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Facing the unthinkable: United 93.

Infamy Revisited

By Shawn Stone

United 93

Directed by Paul Greengrass

To answer the obvious question, United 93 was worth making, and is worth seeing. It was worth making because we shouldn’t forget the senseless deaths that day, or the shattering force of the hatred that some very determined people have for the United States. It’s worth seeing because it’s a story well-told, with writer-director Paul Greengrass bringing the confusion and terror of 9/11 to vivid life.

It’s not voyeuristic or bombastic, however, and in that lies its strength. We know how 9/11 will end, but the film does not wallow in either portent or histrionics. Just the opposite: By never letting us know what time it is, we’re as in the dark as to where we are in the narrative as the people in the film.

Not surprisingly, United 93 is frightening on multiple levels. Who can remember the innocence of a time when hijackings were so rare that pilots, flight controllers and FAA officials alike would react to the first reports that morning with utter disbelief? Before every errant blip on a radar screen was a possible terrorist attack? As one terrible thing after another happens, the real drama is in watching the full horror dawn on the participants.

Most immediately scary, however, is the way Greengrass dramatizes the communications failures on 9/11. The executives at the FAA National Center in Virginia understand what’s going on, and the military command at the Northeast Air Defense Center just down the Thruway in Rome react with clarity and intelligence (to bad information). There’s just no communication between the two—neither the FAA bureaucracy nor the military bureaucracy are capable of communicating with the other. Long after the FAA brass figure out that American Airlines flight 11 was the first plane to hit the World Trade Center, the FAA bureaucrats tell the Air Force that flight 11 is still in the air, headed toward Washington, D.C. Given the Homeland Security department failures with Katrina, it’s difficult to have any faith that other government agencies—like, say, the FAA—have been doing any better in the last six years.

As has been widely reported, the film has no stars. It couldn’t, or they might as well have titled it Airport 2001. It does, however, have plenty of actors who have guest-starred on TV shows like Boston Legal and CSI; a cast resume check turned up 18 names who have appeared on one (or more) of the Law & Order programs. These vaguely familiar faces create a feeling not unlike déjà vu, as we feel like we’ve seen these people before, maybe on the street, maybe . . . on a plane.

Greengrass does an excellent job putting the story together, but his familiar limitations as a director show, too. While his addiction to shaky handheld shots (which sank The Bourne Supremacy) are appropriate here, he still has problems creating convincing action sequences. Also, he doesn’t show any feeling for the geography of the plane’s interior; I was confused about where the action was taking place, and what happened to many of the passengers he showed before the hijacking.

These are small complaints, however. The filmmaker’s masterful use of pace keeps us off-balance; when United 93 reaches its preordained end, it’s still a shock. And despite the questionable conjecture that the passengers managed to kill a couple of hijackers—acts that are dismayingly satisfying—the film offers no “closure.” Which is just as it should be.

Private-Eye High

Brick

Directed by Rian Johnson

I’m tempted to call Brick the post-Columbine Heathers. It shares with that movie the premise that high school is a microcosm of all adult vice and viciousness. But where the earlier film played it for laughs, albeit darkly, Brick is treacherous and mean—and all the more satisfying for it. In Heathers, the histrionics of the characters were extrapolations and obvious exaggerations of adolescent angst and self-seriousness. The viewer couldn’t— wasn’t intended to—take any of it seriously. Despite its reliance on a distinct gimmick, Brick isn’t goofy, and the viciousness of its characters is chilling.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (whom TV viewers will recognize as the kid from 3rd Rock from the Sun) plays Brendan, a high-school loner investigating the murder of an ex-girlfriend. Shortly before her death, the girlfriend contacts Brendan and, in argot mysterious even to him, indicates that she has “screwed up real bad” and is in trouble with “the Pin.” Something has gone wrong with the “brick,” there’s a problem with “Tug.” It’s all obscure to Brendan, so, in true Phillip Marlowe fashion, he sets out to solve the puzzle. And that’s the gimmick: The plot, the characters, even the dialogue are all straight Raymond Chandler. Gordon-Levitt plays the role just as Bogie would have. He’s a former insider who’s turned his back on the game; he’s got a touchy relationship with the authorities, who nonetheless respect him (rather than a police chief, it’s an assistant vice principal); he’s wily and self-destructive enough to get the better of the muscle, though he takes some brutal shots; he knows better than to trust a dame, etc. And, oh, the dialogue. . . . It’s either gonna hit you right in the pleasure center or drive you right out of your tree: “Quit yer yappin’ and pour me one.” “Yer scratchin’ at the wrong door.” “I’m not heeling you just to hook you.” It’s tough-guy banter right out of ’46.

The plot, with its uncertain alliances and betrayals within betrayals, rises to the level of canonical versions of the detective genre, too (if you dig The Big Sleep, you should dig this storyline). Setting it in a high school, however, may just have been a stroke of genius. Writer-director Rian Johnson has deftly, improbably, interwoven the appropriately mercenary cold-bloodedness of the drug trade with the lurching pitch of teenage emotionality. This tension provides some very funny moments—as when the drug kingpin the Pin (Lukas Haas) ends a tense meeting by asking Brendan, “You read any Tolkien?”—but also allows for some direct gut-wrenching, as well.

Sadly, viewers can no longer view depictions of teen violence with detachment, can no longer assume a purely metaphorical value. However, Johnson’s sure direction of an audacious concept and the perfectly balanced performances of its actors seem to have been informed by this knowledge. Brick good scary, and scary good.

—John Rodat

Let’s Be Charitable

Friends With Money

Directed by Nicole Holofcener

Writer/director Nicole Holof-cener’s previous movies, Walking and Talking and Lovely and Amazing, blazed with a straightforward honesty—particularly when it came to depicting the inner lives and worries of women—that you don’t usually see in movies. Her latest, Friends With Money, displays some of that openness, at least with respect to how people dance around the subject of money, but in most respects, it’s a distressing setback.

The friends with money here include Christine (Holofcener stalwart Catherine Keener), a screenwriter who works with her husband David (Jason Isaacs) in between arguments ostensibly about the neighborhood-shattering remodeling of their house. Then there’s Jane (Frances McDormand), a successful dress designer disguised as a complete bitch on wheels whose various neuroses include perceived threats to social equilibrium and hair washing. The third is Franny (Joan Cusack), who is wrapped in a delightfully self-centered cocoon with her doting hubby Matt (Greg Germann). For some reason, these three women maintain a friendship with housecleaner Olivia (Jennifer Aniston). Even given the knowledge that Olivia had, until recently, been a teacher at a posh private school, it seems inconceivable that she, probably 10 years the junior of the other ladies, would have had the common ground required to begin these friendships, let alone maintain them.

That said, Holofcener slyly limns the edges of the quartet’s shared lunches and gab sessions in such a way as to suggest that Christine, Jane and Franny keep Olivia on as sort of a charity case. At one point, Jane pointedly asks Franny why she doesn’t just give the $2 million she’s slated toward a particular charity to their friend instead. The pregnant pause that envelopes the group at this point is the closest this movie gets to saying anything real or substantial about the way money comes into play in nearly any situation.

Another huge problem is, quite simply, Aniston, who spends the great majority of her screen time looking like she’s got a really bad blister from her Jimmy Choos. Casual viewings of that horrible show, Friends, revealed that, by the end of that long run, Aniston had developed a decent sense of timing; it’s too bad that she—perhaps in a determined attempt to look serious—keeps appearing as downtrodden, depressed damsels in distress. The thing is, she can’t do it very well, what with her limited cache of maybe three facial expressions, each a variation on the pout.

That said, Olivia’s three friends aren’t worth investing too much in either, no pun intended. While Holofcener’s intent, lamely interjected near movie’s end, may have been to show how women of a “certain age” are reacting to diminished prospects and hopes, what we get instead are a trio of ridiculously insulated beings with the emotional I.Q. of 3-year-olds. Franny, who in some ways is the most interesting character (by fact that she is so clearly happy with her life), nevertheless comes off as downright vapid. It’s only when she snaps that spending money on a fund-raiser for a particular cause is, in fact, the way it’s done—temporarily shutting up her friends, who complain that the money doesn’t go straight to the victims—that the movie makes sparks. But Holofcener backs right away, perhaps fearful that if she didn’t, her movie might actually have something good to say about, well, friends with money.

—Laura Leon


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