UNITED 93 Writer-director Paul Greengrass’ superb 9/11 docudrama United 93 is one of those movies that should be seen, but it’s understandable that many viewers won’t want to see it, and no amount of critical hosannas will change their minds. United 93 takes us through the morning’s activities, beginning with the terrorists praying at dawn and hopscotching through various air traffic control rooms scattered along the northern corridor of the country as well as the Federal Aviation Administration HQ. The first half of the movie spends more time with traffic controllers desperately trying to make sense of the chaos descending on them at sickening speed. Monitoring the blips on the screens, the controllers begin to sweat when particular ones veer off course or disappear. And then there are those reports that smoke is emanating from one of the World Trade Center towers, in the vicinity where one flight’s location was last verified. Surely one has nothing to do with the other? The implications sicken the characters as much as it churns up roiling emotions in viewers. In the second half of the film the connective tissues fall away, and we’re left with the saga unfolding aboard United 93. Realizing that these terrorists plan to use the plane as a weapon of mass destruction -- and thereby realizing that no Entebbe-style rescues are in the works -- the passengers decide only they can stop the murderers at the controls. It’s noble to imagine their collective motive was to honor God and country, but this movie is honest enough to acknowledge that, like any of us caught in such a situation, self-preservation comes first. And it’s a testament to the movie’s power that we find ourselves praying for a safe landing even though history has long dictated otherwise. Greengrass refuses to take the bait of making a picture that can be tagged as propagandistic or too political. How restrained is Greengrass’ approach? Understand that passenger Todd Beamer’s catchphrase “Let’s roll” -- you know, the one that’s been co-opted by seemingly every politician and pundit from coast to coast -- is barely audible when Beamer speaks it.
RV One would have to travel deep into the 1990s -- during the era of Mrs. Doubtfire and The Birdcage -- to find a comedic Robin Williams performance that was more than simply incessant and annoying shtick. RV, therefore, marks the first time in at least a decade that Williams merges his patented humor with a recognizably human character, and the balance suits him well. It’s just a shame that the vehicle that carries this engaging performance doesn’t offer a smoother ride. Williams stars as Bob Munro, a workaholic who spends far more time sucking up to his boss (Will Arnett) than racking up quality hours with the wife (Cheryl Hines) and kids. Ordered to attend a business meeting in Colorado when he’s supposed to take the family to Hawaii for a vacation, Bob decides to meet both obligations by renting an RV and heading out to the open spaces with his clan -- and thereby making it easier to sneak away long enough to participate in the powwow. That quintessential tug-of-war between career and home is too omniscient to ever be ignored by filmmakers looking for an easy angle, but for a while, RV looks as if it’s going to be a perceptive, take on the matter. But no: Director Barry Sonnenfeld reveals an obsession with labored slapstick and potty humor, meaning we get numerous scenes in which Bob falls down hills, gets run over or finds himself covered head-to-toe in fecal matter.
AKEELAH AND THE BEE Akeelah and the Bee, which in addition to its underdog roots also manages to come across as a mesh between the documentary Spellbound and Boyz N the Hood refitted with a happy ending, is the latest of this month’s inspirational yarns (following Taking the Lead and Preaching to the Choir). It’s also the most genuinely touching. The lion’s share of the credit for its success goes to Keke Palmer, who essays the central role of Akeelah Anderson. Like Hard Candy’s Ellen Page, she’s a teenage actress, yet both her understanding and command of her craft enable this rising talent to carry the picture like an established trouper. Her part may not be as complex as Page’s role in the pedophile picture, but she ably handles whatever challenges are thrown her way. Growing up in south LA with her widowed mother (Angela Bassett) and two older siblings, Akeelah’s only true passion is for spelling -- a seemingly frivolous fancy considering her dour surroundings and dead end options. But determined to somehow put his decrepit school on the map, the principal Mr. Welch (Curtis Armstrong) encourages Akeelah to try out for a competition that will determine which student will represent them in upcoming spelling bees. Akeelah easily trounces the competition and in doing so catches the eye of Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne), Mr. Welch’s friend and a former spelling wiz himself. Dr. Larabee agrees to coach Akeelah through the exhausting bee season, and their goal is no less than reaching the Scripps National Spelling Bee finals. From the mental approach espoused by Dr. Larabee to the presence of an unsmiling nemesis, Akeelah and the Bee milks the Karate Kid/Rocky formula to such an exhaustive degree that you half-expect a character to bellow “Yo, Adrian!” or order Akeelah to “wax on, wax off.” But what sets the film apart is the manner in which it details how Akeelah’s triumphs end up lifting the entire community. Her success is their success, and it’s truly inspiring to watch neighbors from all walks of life -- everyone from the postman to the local crime lord(!) -- throw their support behind her. On paper, the narrative device employed by writer-director Doug Atchison during the climactic moment may sound overreaching, but on screen, it plays beautifully and allows the film’s real message to round all the bases before sliding home.
THE SENTINEL Michael Douglas plays Harrison Ford and Kiefer Sutherland costars as Tommy Lee Jones in The Sentinel, the latest thriller that tries to put one over on the audience but ends up only fooling itself. It’s clearly no match for The Fugitive, though this "innocent man on the lam" yarn gets some mileage out of a fairly taut first act and an appropriately constipated Michael Douglas performance. Douglas is cast as Pete Garrison, a career Secret Service agent ballsy enough to carry on an affair with the First Lady (Kim Basinger). But evidence soon surfaces that a foreign outfit is plotting to assassinate the President (David Rasche), and that their inside man is no less than a member of the Secret Service. Because Garrison is concealing his illicit affair -- and being led by the nose by the real culprits -- his lie detector results convince agent David Breckinridge (Sutherland) that his former mentor is the traitor in the ranks. Garrison manages to avoid capture and thereafter stays one step ahead of Breckinridge and his rookie partner (Desperate Housewives’ Eva Longoria, spinning her wheels in a tissue-thin part) in order to nab the villains and clear his own name. Johnson doubtless planned to deliver a hand-wringing thriller filled with unexpected twists and turns, but even good intentions can find themselves caught in the line of fire.
AMERICAN DREAMZ Writer-director Paul Weitz has proven himself adept at different forms of comedy -- he’s the guy behind In Good Company, About a Boy and the original American Pie -- but this time he’s bitten off more than he can masticate. The only factor that saves American Dreamz from completely self-destructing is the strength of an ensemble cast led by Dennis Quaid. Quaid gamely plays President Staton, a buffoon who on the morning after his reelection picks up a newspaper for the first time during his reign and realizes that, contrary to what his Chief of Staff (Willem Dafoe in a wicked composite of Dick Cheney and Karl Rove) has been telling him, the world’s actually a complicated place. To take the Prez’s mind off weighty matters, the Chief of Staff decides to book him as the guest judge on the season finale of American Dreamz, a moronic "talent" show based on you-know-what. The show’s host, a repellent Brit named Martin Tweed (who else but Hugh Grant?), agrees to the arrangement but is more interested in making sure that his baby remains prime-time’s top-rated program. On that front, he has little reason to worry, as audiences adore two of this year’s crop of contenders: duplicitous Sally Kendoo (an effective Mandy Moore), who will do anything to win, and Arabian immigrant Omer (likable Sam Golzari), a reluctant terrorist-in-training who’s far more interested in show tunes than in following orders to kill Staton on live TV. American Dreamz is a crushing disappointment, a weak-willed, ill-conceived film with a scarcity of laughs and a maddening tendency to let its subjects off with a slap on the wrist rather than go for the jugular.
FRIENDS WITH MONEY Watching gloomy and insecure Olivia (Jennifer Aniston) make ends meet by working as a maid, it’s easy to picture her back in middle school, perhaps going through an “ugly duckling” phase that might have scarred her for life. Or after witnessing Christine (Catherine Keener) bicker endlessly with her husband David (Jason Isaacs), we understand it wasn’t always like this and find ourselves hoping for a glimpse of happier times. Set in LA, this seriocomic saga centers on the daily activities of four close friends. These four women retain a mutually close relationship, which in turn allows them to bounce ideas and actions off each other. Three of them are the friends with money of the title, though two help prove any number of cash-strapped adages: money isn't everything; money can't buy happiness; money can't buy you love -- take your pick. The friend without money is Olivia, who, it appears, has always been poor and who once gave up a job as a school teacher because all her affluent students kept throwing quarters at her. Now she works as a maid, freelancing for various clients and spending the remainder of her time involved in a masochistic relationship with a shallow and casually cruel fitness instructor (Scott Caan). Friends With Money is effective in the way it makes us relate to all these characters and their struggles as they grapple with universal issues involving camaraderie, self-worth and the inability to come to terms with one’s mortality.
TAKE THE LEAD Take the Lead might be a tad too predictable for my taste, but it’s just the sort of uplifting yarn that could conceivably generate enough positive word-of-mouth to emerge as a modest sleeper hit. Inspired by a true story (and rarely has that opening disclaimer been used so loosely), this centers on the efforts of ballroom dance instructor Pierre Dulaine (Antonio Banderas) to teach his elegant craft to a high school class of rowdy inner-city youths. Initially resistant to his efforts, the kids eventually come around once Pierre agrees to mesh his moves with their hip-hop music. Banderas and his young co-stars are attractive and appealing, and the subplots involving the students’ troubled home lives carry more currency than one might expect. ƒç