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Friday, December 15

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World Trade Center

It goes without saying that Oliver Stone is an easy target. For whatever reason (because it certainly isn't because his movies are no damn good), he is a whipping boy among many film critics and at least one half of the political demographic of this country (probably more). I'll admit, there's a part of me that wants to rewatch Alexander just to see if it's as god-awful as I remember it. When I consider Stone's bull-in-a-china-shop approach to directing and existing, he seems an unlikely candidate to use kid gloves in a film about the downing of the World Trade Center towers. But World Trade Center isn't really about the big picture. Its focus is a small, extremely narrow sliver of the world on September 11, 2001. In fact, huge chunks of this film take place in just a few square feet occupied by two very brave and lucky men, buried under tons of rubble. This is a film made up almost entirely of small, intimate moments, and thanks to a remarkable cast and a story almost impossible to get wrong, Stone pulls off about half of a great movie.

I do not suffer lightly a director trying to manipulate my emotions with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. A film can be well written, acted, shot, edited and directed, but when I feel a filmmaker is inventing drama for the sole purpose of an emotional reaction from me, I rebel and resist. Obviously, 95 percent of all romantic comedies fall into this category, and, granted, movie making is about manipulation. But there are levels. The movie is based on the real-life story of Port Authority police officers John McLoughlin (played by Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), and even when he's sticking close to the facts, Stone's manipulating is undeniable.

Most of the scenes that you've seen in the trailers — men in rescue worker helmets and coats running for their lives as the towers literally fall down on top of them — are taken from the film's first 20 or 30 minutes. These are rapid-fire sequences that don't need any beefing up, and Stone handles them perfectly. As McLoughlin and his crew attempt to organize a trip up one of the towers to look for survivors, they hear loud crashing sounds above them. At first you think it's debris; then you realize the sounds are the bodies of those who jumped out windows rather than be burned alive in the towers. The rescue workers force themselves to not think about what those sounds mean, and it becomes clear right away that it simply never occurs to anyone that the towers will fall.

But once the towers fall, the movie shifts gears and becomes two very different endeavors. If Stone had maybe pushed a little harder (and the studio been a little more brave), this could have been a film about two men trapped under tons of rubble, talking to each other for hours on end in an attempt not to fall asleep and die. Despite their close proximity to each other, McLoughlin and Jimeno can't see one another; they are both pinned under rubble, so the most we even see of them are their head, shoulders, and arms. If ever you doubted Cage as a powerful actor (and why would you?), see World Trade Center. What he does with just his voice and face is truly incredible and moving.

Not to take anything away from the equally gifted Pena, who's had smaller roles in Crash and Million Dollar Baby, as well as a fantastic one-season stint on "The Shield." His performance is perhaps even more difficult because his character seems more alert and slightly more mobile than Cage's. As strange as it sounds, he also serves as the film's one source of comic relief. Even with death staring him in the face, Jimeno is cracking jokes just to keep the two men talking.

When your lead actor barely moves for three-quarters of the film, there's not much room for manipulation, and the images of these two soot-covered men will stay with me a very long time. Your mind can't help drift into thoughts of "Is there any possible way I could survive what they are going through?" And the minute you put yourself in the characters' body, the film owns you.

Unfortunately, Stone frequently wanders away from these men and into the lives of their families, and I'm not knocking any of the performances of those playing family members, who, for many long hours, are fairly certain their men are dead. The always-perfect Maria Bello plays Donna McLoughlin, while Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jimeno's wife, Allison. The problem with these sequences is that they feel utterly conventional, as if they could have been directed by anyone in line to make the next "very special episode" of some crap series on the Lifetime network.

I don't doubt that this is exactly what these families went through, but seeing it re-enacted doesn't add anything to the inherent drama of these moments. If anything, it robs the power of the scenes under the rubble by taking us away from them. Yes, we learn about the thoughts going through the heads of these two men struggling to catch each breath, and naturally, they are thinking about their wives and kids (Jimeno's wife was pregnant at the time). The scenes of the families offer tension, passion, and lots of screaming and crying, but what they don't offer is relevance, and what they don't add is weight to the situation at hand.

Perhaps more interesting but not necessarily any more pertinent are the half-dozen side plots involving men and women from across the country who found any means to get to New York and help search for survivors (there were only about 20 people pulled alive from the rubble). My personal favorites are played by Frank Whaley and Stephen Dorff, as the first men who actually crawl into the unstable rubble to find the trapped officers.

When this year is done, I have no doubt that United 93 will be in my top five of the best films of 2006. There's just never been another film like it, and the timeliness of its release made it all the more riveting and necessary. As a record and representation of an event that still leaves so many hurt and angry, World Trade Center is a far easier pill to swallow. Its edges are rounded; its emotions are largely uplifting; and Stone leaves all sense of politics and grandstanding somewhere else.

There are times during World Trade Center where you can feel Stone force-feeding us sentimentality, and when that happens, the movie falters. There is nothing more powerful or gripping than the story of two men in what they believe are the final hours of their lives. When Stone sticks to telling that story, World Trade Center is a thing of beauty. So am I recommending the film? I am, but not without some major reservations. The one good thing about the family scenes being so weak is that they don't stick with you long enough to ruin what is so good about this movie. This is a very good movie that missed being a great movie by so little.

The Oh in Ohio

Parker Posey spends a lot of time in the new sex comedy The Oh in Ohio with a smile on her face. But often it's a false smile, one that hides frustration and a lifetime of sexual dissatisfaction, much of which is self-induced. This is the story of one woman's journey to sexual awakening. Posey plays Priscilla Chase, who has the unenviable job of pitching big companies on moving or opening offices is Cleveland (is it any wonder she's sexually frigid?). She has a great college professor husband (Paul Rudd), who is growing more and more frustrated about his inability to give his wife an orgasm, apparently a life-long problem for her made all the more troublesome by the fact that she's never masturbated. If this kind of frank talk is making you squirm, you better bail on this movie because it's full of this sort of brutally open discussion. To the outside world, Priscilla has a perfect and accomplished life, but she knows better.

Eventually her husband leaves her, at least temporarily, and takes up with one of his students (Mischa Barton), which shakes up Priscilla's world just enough for her to desperately want to snap out of her cold spell and try to discover what deep-seeded issues are keeping her from having a great sex life. She tries dating, sleeping with countless men, and even experimenting with lesbianism (with a sex shop owner played by an uncredited Heather Graham). Priscilla's first orgasm comes via a vibrator, and this experience kicks her desire for more into high gear. Finding that men still can't quite get the job done, she becomes almost addicted to her toy, while still maintaining a healthy dating schedule. Oh, did I mention that Liza Minnelli plays a sex therapist in the film? I wish I'd been able to avert my eyes in time.

Posey has always been one of my all-time favorite comedy goddesses. She doesn't have to do a damn thing to make me smile. Her performances in Christopher Guest's improv masterpieces are the stuff of legend, and seeing her in a lead role in this high-profile indie film is cause for celebration. The Oh in Ohio is not a great film, but there are great aspects to it, including Posey and Rudd, who is on as much of a roll right now as an actor can be. He makes acting look easy, and he makes being funny seem effortless. The film takes its story seriously, and Rudd and Posey get many opportunities to shine.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the nice final act turn by Danny Devito as a pool salesman and friend to Posey, who offers her a comfortable friendship and possibility her only chance at good sex with a man. I warn you, if the thought of watching Devito and Posey make out and simulate sex turns your stomach, this film ain't for you. And as with Minnelli's cameo, advance warning would have been nice. But Devito is really strong here as a man who knows all of Posey's secrets and likes her anyway. Although he arrives late in the film, their relationship serves as the heart of this movie.

The Oh in Ohio lacks the insight and deep analysis to qualify as a revealing look at modern-day sexual relationship and why they do or don't work. But it does offer some terrific acting, some great laughs and, above all, Parker Posey in nearly every scene. For a film all about sex, it still feels a little safe and restrained, but it gets its points across painlessly and I had a lot of fun watching it. The film also invents moments of significance that simply aren't that interesting. There's a sequence late in the film in which Posey goes down a water slide in Devito's pool. Clearly the moment is supposed to be meaningful, but it doesn't quite get there. I suppose I, too, failed to reach my cinematic orgasm with The Oh in Ohio, which doesn't mean it didn't feel good trying. And that's fine because I took care of myself later. Can somebody hand me a tissue? The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Quinceanera

Every so often a film hits screens (usually in art houses) that strikes such a chord with me because it champions a group that is rarely examined in movies. It's far too limiting to simply call this group losers or outcasts; and besides, there have been plenty of films that features losers and outcasts. For example, consider a work like The Station Agent, which features characters that are simply not wanted by society. Before meeting each other, these people had no one to care whether they lived or died. By forming a makeshift family, they find love and hope in a world that is ambiguous at best. Set in the Mexican-American world of Echo Park, Los Angeles, Quinceanera is a quiet yet powerful piece about societal outcasts who survive with each other's help.

Magdalena (Emily Rios) doesn't start out an outsider. Her family is prominent in the community (her father runs a storefront church), but they are poor and secluded. After attending a slightly tumultuous quinceanera (15th birthday party) of a friend, all Magdalena can think about is how wonderful hers could be, if only her father wasn't so stingy. But as the celebration draws near and Magdalena begins to try on dresses, a scary truth comes to light: Magdalena is pregnant, despite swearing up and down that she and her boyfriend never had sex. Her religious father is humiliated and immediately kicks her out of the house.

She is forced to move in with her great-great uncle Tomas (the magical Chalo Gonzalez), who has already taken in Magdalena's cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia), who was kicked out of a Mexican gang and his own house for being gay. The three outcasts live on property recently purchased by a gay white couple (David Ross and Jason T. Wood), and it doesn't take the quiet, shy Carlos to get to know them better. The dynamic between this odd, blood-related threesome is sweet and very moving. Carlos is still a badass when he needs to be; Tomas' way of life and home is threatened by the early stages of gentrification; and the nearly 15-year-old Magdalena becomes very scared after she's essentially abandoned and denied by her boyfriend.

Each character has their heart broken more than once during the course of this film. When her friends discover the truth about her pregnancy, they stop talking to her. After what was supposed to be a one-time threesome with the two white property owners, Carlos continues to sleep with one of the men secretly. And Uncle Tomas must come to terms with the fact that the small shack he lives in on the property is worth much more than it ever has been, and his time there may be limited.

This delicate, extremely well made film comes to us from the directing team (of Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland) that gave us... wait for it... The Fluffer. In fact, Westmoreland (under the name Wash West), until recently, directed exclusively gay porn. This background makes Quinceanera all the more remarkable as a mature and gripping human drama, and an essential work about people we don't see enough of on the big screen (or any size screen, for that matter). There are no major missteps here. Every detail of this film is elegantly executed, and the performances are subtle and touching. This is one heck of a great movie, and it opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Another Gay Movie

A couple of weeks back, I was proclaiming my frustration with the state of gay cinema. Perhaps the problem is that mainstream cinema has very few qualms these days about making films about or featuring gay characters. Brokeback Mountain is the obvious example about this, but there are plenty of others. Just last week, The Night Listener opened with Robin Williams playing a gay radio host, and the fact that he was gay seemed secondary to the plot. Oddly enough, if you're looking for age-old gay stereotypes, you can find plenty in films aimed at gay audiences. Another Gay Movie acknowledges, embraces and mocks the many trappings of gay films (and a few straight ones) by co-opting the plots of the three American Pie movies and essentially gaying them up. The results are rude, crude, ridiculous, and mostly hilarious.

Michael Carbonaro fills in for Jason Biggs as Andy, a 17-year-old gay virgin, who is obsessed with putting things in his ass (I specifically used the words "rude" and "crude" in the previous sentence, so don't act so surprised). All his best friends are gay (some in, some out of the closet). His friends range from a buff jock to a twinky gay-cinema lover to the slightly nerdy brain. The boys are all "booty virgins" and vow to loose their virginity before graduating high school. Much as American Pie had its beyond-offensive Stiffler, Another Gay Movie has Muffler, a big old self-proclaimed bull dyke who never has any problem "turning" the straight, A-list girls in the school into raging lesbians. For obvious reasons, she's probably my favorite character.

Another Gay Movie does not even pretend to be a conventional story of a gay young man's coming of age; all the film wants you to do is laugh and maybe gag a little. Those with no gag reflex may still have problems with some of the stuff in this movie. I liked seeing Lypsinka

as Andy's mother and Scott Thompson from "Kids in the Hall" in the Eugene Levy role as Andy's overly helpful dad. But the biggest and best surprise was seeing talk show host Graham Norton as Andy's foreign exchange teacher (whatever that means) Mr. Puckov, who introduces the innocent lad to the world of hardcore bondage and beyond. If you're familiar with Norton's style of humor from his show, you have some sense of the tone of this movie, only with the bad language and graphic images left in, rather than just referenced with innuendo.

Another Gay Movie is like throwing spaghetti at a wall: a lot of sticks, some of its falls flat, and the whole mess leaves a big nasty stain. I hope that gay comedies take a page from the book of this film from this point forward. They don't all have to be quite this disgusting and intentionally shocking, but at least the filmmakers are trying. The movie opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Step Up

This movie is about following your dreams, about never giving up on getting what you want even if the entire world says you suck. I had a dream recently; my dream somehow recaptured a time in my life that I hold sacred, a time just before things got really, really shitty. These precious moments are the ones I spent before walking into a screening of Step Up, a dreadful work that may try and fool you with the unexplainable presence of Oscar nominee Rachel Griffiths. Whatever you do, don't let this film drag you into its contrived plot or its third-rate cast.

Channing Tatum plays Tyler, a Baltimore white boy wannabe hardcore ghetto child, who's about as threatening as the gang members in Michael Jackson's "Beat It" video, which may be appropriate since the guy can also dance like an extra from Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. He and his friends vandalize an arts school, but since he's the only one who gets caught, he is sentenced to community service as an assistant janitor at the school. While taking a break and watching the school's pretty girls practice dance routines for their big final project, he gets the bright idea of helping out the most promising (and hottest) dancer, Nora (Jenna Dewan), whose partner has just injured himself.

Will the straight-laced Nora get over her elitist bitchery and see what a nice, monosyllabic young man Tyler is? Will she find a way to loosen up her by-the-number dance routines and incorporate some of his street-wise poppin' & lockin,' and in the process find a romance that is light on the ass tappin' but big on heart? Oh, don't get me started on the predictability of Step Up.

Actually, some things about this film did surprise me: the over-the-top reaction of Tyler's best friend when he finds out he's helping this privileged girl with her dancing, for instance. The dude acts like Tyler cheated on him, and thusly storms off in a dramatic huffy rage, giving him the silent treatment the next time they run into each other. I half expected him to squeal out, "I'm not talking to you!" Every world this movie touches, it turns into an endless parade of stereotypes and clichés. There's a drive-by shooting in the hood, Nora's ex-boyfriend and his white buddies attempt to drive a wedge between her and Tyler. Griffiths' school principal character is always initially doubtful that Tyler actually wants to do something good, but she always relents with some variation of, "If you screw up, it's back to the mop and bucket for you, young man."

Step Up is the unwashed ass-crack of teen struggle movies, offering us R-rated issues in a PG-13-rated setting and insulting the audiences' intelligence every chance it gets. It's an embarrassment to everyone involved, and if they aren't embarrassed to be associated with it, enjoy the end of their career beginning right now.

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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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