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Wednesday, July 24

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United 93

Try to remember how you felt that day. I thought I had a pretty clear recollection of my state of mind on September 11, 2001, but watching writer-director Paul Greengrass' United 93 brought it all back so clearly that I was stunned by the power and weight of my own extremely emotional memories. At least on that first day, I didn't feel anger (that came later, probably the next day). I felt helpless and scared and fearing for my future. A lot of you reading this may be too young to remember or realize that there was an entire generation of children in the early to mid-1980s who had vivid nightmares of dying in a nuclear holocaust. I don't want to turn this review into something political (the film stays clear of doing so, and so will I), but I put the full weight of my early-teen nightmares on Ronald Reagan's shoulders. And the fear I woke up with daily in my youth is exactly the fear I felt on 9/11, and I genuinely was stunned a film could ever make me feel that way.

Without getting into a discussion about what I was doing on September 11, or my feelings about our reigning president, or our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the appropriateness of United 93 being made at all (these are all topics of conversation that seeing this film had led to in the days since I saw it), I will simply say that United 93 is one of the finest films I have ever seen about a single day in history, a moment in time that changed the modern world, and no amount of praise for it is too high. By simply allowing the events to unfold, Greengrass not only makes what I believe is a wholly accurate account of that day and event in history, but also shows us that the passengers on that plane were not heroes before they stepped onto that fated flight. Collectively, however, they knew that dying as helpless, cowardly pawns was not an option. Without adding artificial drama, background on any of his subjects, or any exploitative elements, Greengrass serves us the story of what happened to those poor people who ended up in an empty field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

If you've seen Greengrass' Bloody Sunday then you know he is a master craftsman when it comes to structuring a story (expect this film to get an Oscar nod for editing, at the very least). The film opens with scenes that make us more uncomfortable than we will want to admit: shots of the soon-to-be-hijackers praying in their hotel rooms before going to the airport in Newark, New Jersey. The flight crew is beginning the pre-board routine, air traffic controllers are switching shifts and anticipating a fairly easy day thanks to clear skies across the country, and passengers are just beginning to check in. The suspense is with us from the second the film begins. The fact that Greengrass is able to create and build any tension at all is impressive, considering everyone who sees this film knows exactly how it ends and that it ends badly for so many innocent lives.

But this is no ordinary movie. What is also so perfect about United 93 is that, for the first half of the movie, almost nothing out of the ordinary happens on that flight. Greengrass takes advantage of this period of apparent downtime to focus on the goings on with various air traffic controllers and military personnel (most of whom are non actors playing themselves) trying to make sense of the early minutes of the first two hijackings, which are the planes that ultimately went into the World Trade Center towers. We never see any events from any other plane, so most of the action consists of men and women staring at their screens and listening for any hint of what might be going on in those captured aircrafts. It never crosses anybody's mind that these planes will do anything more than land at a nearby airport, and the hijackers will issue some sort of demands. When the first plane disappears off their radar over lower Manhattan, they don't even realize it has gone into a building until someone turns on CNN. The chaos that follows is infuriating, but it's surprisingly difficult to pinpoint where to aim your anger and frustration. The nation simply had no plan for this kind of attack.

About a year before 9/11, I had read the Tom Clancy novel Debt of Honor (in which a pilot crashes a commercial airliner into the Capitol Building during a State of the Union address, wiping out the entire U.S. government), and I remember my first thought as I began to comprehend what was going on during 9/11 was, "This is just like the Tom Clancy story," which was written in 1994. How could they not have been prepared for this kind of attack, no matter how unlikely? Those same thoughts forced their way back into my brain as I watched United 93. Watching those poor air traffic controllers, who spend their entire careers keeping planes from crashing into each other or other things, lay witness to the second plane go into the second tower is almost too much to handle. The chaos was simply overwhelming. At some points there were so many planes that might have been hijacked, the media began reporting unsubstantiated reports that fires were erupting at the Mall in Washington, D.C. And, Greengrass captures it all with his essential hand-held camera work, which takes you out of your usual position as a distanced observer of the action and makes you an active participant in events you want no part of.

Once flight 93 is taken over by hijackers, the film rarely jumps away from those constrictive confines. There is no one actor that stands out in my mind as having a standout performance because there isn't supposed to be. The cast is a mixture of unknown or somewhat familiar faces, whose names aren't important. (I did notice the actor who plays the president in The Sentinel plays a passenger, as does an actor who has had a recurring role on "Boston Legal" lately.) As much as we'd like to believe all the passengers stood up tall and brave to fight back, that simply wasn't the case, and the film isn't afraid to show us that. There's not an ounce of criticism toward those people who were too terrified to take part in the attempting retaking of the plane; I'm not sure I would have done much better under the circumstances. But the film's final moments are nothing short of miraculous, including the storming of the cabin, the hand-to-hand fighting with the terrorists, and the attempt to regain control of the flight controls (there were passengers who probably could have brought the plane in safely) as the hijacker flying the plane jerks the vehicle side to side in an attempt to throw the passengers off their feet.

I'm guessing about half the audience at any screening of United 93 will close their eyes during its closing minutes. It's just so unfathomably overwhelming, and it so completely goes against everything we've come to expect from films in general. Aren't the heroic characters supposed to survive and beat out evil? When we sit down in a darkened theatre, ready to down fistfuls of salty, greasy popcorn, we want to be entertained and ultimately leave an action film (that's essentially what United 93 is, right?) feeling empowered and better about the power of good over bad. The fact that the passengers of United 93 probably saved the lives of hundreds, maybe thousands of people on the ground (its target was believed to be the Capitol Building) doesn't quite make up for the way this film ends. It goes against everything we've experienced up to now as moviegoers. This is what happens when real life slams head first into our fantasy lives. I hope that at some point in my career, I have the opportunity to meet or speak with Paul Greengrass to thank him for making this movie. United 93 might be the finest film I see all year. It's certainly the one that will be the hardest to shake. Everyone who sees it will have a different reaction to it, I'm sure, but I guarantee you will have a powerfully undeniable reaction. See it with someone you trust and love; you're going to need each other.


Hard Candy

If you are male and make it all the way through this intense and terrifying little two-person tale from first-time feature director David Slade and writer Brian Nelson, one very clear thought will go through your head: OUCH! OUCH! OUCH! OUCH! OUCH!

I'm not 100 percent certain I know what the point of Hard Candy is, but that didn't stop me from appreciating the razor sharp performances by the two leads, especially Ellen Page (soon to be seen as Kitty Pryde in X-Men: The Last Stand) as a naive 14-year-old named Hayley, who appears ready to fall victim to a 32-year-old man, a photographer named Jeff (Patrick Wilson from "Angels in America," The Alamo and The Phantom of the Opera), whom she meets on the internet. The film opens on a computer screen, showing us the instant messages going back and forth between the two. Jeff seems charming, vaguely flirtatious and eager to meet. Hayley agrees. We never really know what Jeff's ultimate intention is. Does he want to take photos of her, have sex, kidnap her, kill her or some combination of these? Is this the first time he's done this, or is it one of a string of such seductions? When the two meet at a local coffee shop, their banter is fairly engaging, clever and mildly dangerous. He understands the legal danger he'd put himself in by taking her home, but she volunteers to see his place, and he can't resist.

Our hearts go out to Hayley. She seems so young, yet so eager to be more grown up than she is. Suddenly the face of every missing young girl we've ever seen on TV or on a sign stapled to a telephone pole flashes through our mind. At Jeff's home, Hayley mixes a couple of screwdrivers and invites Jeff to photograph her. At this point in the film, we begin to wonder how far this is going to go, but there's no preparing anyone for the twist and turns this Hard Candy has to offer. I'm going to guess about half the critics who review this film will ruin the film's one major early-on twist. I won't, at least not completely. If you've seen the poster for this film, it gives you some clue Hayley is not all that she seems. (It shows her, back to the camera, in a red-hooded sweatshirt as bait in an oversized bear trap.) The most incredible thing Nelson's script accomplishes is switching our allegiance from one character to another (or at least giving us many, many reasons to consider doing so). It's a remarkable and almost impossible task, but it's handled so adeptly you almost don't feel it happening.

Page and Wilson are so good in this film that, at times, you're not sure whom to root for. And, there is one sequence (the aforementioned one that will cause men in the audience to squirm like they have never squirmed before) that is almost so unfathomable that my mind actually shut down briefly so as not to fully contemplate life for these characters beyond that particular point in the film. As mentioned earlier, I'm not sure what we are meant to learn or take away from Hard Candy (other than a finely crafted script and two exceedingly well-acted performances), and the process of watching this film can be wholly unpleasant on occasion, but that doesn't stop it from being a gripping (albeit disposable) piece of entertainment. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Akeelah and the Bee

Now here's a novel idea: a feel-good movie that actually made me feel really good. I'm not sure what it is about films that feature children spelling words most adults will never use in the course of their entire lives, but they sure do seem to be popular. The only reason the 2002 documentary Spellbound didn't win the Oscar that year was that it was up against Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. Last year's abysmal Bee Season also featured a young girl destined for greatness as a master speller, but the film was buried in so much mysticism and artificial family drama that it lost me early in. And, playing at Chicago's Drury Lane Theatre right now is the well-received musical "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." And now we have Akeelah and the Bee from writer-director Doug Atchison (whose last film was called The Pornographer; how exactly did he get this job?). While Akeelah doesn't come close to touching the real-life tension and drama of Spellbound, it's still a remarkable work about a young, inner-city girl with a gift, who struggles not only to succeed, but also to get past her own fear of sticking out and appearing too intelligent.

This may seem like a ridiculous thing to worry about, but in the school and Southern Los Angeles community where Akeelah (newcomer Keke Palmer, recently seen in Madea's Family Reunion) lives, being singled out for your smarts is cause for mockery. It becomes clear early on that, if trained by an expert, Akeelah will have no problem holding her own in a championship spelling bee. What she must overcome is peer pressure and name-calling, which, for a pre-teen girl, may be the hardest obstacle of all. Although Akeelah is encouraged by the school faculty to fulfill her obvious destiny as a competitive speller (a gift her late and much-missed father first tapped into), she is hesitant because her family is in turmoil thanks to a struggling mother (Angela Bassett) and older brother who is beginning to keep company with drug dealers.

Akeelah decides to keep her competitions a secret from her mother, and begins serious training with a local professor and former bee champion, Joshua Larabee (a nicely subdued Laurence Fishburne), who has his own reasons for teaching this sometimes-unruly girl. The film doesn't offer many surprises as Akeelah rises through the ranks of California-based contests and eventually makes her way to the nationals, but it makes up for this by giving us some surprisingly interesting characters that enter Akeelah's life, including fellow bee competitors Roman (George Hornedo) and the ice-cold Dylan (Sean Michael), an Asian student whose overbearing father has made the quest for a winning son his only priority. As Akeelah continues to win, she begins to garner attention from the media (primarily because they can't believe a young black girl from a dysfunctional public school is doing so well) and the support of those who once made fun of her. Apparently, it takes a village to nurture a good speller.

Most of the film's drama is fairly predictable. Eventually Akeelah's mother finds out about her daughter's clandestine winning, which leads to a confrontation between Basseett and Fishburne (Ike and Tina reunited!). The smartest thing Akeelah and the Bee's filmmakers did with their uplifting little film is hire Palmer as the lead. She resists every child-actor trying to be adorable and cute, and still manages to be highly likeable. Expect her to be in a lot more films in coming years. Fishburne is also quite good as the seemingly centered, Zen-like instructor, who knows exactly how to push Akeelah and tap into her unknown gifts.

The film's only major flaw is its conclusion at the National Spelling Bee, which is a complete cop out that tries way too hard to wrap things up in a way that won't make anybody feel like a loser. But by that point in the plot, you are so committed to the story of Akeelah and her support team that faulting the film seems petty. Akeelah and the Bee is glorious, if familiar, storytelling that dares to get to know both where its characters came from and what their potential is for growth and success. It's the type of film designed to make you smile and feel enriched to see someone whose life is in the balance, and actually succeed and be the better for it. If you think the film sounds too sentimental or sappy for your tastes, you may be surprised how much it moves you. I know I was.


Look Both Ways

From Australia comes this odd and fascinating film that examines death, disaster and how the two can often bring two lonely people together. In fact, Look Both Ways might be one of the best date movies for those who think a violent death is waiting for them around every corner. I know you're out there. Photojournalist Nick (William McInnes) snaps a front-page photo of a woman alongside the train tracks where her significant other has just been hit by a train in a possible suicide.

The image, along with the story written by Nick's friend and co-worker, Andy (Anthony Hayes), sparks many a discussion throughout the newspaper's readership about what types of relationships lead to suicide and the struggle to keep love alive in the face of adversity. Nick may have been drawn to his photo subject because he has just gotten news he has cancer, he can't stop thinking about his own death, which may only be months away. He meets a lovely artist named Meryl (Justine Clarke), who happened to see the aftermath of the train yard death, and the two seem drawn to each other. Meryl may be the only person on the planet who contemplates her own death more than Nick, and nearly every time she does anything in or out of the house, we get a short animated clip of Meryl meeting a hideous end in a variety of highly improbable ways. It comes as no surprise that first-time feature writer-director Sarah Watt made a number of animated shorts before making Look Both Ways, and one of the big reasons I found the film so engaging and amusing were these creative cartoons that appear to be drawn in crayon.

The film traces the first weekend of Meryl and Nick's unstable but well worth rooting for relationship, which goes from flirting to sex to break up in three days. We also see Andy's tumultuous coupling with his newly pregnant girlfriend, and we are given glimpses of a mysterious middle-age man, who drifts around silently through his home with his wife and son wondering when he'll snap out of his justifiable funk. When we discover his true identity, the film's themes come full circle and nearly knock us on our collective asses. In many ways, Look Both Ways reminded me a lot of last year's wonderfully quirky and tragic Me and You and Everyone We Know, but this film is more grounded in reality than Miranda July's piece. Clarke and McInnes are perfectly cast and matched as this couple almost pulled together by their mutually morbid fascination with their own demise. Nick is a very good-looking man, who comes to realize his adventurous sprit and handsome face will not be enough to get him through his bout with cancer; he needs a kindred spirit who can focus on another person's life instead of her own. And Nick's fragility is the lynchpin of this movie.

The film is capped off with a well-chosen series of images that reveal the fates of all of the major characters (think of the series conclusion of "Six Feet Under" with almost the same emotional payoff). A young first-time filmmaker once told me the highest compliment you could pay a newbie director wasn't that you liked his/her first film, but that you couldn't wait to see his/her next film. Sarah Watt has a lot to live up to with Look Both Ways, and I'm desperate to see what she's got next. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.


Stick It

Unlike Look Both Ways (see above), I'm not quite as eager to see what first-time director Jessica Bendinger's next film is. Bendinger made a name for herself in 2000 writing the fun, campy movie about warring cheerleaders Bring It On. Since then, she has hurt me deeply with screenplays for asinine flicks like First Daughter and the mermaid-as-bimbo disaster Aquamarine from earlier this year. Bring It On worked because in most ways it was poking fun at high school films, but Bendinger has made a career out of writing vapid stories about privileged teens and how they overcome such hardships as finding a date or taking care of a mermaid. Her latest film, Stick It, I had hopes for because it returned to familiar territory: hot high-school-age girls at war with each other; only this time the arena is gymnastics rather than cheerleading. Oh yeah. Of course, the presence of Jeff Bridges gave me hope, as well, but even The Dude couldn't save this irritating experiment in who can out-bitch each other.

Television actress Missy Peregrym stars as Haley, a former gymnastics protégé who dropped out of a major competition a few years earlier and caused her team to lose the competition. Haley has since become a bad girl, getting mixed up with the extreme sports crowd at school, whose greatest crime seems to be dressing like homeless kids. Haley is arrested for vandalism and is forced to go back to her old gymnastics training facility, led by Burt Vickerman (Bridges). Haley is sassy, disruptive and completely unconvincing as the academy's bad girl. All the other girls hate her, especially the stuck-up Joanne (Vanessa Lengies), who engages in verbal cat fights with Haley every chance she gets. Ultimately Vickerman convinces Haley to train for real and re-enter the competition she dropped out of years earlier.

Bridges' character is probably the most fleshed out in Stick It, but that's not saying much. We learn he lies to many of the parents of his students about the kids' chances of getting into the Olympics to keep the money coming in, and that the only reason he agreed to allow Haley to come to his academy was because her mother paid four times the going rate. We also learn he blew out his knee years earlier and hasn't trained seriously since then out of fear more than inability. Although there are very few people to like in Stick It, at least Bridges tries to give us a character with something resembling a heart and soul. It's a noble effort, but the writing here is weak and a hollow, and with everyone snipping at everyone else for 90 percent of the film, you don't really find yourself with anyone to care about. Even the lame feel-good ending where all the gymnasts in the final competition band together for a common goal can't save the plot. If anything, it just gives us more characters to hate in the form of a group of unfair, stodgy judges. I found myself getting more and more annoyed and frustrated with Stick It as it dragged on to its inevitable conclusion. The film features a seemingly endless number of music montages and girls in skimpy workout outfits, but even these sure-fire attempts to win my heart fell flat. None of this shocked me, but Bring It On was such a fun film, I thought we might have a winner. When will I learn?


RV

I know in my gut there are worse films in the world than Robin Williams' new vehicle RV, which is about a businessman who takes his family from California (I think; I really wasn't paying attention) to the Colorado Rockies. But, fresh from having seen this wretched piece of unfunny shit, I'm at a loss to think of even one. Am I even a little bit surprised? I'd like to say yes, but the fact is that Robin Williams' recent films are hit and miss at best (for every One Hour Photo or Insomnia, we get Death to Smoochy and House of D; and did I mention Mrs. Doubtfire 2 is in pre-production?). Director Barry Sonnenfeld's (Get Shorty) recent films are even worse, with such gems as Wild Wild West and Big Trouble. Let's just say my expectations were low going in. But nothing prepared me for how grossly awful RV is. I did not laugh once, and I'm pretty sure I know why: because everyone in this movie is either playing miserable or clearly was miserable making the movie.

The only performances that even came close to amusing me were those played by Jeff Daniels and Kristin Chenoweth, as a couple who travel the nation year-round in their own RV with their kids. At least they showed some spark of life, even though the pair relied on age-old white-trash stereotypes. RV is a dreary film that seems determined to beat the living soul out of any good memory I've ever had of Robin Williams as a comic master and award-winning actor. They cover him with septic tank waste, have him fight an angry family of raccoons, and just generally get dragged through the dirt and mud whenever possible. I was probably most disappointed by the presence of Cheryl Hines from "Curb Your Enthusiasm" in this movie as Williams' wife. What a way to torpedo any shot she had of a real film career. This is a miserable movie that will make both young and old never want to see Williams in another film again. Agony, thy initials are RV. Nice work, geniuses.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to .

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