Sunday, April 30, 2006

‘United 93’

Director Paul Greengrass has made the first major motion picture about the tragedy of Sept. 11, and in so doing has set the bar so high, I cannot imagine anyone—or any film—could surpass “United 93.”
There is not an ounce of Hollywood cheese or superficiality in this remarkable reconstruction of the one flight hijacked that hellish day that did not accomplish its objective—to destroy The White House. Greengrass (also the film’s screenwriter) uses his trademark shaky-cam style to give a work of fiction (technically) the immediacy of a documentary, and the effect is chilling, gut wrenching, and absorbing. The performances from this massive cast—many of the “actors” playing themselves—are all wonderfully restrained, picking up on an understated script that always provides the sense that these are real people going about their ordinary lives—until the extraordinary occurred and they were forced to deal with it.
Greengrass could have played up the obvious heroism that it took for a handful of passengers on United 93 to rush their hijackers, storm the cockpit, and save this nation from even further tragedy. But there is no chest thumping, no melodramatic monologues, no sweeping score—everything is kept as authentic as possible and, thus, achieves maximum effectiveness. Even the now infamous “let’s roll,” uttered by one of the passengers before he rushes the terrorists and played up so highly in the media since, is just one more urgent line delivered with no more weight than any other in “United 93.”
That drive to retain the humanity of these people is what really cuts to the quick. Filmed essentially in real time, we see pilots, flight attendants, passengers, air traffic controllers, and everyone else involved in the events of that day going about their business as usual. What is about to take place is so unthinkable, the initial threat of a hijacking is almost brushed aside. Even when the first explosion rocks the World Trade Center, no one in the control rooms thinks it’s one of the jumbo jets; it’s just not possible.
It’s not until the second plane slams into the building—the real-life footage shown on the traffic tower’s monitor and zoomed in to fill the entire movie screen—that the horror finally sinks in.
From there, the remainder of “United 93” is essentially chaos. Although (thankfully) apolitical, this film certainly shines a light on the failings of bureaucracy, as the FAA and military directors can’t communicate with each other and the military can’t get in touch with the president or vice president in time for the necessary clearance to shoot down any remaining hijacked planes. The hijackers are also not played up to villainous excess. Their prayers to Allah are haunting, but Greengrass allows their actions—such as executing a flight attendant and a passenger—to speak for themselves. The terrorists are certainly anxious, their leader shows some hesitancy (and even calls a loved one prior to boarding the plane for one last “I love you”), but they show total commitment to the cause. And the results are duly horrifying. This film will haunt you, as it should.
United 93 was nearly an afterthought on 9/11, largely overlooked once it was confirmed the plane had crashed in a Pennsylvania field without harming anything or anyone else. As the Trade Center towers crumbled into twisted metal and dust and fears continued to run wild about further attacks, United 93 got lost in the shuffle. But no one will ever forget about these heroes after this. From their first panicked reactions, to trying to make sense of what’s happening in the world around them, to the realization of their fate and trying to reach loved ones one last time, to the final decision and push to overthrow the attackers, this is the best that humanity has to offer. Greengrass captures it perfectly, still managing to maintain suspense and emotion even though we all know the ending painfully well.
I didn’t know anyone who died on 9/11, but my family lives in the Maryland suburbs just outside Washington. On a day of random and unflinching violence and death, there is no reason United 93 couldn’t have gone down in my parents’ back yard. I have the brave souls on board that plane to thank for my loved ones’ lives, and “United 93,” unflinching in its own right, reminded me of that. I was literally shaking by the end.
This is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.
Grade: A

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

11 Movies That Hopefully Won’t Suck (And One That Surely Will): A 2006 Summer Movie Preview

With insane prices for both tickets and gas, it now costs my wife and me more than 20 bucks to go see a movie. Sure, that doesn’t sound too bad for one Friday night’s entertainment, but in our heyday, we’d see a movie almost every weekend, even if a new flick didn’t exactly fit our particular interests.
That time is long gone. Unless the movie looks to be something really special, I’d just as soon sit at home in my Man Chair with a “24” DVD—that’s certainly more entertaining than most of the crap coming out of the movie studios the past year (don’t get me started on how fantastic Season Two was).
All that said, this summer actually looks better than usual, especially compared to the pathetic batch that was 2005. Here’s my list of potentials, in order of release:

• “United 93” (Friday)—I haven’t even seen a trailer for this film and I still get goosebumps just thinking about one phrase—“Let’s roll”—and all those simple words imply. Here’s a story of true heroism, a justified celebration of bravery in the face of inconceivable circumstances. Director Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Supremacy”) went to great lengths not only to reconstruct the details of the lone thwarted 9/11 flight, but also earn the blessing of the families who lost loved ones to terrorism. Some people say it’s too soon for a movie like this, but not for me. We need as many reminders of that horror as we can get.

• “Mission: Impossible III” (May 5)—Under any other circumstances, this engorged summer “blockbuster” would be lucky to make my to-rent list. But with J.J. Abrams, creator of “Alias,” at the helm, I’m there. I’ll suffer through the insufferable Tom Cruise to see what this visionary director does with a big-time budget at his disposal. Throw in Ving Rhames, Laurence Fishburne, Billy Crudup, and, hello, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and we may just have a winner.

• “The Da Vinci Code” (May 19)—Am I the last person in America who hasn’t read this book? I was just holding out for the movie! Actually, I never had any real desire to read Dan Brown’s novel outside of a pop culture consumption standpoint, and that’s primarily why I’ll see the film. I know Brown’s “Code” challenges my personal beliefs, but that’s not a bad thing. Plus, I can always count on Ron Howard and Tom Hanks to deliver (not to mention a stellar supporting cast including three personal faves: Ian McKellen, Alfred Molina, and Paul Bettany). And maybe my lack of plot details will help me review the movie more objectively.

• “X-Men: The Last Stand” (May 26)—New director Brett Ratner (“Rush Hour”) scares me a little, but at this point these movies direct themselves, right? The characters are all so cool and played so well (Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, Patrick Stewart as Professor Xavier, Ian McKellen as Magneto, Famke Janssen as Jean Grey, Anna Paquin as Rogue, I could go on …), everything should still be all right for what is considered to be the last in this successful series. I’m looking forward to Kelsey Grammer as Beast and more screen time for Colossus. Hopefully Ratner screw it up.

• “Cars” (June 9)—New. Pixar. Movie.

• “Nacho Libre” (June 16)—Okay, so this one will probably be a rental. But I had to include a movie about Mexican pro wrestling simply for the hilarious press photo of star Jack Black (complete with an Eddie Guerrero-esque mullet/mustache combo) leaping bare-chested from the top rope. Go find this image. You’ll fall off your chair.

• “Superman Returns” (June 30)—Bryan Singer (“X-Men I & II”) as director: Definite plus. Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor: Tremendous positive. Picking up where “Superman II” left off: Good choice. Special effects: Sure to be stellar. Lois Lane as a divorced single mother? Huh? Big negative. Newcomer Brandon Routh as Supes: Who knows?
Yeah, this one’s a toss up.

• “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” (July 7)—Three summers ago, I went to see the original “Pirates” thinking there was no way it could live up to the hype. On the contrary, Johnny Depp & Co. EXCEEDED the hype, with the former’s rickety Capt. Jack Sparrow becoming an instant Hollywood icon on his way to creating one of my favorite popcorn flicks of all time. The big question is, of course: Can he do it again? Plenty of people will spend plenty of money to find out (including me).

• “Lady in the Water” (July 21)—I was also apparently one of the few people in America who actually liked “The Village,” M. Night Shyamalan’s 2004 flop. Although Bryce Dallas Howard also stars in the follow-up, Shyamalan says “Lady” isn’t like any of his other movies. Of course, this from the man who takes pride in twisting his audience’s minds into pretzels. I give him the benefit of the doubt. Plus, Paul Giamatti’s on board, so I’ll go see it regardless.

• “Snakes on a Plane” (Aug. 18)—If you haven’t heard about this movie yet, you must be under a rock with the 400 snakes that take center stage in this B-movie horror/thriller. Ordinarily I’d never see a movie like this. But I’ll make an exception for one thing: Samuel L. $%&@*$ Jackson! Already an Internet tour de force (check out, “SoaP” has hit written all over it. The only thing that might hurt it is so much hype so early. This thing is all over the place, and it doesn’t come out for four more months—by that point, we might all hate snakes, Chuck.

• “Clerks II” (Aug. 18)—Or, “Kevin Smith Shamelessly Returns to Previous Success in Hopes of Reviving Flagging Career and Regaining Indie Cred.” Is there any way this turns out well? I’ll definitely wait to hear critics’ reaction before plunking down my 10 bucks for this retread.

And, last but not least, we should torture captured al-Qaida terrorists at Guantanamo Bay with … “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” (June 16). We’d have Osama in 5 minutes or less.

Monday, April 24, 2006

At Least That’s What I Said: Wilco in Williamsburg, 4.22.06

When I saw Wilco lead singer/founder Jeff Tweedy play a solo concert at Messiah College six months ago, I came home convinced his band was getting in the way of his songwriting.
Funny how things change, huh? Because after catching that aforementioned band in all its glory Saturday night in Williamsburg, I’m now convinced they’re one of the best live acts I’ve ever seen.
For a while there—until about 10 days ago, I guess—I thought my love for Wilco had run its course. I managed to find the beauty in 2002’s eccentric “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” but the follow-up, 2004’s “A Ghost Is Born,” was just too far over the line: Too many bells, whistles, and squeaks. I just didn’t have the patience to listen to it enough times for it to sink in. If Tweedy wanted to go all art-house, fine. God bless. I’ll see you later.
And then I found out Wilco was playing within driving distance of my house and couldn’t turn down the opportunity—one last shot in the arm.
I had seen the setlists from the past couple years, so I knew what I was getting into: Most everything was going to come from the last two albums. So, I figured it was time to finally listen—really listen—to “A Ghost Is Born.” If I’m gonna go to the trouble of driving to Williamsburg, I may as well know the new stuff as well as possible, even if I don’t like it.
So with that purpose in mind, I revisited “Ghost” with an open mind (or chained myself to it against my will, maybe) and it just … clicked. Not all at once, but something was there. It started with “Company in My Back”—and not even the whole song, but the little sprinkling of notes at the end of the chorus (Is it a guitar? Is it a synthesizer? Some other instrument? I have no idea, but it sounds great). I know it sounds so navel-gazing-art-house-reject, but it’s true; those few little bars buried in the midst of a five-minute song struck a chord in me, and it unlocked the entire album. Because after “Company” comes “I’m A Wheel,” an instantly accessible rocker out of the “classic” Wilco style, and then “Theologians,” a song I rediscovered at the solo show last year. Skip over the disastrous “Less Than You Think” and its 12 minutes of atonal squall, and the album closes with “The Late Greats”—at first cheesy, but eventually one of the catchiest tunes in Tweedy’s deep catalog.
So I lived with this album off and on for a week—in the car, the office, the subway, the walk home—and I finally came to enjoy it.
I didn’t come to love it until Saturday night.
Looking back, I now know the problem with these last two albums all along: They just can’t translate to a live setting, I thought, which means they’re just musical meanderings for a wannabe-auteur playing with knobs in the studio thinking he’s Phil Spector or David Gilmour or something.
I was dead wrong.
Tweedy and his five mates create one of the most glorious noises I’ve ever heard in concert. Saturday’s show was—hands down, no questions asked—the tightest set I’ve ever seen from any band at any venue on any day of my entire life. Even U2 and the E Street Band, with their endless rehearsals and drive for perfection, didn’t give me the sense of pure, intense musical adventure and endeavor that I saw this weekend from Wilco—it was like art being created live in front of a few thousand people. The same bells and whistles from the albums were all there, in the right places, and all in perfect time with guitar, drum, and bass. And yet it didn’t feel rote, either. These guys are just absolutely ON FIRE right now, at the peak of their game, and the results were thrilling to say the least, from opener “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” to “Ashes of American Flags” (a stunner in the middle of the set—a song I never really cared for until now) to “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” (which felt like it deserved its full 10 minutes, unlike the more tepid album version). I was amazed at how much power there is in this new version of the band (Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt are the only original members left after 11 years and five albums); there are hidden reservoirs here that just don’t translate on record.
Which brings me to my own little broken-record-of-the-concert-review moment. I’ll go back and listen to “Foxtrot” and “Ghost” with new fervor now after this show, but nothing compares to what these songs become when played live—at least when they’re played like this. Glenn Kotche is an absolute monster on drums, but his wide-ranging talents are muffled on “A Ghost Is Born”; newcomer (but guitar-wielding veteran) Nels Cline is a welcome addition, ripping through several screaming solos Saturday (including a revamped finale for “Ashes”). Cline brings a welcome edge and weight to the proceedings, adding to the group’s overall power (when there’s four electric guitars up there at the same time, this band can now hold their own and wail with the best of them). And as for Tweedy, his entire delivery flows much better in person; a song like “At Least That’s What You Said,” with its choppy, near-whisper opening stanza, is fuller and more melodic when he stands under the lights.
Wilco played one new song in Williamsburg, “Walken,” an old-school stomper that stood out even on a night full of high points. It will be interesting to see what direction the next album follows; if this song is any sign, maybe Tweedy feels he’s taken his current trip as far as it will go and is now turning back to his roots after a decade spent running away from them. Who knows? When Tweedy goes into the studio, obviously anything goes.
Say that theory holds, though, it will also be interesting to see what happens to future setlists. Wilco’s songs may all have the same author, but that doesn’t mean they fit well together. Cruising the message boards for fan reaction to Saturday’s show, I was intrigued to see how much people complain about the lack of older material—I thought that was for people like me, the unenlightened who didn’t care for the last two records. Now I find I’ve flipped, just like that. If someone had told me 10 days ago I’d enjoy—no, LOVE—a Wilco show where 15 of the 19 songs came from “Foxtrot” and “Ghost,” I’d have called that person crazy.
But I sat there, in a converted basketball arena of all places, pinned to my seat all night, stunned at how fascinating the newer material is in person. The three “oldies” seemed almost … simplistic by comparison. Not worse, mind you (come on, I’ll never complain about “A Shot in the Arm,” “Via Chicago,” and “Kingpin” (the latter with a hilarious call-and-response section in the middle)), just not quite as interesting on this particular night. Sure, we’re all beggin’ for “Casino Queen,” but the old stuff wouldn’t have meshed well with what Wilco has been attempting onstage for the past two years. There was an overall intensity of the endeavor that was completely unexpected, and I can only assume that feeling is generated by the sheer complexity of taking these songs on the road.
I haven't figured out yet why Tweedy insists on using all these strange sounds; the theory I'm working on goes something like, "the dissonance makes the portions of melody even more prominent and important." Nevertheless, Tweedy is certainly one of the most challenging musicians in rock and roll, playing and working at the highest level of his career. I can’t wait—now—to see where he goes from here.

William and Mary Hall
Williamsburg, Va.

I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
War on War
Company in My Back
Hell Is Chrome
Handshake Drugs
A Shot in the Arm
At Least That’s What You Said
Jesus, Etc.
Ashes of American Flags
Spiders (Kidsmoke)
I’m the Man Who Loves You

First Encore:
Via Chicago
The Late Greats

Second Encore:
Heavy Metal Drummer
I’m A Wheel