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Before the fall: Nicolas Cage as cop John McLoughlin in World Trade Center.

Day of Infamy

By Laura Leon World Trade Center

Directed by Oliver Stone

The best thing about Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center is that it avoids the political aspects of the worst day in our nation’s history. The worst thing about the movie is that, in paying tribute to the terror, the heroism and the seemingly untenable hope of that day, it is more sentimental, more standard Big Picture, than gritty drama. Then again, it’s awfully hard to wring what we think of as “drama” from two guys stuck for a very long time in a mountain of twisted metal, concrete slabs and hissing wires.

While Stone seems at the outset an odd choice to make what is essentially a memorial about what has become a highly politicized and polarizing event, he brings an uncanny ability to evoke the powerful emotions surrounding the actual day itself. Here we have the business-as-usual activities of a lovely late-summer workday, and the initial confusing details and our collective inability to comprehend, initially, the horror of what actually had occurred. Stone and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey are at their best in re- creating what it was like before words like “bioterrorism” and “homeland security” became branded into our psyches, most notably by small moments involving Port Authority cops John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) as they get ready to start their shifts. When a small band of New York’s finest prepare to enter the first tower, the audience senses their feelings of responsibility, fear and nervousness, especially as McLoughlin, the seasoned veteran who lived through the ’93 attack, casts uneasy glances at the concrete and glass monolith towering over and above them. Various cops and emergency workers pass rumors back and forth, adding to the anxious feeling, and I’ll admit, for the first and only time since 9/11, I myself got that horrible queasiness, the fear of the unknown.

The actual tumbling down of the building in which McLoughlin and Jimeno become trapped is terrifying, and yet somehow it avoids the pyrotechnics of movies whose stock-in-trade such devastation is. This happens relatively early in the film, so that the vast majority of screen time is spent watching the two cops try to keep each other awake and alive, mostly through talking about family and work, intercut with scenes of their wives’ valiant struggles to stay sane in the face of no news. Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello), a gruff mother of four, focuses on household chores until snapping at a police sergeant “He gave you 21 years, and you can’t tell me where he is?” Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is more spindly, the tautness of her skinny limbs and tight nerves at odds with her pregnant belly; she seems unable to sit still, even if it means bolting out of a car rather than waiting out a red light. For both women, family and friends try to offer solace and strength, but the waiting, the unknown, is too all-powerful. Not surprisingly, their scenes are the ones fraught with the most tension and dimension.

Meanwhile, in the rubble, the flashbacks to McLoughlin’s and Jimeno’s respective times with their wives focuses exclusively on the happy ones. This is something I found unbelievable; it detracts, if only slightly, from the situation. Surely, in such an instance, wouldn’t you have at least one remembrance of an argument, something in retrospect you wish you hadn’t said or done, that you’d give anything to make up for? This omission gives the story a bit of a one-note treatment, as if showing us anything else might make the cops less than worthy of our commitment. It goes without saying—just read the movie posters—that McLoughlin and Jimeno survive, and that survival, not to mention the staggering amount of work combined with some sheer luck that lead to it, is indeed worthy of commemorating.

Stone’s emphasis is not so much on the interior, but on the epic: The utter shock of a nation to what happened that day and, importantly, the sense of love that carried through, at least until George W. Bush decided to use 9/11 as the springboard for a war that bankrupted much of that good feeling we’d received in light of the tragedies. The filmmakers pay enormous tribute to the rescue workers whose tireless efforts, usually in claustrophobic, highly dangerous settings, resulted in 20 people being pulled from the wreckage. As McLoughlin and Jimeno, in stretchers, are being handed from one to another in a long brigade of rescue workers, there is a palpable sense of simple yet profound gratitude from both sides, a sense of deep respect for putting their lives on the line each and every day. If I can buy a Marine sergeant, in remarking about the deep smoke covering much of the ruins, saying something prophetic like, “It’s a curtain meant to shield us from that which we are not ready to see,” I can nevertheless gripe that this same individual gets to end the movie with “They’re going to need a few good men to avenge this.” Such boilerplate rah-rah-isms dilute the power of an otherwise gripping, emotionally and visually compelling remembrance.

Bull Barnyard

Directed by Steve Oedekerk

Last year, I was annoyed when my fourth grader’s school had the nurse do lessons on everything from “good touch, bad touch” to pregnancy to HIV/AIDS, without giving parents prior notification (or even a nice packet of information to help us old geezers complement each message). This year, I’m annoyed that a computer-generated animated flick like Barnyard has the audacity to suggest that there are male milking cows with udders, and that a female cow gives birth laying on her back. I might not be ready for “that talk,” but I sure as hell don’t want to deliberately miseducate them.

But there you have it. Barnyard is about a party, er, animal named Otis (Kevin James), who has to be the, um, man of the farm when his adopted father, an enormous steer—with udders—named Ben (Sam Elliott) is slain by hungry coyote Dag (Dave Koechner). That the guy who so famously intones “Beef—it’s what’s for dinner” is here playing Black Angus almost makes the movie worth the ticket price. I can buy the joke that the humans, who are few and far between and except for the farmer (a vegan, of course), are just plain gross, and can’t know that their animals can order pizza, drive cars, play musical instruments, and mosh with the best of them. I can deal with what is essentially a rehash of The Lion King, with elements of The Sopranos thrown in. But let’s do something about those udders.

Of course, Otis will fail his first test against Dag, and want to cower away into nothingness, but be kept from doing so by the love of a good cow, Daisy (Courtney Cox), and the goodwill of the whole farm. In the meantime, there are some genuinely funny moments such as the mob-like Jersey cows (get it?) stealing a car to seek vengeance on a youthful cow tipper, or when the animals debate the definition of vegan. The vocal talent is quite good, even though, once again, we have the wiseass “don’t you mess wid me” black female character, this time thankfully not a skunk nor even black-and-white, played by Wanda Sykes on much the same note as her recent characterization in Over the Hedge. The overall look is jarring, the animals being reminiscent of those strangely popular Playmobil figurines with their rectangular heads and smooth, plastic surfaces. That is, when they’re not looking downright archaic, like an image copped off a ’70s-era Golden Book. Despite occasional flashes of originality and humor, Barnyard comes across as a slapped-together undertaking, a scattershot pitch for a Saturday morning cartoon. Something tells me that’s where this is headed.

—Laura Leon

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