the apartment (he couldn’t even wait until she left? Talk about rude), leaving Mattie and her requisite group of racially diverse friends to try to figure out why. Soon they start getting emails from Josh, which makes the whole thing even stranger, him being dead and all.

So Mattie soon discovers that Josh’s computer was sold by his black-stereotype landlady to one Dexter McCarthy (Somerhalder, in greasy and disheveled mode). Dexter is literally The Guy in this movie, a character who only exists to help Mattie find stuff out and possibly be a romantic interest down the line (perhaps in the Sequel That Will Never Happen). Otherwise, he has no distinguishing characteristics or interesting qualities, except that he apparently buys stolen merchandise. Dexter discovers what appears to be webcam footage of strange ghost-like figures sitting around looking wasted, and informs Mattie that her ex was into some weird shit. From there, Mattie and Dexter discover the truth about the virus, which Josh received from some mysterious guy named Ziegler, while Mattie’s friends are infected by some kind of disease which turns their skin jet-black and eventually disintegrates them. So basically Josh would have just disintegrated anyway even if he hadn’t offed himself, but the movie never brings that up.

If that plot description doesn’t sound absolutely nuts to you, well, you obviously haven’t seen the movie. It comes off even weirder than it sounds, believe me, and there are some pretty huge logic gaps even before the movie goes completely bugfuck lunatic in the last 15 minutes or so. The writers never seem to establish a solid set of rules for how exactly the “ghost virus” actually works. Horror movies aren’t known for their sense of logic, but you have to set up rules for how the killer/monster/ghost/whatever operates and stick to them. There’s a raging inconsistency from one setpiece to another here – sometimes the ghosts can only get in through the use of technology, and sometimes they just appear at random, wherever the character about to be killed or chased happens to be. Supposedly only red duct tape keeps them out (see, duct tape is good for everything), but if you’re the lead, all you have to do is be on the other side of a bathroom stall and run away to keep a ghost from attacking you. At one point, the “ghost feed” works even when the computer is disconnected, which suggests that the technology doesn’t even have to be plugged in for them to use it to get through. Yet at another point, the characters are being chased by the ghosts and they save themselves by driving to a “dead spot” where there are no cell phone signals. So if the ghosts don’t actually need the technology to be working, then wouldn’t just having it with you be enough?

I’m no expert on computers or anything, but none of this stuff made any particular sense to me. Why would a computer virus also affect cell phones and cable television? How could the ghosts control the technology from the other side? Why wouldn’t the ghosts all try to come through at once? There are some vague attempts at explanation, but none of them really seem to answer anything definitively. You get the feeling that a few minutes of exposition here and there would have cleared things up, but it’s possible that those minutes were cut out to save time. Who knows, maybe it’s not supposed to make any sense. That would make it the perfect horror movie for our times, wouldn’t it?

The funniest thing, at least to me, is the movie’s setting. They shot the film in Romania, which definitely looks nothing like any American city with its Eastern European architecture and general sense of decay. Apparently Columbus is the dirtiest, grimiest, grungiest city on the planet Earth, or at least that’s what this movie would have you believe. Every frame looks like it’s been shot through a layer of gray ash. See, I’ve been to Columbus many times, and this doesn’t even come close to what it actually looks like. So if they had picked virtually any other American city, it might not have bothered me at all, but this doesn’t look like any American city. It looks like a place where vampires might be chased away by large mobs with torches. Even the “modern” buildings look like they’ve been vacant for decades. It might have been interesting to actually set the film in a European country, and make the characters foreign exchange students studying abroad, which would make their sense of alienation all the more pronounced. It would also explain the lack of police or military presence, the virtually abandoned streets and the complete absence of anything that signifies America, such as a flag. But alas, that’s not the route they chose to go, so the “world” of the film is completely unbelievable.

They obviously chose the location for financial reasons (those cheap-ass Weinsteins!), and the lack of budget really hurts the film’s big finale, which is supposed to be some chaotic “end of the world” type shit, and instead looks like something they shot on a rundown backlot in Encino. A couple of empty streets with paper flying around do not convincingly portray the potential apocalypse, I’m sorry. Where these scenes should be the most visually impressive of the film, they look like something Roger Corman whipped up with some stock footage and leftover B-roll. The shot of the plane crashing was apparently lifted directly from Kurosawa’s film, with a shot of Bell and Somerhalder superimposed over the bottom of the screen, and it looks exactly as bad as that sounds. Really, if you’re not going to spend the money to pull it off convincingly, don’t bother.

Those wacky Weinsteins also reportedly ordered the film to be cut down to a PG-13 from an R, and while that doesn’t seem to have hurt anything greatly, it doesn’t appear to have helped either (including at the boxoffice). A film like this doesn’t necessarily need to be gory, but when the intention is to disturb, why pull your punches? I don’t have a problem with a horror film being PG-13 if that’s what was intended, but cutting one down to get a softer rating just seems to defeat the purpose. It should be pretty clear by now that horror fans want R-rated films and are suspicious of anything else – and the kids are just gonna sneak into it anyway. I would’ve liked to see the tower scene that was cut from the film but was prominently used in the trailers and ads – and that’s another pet peeve of mine. If it’s in the trailer, put it in the fucking movie! Especially in a movie like this, where imagery is everything, I really hate paying to see a movie and not seeing what I wanted to see. That scene is in the original, and it’s one of the most jarring moments of the film. The rule of thumb really ought to be, if it works, use it!

So what exactly saves Pulse from being a total wipeout? First of all – you guessed it – there’s Kristen Bell, who proves once again what a terrific actress she is. She makes Mattie a believable character, whose emotional distress over her boyfriend’s death is palpable and realistic. Mattie hides her feelings with a tough exterior, but her pain is deep and just below the surface. The scene with her counselor (a surprisingly good Ron Rifkin) is some extraordinary acting, and I’m not bullshitting you. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the girl is good, and she puts all the plastic Hollywood Barbie dolls to shame. Even when the movie gets progressively silly, you just believe her, no matter what. She’s just phenomenal, and she elevates the material more than it probably deserves. If anyone should walk away from this with their reputation unscathed, it’s Bell. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that she’s gorgeous. But you already knew that, didn’t you?

There are also some nice touches within the narrative that keep things interesting. Taking the original’s theme of technology pulling us further apart and running with it, these kids are pretty much always with their cell phones, PDA’s, laptops, etc. Although it doesn’t seem to keep them from forming relationships, that at least seems accurate to what today’s youth are doing. While the movie never really explores that theme too seriously (what’s the message – “don’t use your cell phone too much or ghosts will come out of it and kill you?”), at least it’s in there. I also liked the character of Tim (Levine), who clearly has a big crush on Mattie despite his status as “platonic friend” (and who can blame him?), and she seems subconsciously aware of it, even if it never goes anywhere. I can’t stand these movies and TV shows where people of both sexes are “just friends”, without even acknowledging potential crushes within the group. It’s like they’re all neutered, and it’s bullshit. I’ll let you in on a little secret – no heterosexual guy ever wants to be “just friends” unless the girl is hideously ugly or totally fucked up and out of her mind. So that was a nice realistic touch.

Also, I thought first-timer Sonzero did a decent job of giving the movie some creepy atmosphere (although it couldn’t have been too difficult, given the locations), and showed some potential for possibly making something really good in the future. You can’t really blame him too much for the narrative problems, given the forced cuts in the film. I mean, that’s what happens when you work for the Weinsteins – don’t people know this by now? Unless your name is Tarantino, Rodriguez, Kevin Smith or Anthony Minghella, Bob and Harvey will fuck you over. It comes with the territory. When you sign on the dotted line, you’re taking your chances. Sure, other studio heads do that stuff too, but the Weinsteins are so blatant about it (almost like they’re proud of it), that it’s hard not to take shots at them for it. So, given all the aforementioned problems, I thought it was damn near a miracle that Sonzero pulled any of this movie off at all. You gotta give him credit for that, at least. Hopefully he’ll be smart enough to get as far away as possible from Dimension and won’t wind up making straight-to-video sequels for them.

I know, that’s not much to hang a halfway-positive review on. But at least it’s something. In the end, I didn’t love this movie, and I didn’t hate it. It was just OK. But that’s a damn sight better than “Worst Movie of the Decade”. Even if I can’t fully recommend it, it was at least watchable for the most part. It’s not much…but I’ll take it.

**1/2 8/16/06

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World Trade Center

Posted by CinemaPsycho on August 11, 2006

Directed by Oliver Stone/written by Andrea Berloff/starring Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Stephen Dorff, Jay Hernandez/Paramount Pictures

Hmmm….

I have to admit, I wasn’t prepared to write the review I’m about to write. I was prepared to either really love this movie or really hate it. Those are the easiest reviews to write. I wasn’t ready to just find it “pretty good”.

On one level, I do think it’s Oliver Stone’s best movie in years. Which isn’t much of an achievement when your recent filmography includes Alexander and Any Given Sunday, granted. The interesting thing about World Trade Center is how so much of it works so well, yet coming from a first-class filmmaker like Stone, you can’t help but wish it was even better.

For anyone who doesn’t know, this is Stone’s 9/11 movie. More specifically, it’s the story of two Port Authority officers, John McLoughlin (Cage) and Will Jimeno (Pena) who responded to the disaster and wound up getting trapped in the rubble. We see the entire event from their eyes and those of their wives (Gyllenhaal and Bello), who are waiting at home for word on their survival. If you’re looking for a larger view of the story, conspiracy theories, or a political diatribe, you won’t find it in this film. This isn’t that movie. So one thing I’m not going to do is criticize the movie for not being what it’s not intended to be – that would be bullshit. Like last spring’s United 93, this is a simple dramatization of the events of that day. That’s all it’s meant to be, and that’s exactly how it should be taken.

Which is why it’s more than a little scary that the right-wing mouthpieces have championed this movie as being “on their side” (you know, the wacko extremist conservative-Christian side). Not that this is surprising – those misguided folks will jump on anything that they think vindicates their position. The truth, as usual, is a little more complex than that. This movie’s not about “America, right or wrong” – it’s about good people from all walks of life coming together to help each other. How sad that anyone would take such a thing and twist it to their political position. Again, not surprising, but sad.

In fact, that’s what I liked most about the movie, and the thing that I found the most moving in it. It is about America – an America that existed on that particular day, under those particular circumstances. The city was under attack, people were dying and suffering, and we came together as a people to help those in need. That’s not political, no matter how much people like Cal Thomas would like to spin it that way. No one asked, “who did you vote for?” or “do you love your country?” before pulling someone out of the wreckage. They only cared about saving as many lives as they possibly could. Again, not a political thing.

It’s ironic that the same people who used to accuse Stone of being “anti-American” are now praising him for his portrayal of Americans in this film. The truth is, Stone has never been anti-American, unless you consider criticism of the government to equal hatred of the people. Which no sane person should. While watching the blue-collar New York cops and their families in WTC, I couldn’t help but think of the soldiers in Platoon and the family in Born on the Fourth of July. It seems to me that few filmmakers truly understand the nature of lower- and middle-class Americans the way Stone does. He doesn’t see them as stereotypes or targets of ridicule – they’re just people, human beings with foibles and flaws like everyone else, but essentially good at their core. That doesn’t strike me as the work of someone who hates his country and the people in it. If anything, I think Stone truly loves America, but despises what’s been happening to it since the Vietnam and Watergate era. He believes in the ideal of what America’s supposed to be, and so rarely has been since that time.

When World Trade Center is at its absolute best, it’s a vivid reminder of that ideal. While 9/11 was obviously a day of great tragedy, I think Stone also sees it as a rare day in which the system worked the way it’s supposed to. People came together from around the country to help their fellow countrymen in a time of crisis. For one day, people weren’t complete assholes toward each other. We were united by our collective trauma and our fear, which motivated many of us to want to do something, to help in whatever way we possibly could. For that one day, people cared about each other enough to take action, which is how America should be every day. When I look at the characters in this film, I don’t see races or religions or political affiliations – I see good people trying to do their best for each other in the center of a nightmare. I think that’s the story Stone wanted to tell – that rare story that he could tell without cynicism. I think he could easily turn around and make another film about the political blunderings that led to that day (Bush ignoring the CIA warnings of a terrorist attack, for starters), and all the bullshit that came after it (using the attack as an excuse to invade a country that had nothing to do with it). But this story is about that particular day, a day when people cared more about each other than about all the issues that divide us.

One of the more controversial elements of the film has been the inclusion of a character named Dave Karnes (played by Michael Shannon), a religious ex-Marine who drove from Wisconsin to the disaster site and was ultimately responsible for finding the buried officers. Obviously, if he’s the one who found them, then his story is relatively important to the narrative. But some have suggested that his presence implies a certain nod to the right-wing loonies that the war in Iraq is just. I don’t know about that, personally. First of all, it’s well-known that Stone doesn’t agree with the war, and he’s continued to say so in recent interviews. Secondly, if that’s what really happened, then that’s what happened. As an avowed agnostic, it doesn’t bother me to see a Christian portrayed as heroic, especially if he did in fact do a heroic thing. I don’t have a problem with people having those beliefs – I only have a problem with their insistence that everyone else has to have the same beliefs in order to be a good person. But if that’s what works for you, go for it. If being a Christian causes you to be a pompous, hypocritical asshole like Pat Robertson, then I’d say those beliefs are not serving you well. But if those beliefs cause you to do good things like save people’s lives, more power to you then. I don’t see a problem. As far as the war goes, it is true that Karnes talks about “avenging this” and eventually re-enlists in the Marines to serve two tours in Iraq. But a lot of people reacted that way at the time, even joining (or rejoining) the military because they thought they were needed. It’s not their fault that Bush sent them to the wrong country, is it? When the film shows all the various reactions that people had that day, it would be dishonest to leave that one out. I don’t see it as an endorsement of anything – they’re simply showing that that’s what people like Karnes felt they had to do. Whether we agree with it or not isn’t the point. It’s just one decision people made that day, among many decisions that were made. Hey, good for Karnes for having the guts to do what he thought was right. At least he went for his own reasons and not anyone else’s.

I think it’s great that Stone doesn’t let his own personal politics get in the way of telling the story. I just kinda wish there was more of a story to tell. The early part of the film, in which the officers experience first-hand the horror that’s going on around them, is impressively harrowing and looks like an accurate re-creation of what they experienced from the ground level. Those of us who weren’t actually there will probably never get any closer to it than this, and that’s as close as I’d ever want to get.

The problem is, once McLoughlin and Jimeno get trapped at the bottom of the elevator shaft, the film switches over to a rather conventional “guys trapped underground” movie, and it all plays out pretty much the way you’d expect. Fundamentally, it’s not so different than your typical “boy trapped in a well” Movie of the Week, except with the added subtext of the real-life backdrop. Our protagonists, previously men of action, become stuck underground and their point of view becomes extremely limited. While Cage and Pena do terrific work and continue to make us care about their characters, there’s still a sense of dramatic stagnancy in these scenes. We’re not moving around, we’re not seeing anything outside while they’re down there. Where everything seemed so realistic and vivid early on, it feels like we’re trapped on a set for a large portion of the rest of the film. It’s like shifting from an exciting high gear to a merely somewhat interesting low gear.

Things are only marginally better when the film cuts to the suffering families. Again, the performances here by Gyllenhaal and Bello are fantastic (though Bello’s blue contacts are a bit distracting), but the scenes mostly play out so conventionally that it’s hard to work up much emotion. You’d have to be made of stone not to feel something for these people in this situation, obviously, but we don’t really see too much here that we haven’t seen countless times in other movies where husbands are lost/missing/trapped, etc. It’s not that these scenes are bad, or that they’re not accurate to the story. It’s just that, despite their true-life origins, they don’t really present us anything we haven’t seen before.

I don’t know how these story elements could have been told any other way, but maybe the problem is the choice of story itself. By limiting the film’s perspective to these four characters (for the most part), we’re not really given much of a broad overview of the actual event. Not that they needed to cut away to a lot of different people, but why not choose a main character who was a more active participant? Perhaps a rescuer who wasn’t trapped, and was on the outside all day long? Even a supervisor? That way we could see the whole event from that person’s eyes, and the movie would truly be about the falling of the Towers, rather than the people stuck in the rubble. After all, anyone who goes to this movie wants that cathartic experience of seeing what happened from the point of view of those who were there. To cut away from that is kind of a cop-out – it would be like making United 93 and not showing the plane about to crash, or the events leading up to it. Stone could have finished the film with the final rescues that day, including those of McLoughlin and Jimeno – just don’t make them the main characters. When you go to see a movie about a subject like this, you want the focus right there on the event itself, in all its horror. Perhaps that’s why the film isn’t as cathartic as it could have been – because it starts out with that horror and doesn’t stick to it.

In the end, World Trade Center is a decent film, in both senses of the word, and a film worth seeing. But it’s not a great film, and you can’t shake the feeling that it could have been.

*** 8/11/06

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