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Stone's latest an incomplete work

By Lady Liberty
web posted August 14, 2006

World Trade Center

** 1/2 out of ****

World Trade CenterMany of you already know that I have a rule: If a movie trailer makes me cry, I can't go see the movie. I do, however, make an occasional exception. The trailer for United 93 made me cry, but I went anyway (as it turned out, the whole movie made me cry pretty much just like I expected I would — but the tears were worth it in tribute to those brave souls aboard if nothing else). Trailers for World Trade Center choked me up, too, but it wasn't a film I was willing to miss. To me, the saddest part is that World Trade Center both did and didn't live up to my expectations.

World Trade Center tells only one small sliver of the story that was 9/11. It focuses entirely on the experiences of a pair of Port Authority cops, John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña). McLoughlin is a 21 year veteran of the Port Authority while Jimeno is a rookie. Both wake up and get ready for work on September 11, 2001 just like they do on every other day; both arrive on station ready to do their jobs.

McLoughlin assigns various officers to different posts; Jimeno heads for his with a smile. But just as Jimeno good naturedly chastises a homeless man for sitting on a statue, a shadow passes overhead. He glances up just in time to see the shadow of a plane crossing the upper stories of a nearby building. It's only minutes until other police department personnel, busy in their offices, hear and feel an explosion; moments later, they learn a plane has flown into one of the World Trade Center buildings.

Many of the police out on the street are called back to the station where they're assigned to go to the World Trade Center to help with evacuations. McLoughlin, who actually helped devise emergency plans for the buildings after the 1993 bombing there, leads one group of men to the site; on their way, one hears a report dismissed by the rest that a second plane has hit the other Trade Center tower. On arrival, chaos reigns, but McLoughlin makes some quick decisions, asks for volunteers, and heads into the buildings to do his job.

McLoughlin, and his group of volunteers including Jimeno, have scarcely got their equipment together when tragedy strikes: though they don't know it, the first tower is coming down. Amidst falling debris and panic, McLoughlin's knowledge of the Trade Center complex comes in handy as he screams to his men to run toward a freight elevator shaft. Knowing the shafts are the strongest part of the buildings, McLoughlin believes it's their only hope to survive. McLoughlin is right, but their continued survival is by now means assured as the few men still alive struggle to stay that way despite serious injuries and being buried under at least 20 feet of rubble.

Meanwhile, McLoughlin's wife, Donna (Maria Bello) watches the horror unfold on television much as the rest of us did on that day, but with one crucial difference: she fears her husband may have been on site when the towers collapsed. One who understands Donna's fears all too well is Jimeno's pregnant wife, Allison. She, too, suffers the agonies of not knowing whether or not her husband has survived the attacks and even as she refuses to think that he might be dead, she seems to be preparing herself for the worst almost against her will.

So with all of this, why wasn't World Trade Center more emotional for me? Maybe it was because I knew McLoughlin and Jimeno would survive, or perhaps it's because much of the script seemed oddly flat. The only portions of the film that did bring tears involved things I didn't know, or knew little about: the agonizing search for the survivors afterward and the poignant gratitude of those who were saved; the courage of a few who refused to give up and who risked their own lives to save those of others (and who, in fact, continue to do so); the utter shell shock of those who were there and who saw things that will doubtless haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Small details we didn't know or didn't remember abound. In the fluttering of office paperwork over the streets and the eyes of walking wounded lucky enough to escape the devastation, our own horror is brought back in full measure. Oliver Stone proved he deserves every bit of his reputation as a brilliant director with skillful edits, terrific attention to detail, and exceedingly uncomfortable scenes of the trapped men. Nicolas Cage and Michael Peña are good; Maria Bellow and Maggie Gyllenhaal are even better.

And yet somehow there's also something missing. United 93 is a less personal film, but is somehow more moving. World Trade Center gives rescuers their due, but is unfortunately a lesser film. Do I never-the-less recommend it? Yes. I think it's important to see it because it's important that we never forget what happened that day, and we've obviously already forgotten too much. But if it weren't for the subject matter, I'd have to say that World Trade Center is a fairly average film thanks to an inexcusably average script. That it still has its moments is testament not to the movie-makers but to the abject horror that was 9/11.

POLITICAL NOTES: Despite Stone's well known liberal bent (not to mention the fact that actress Gyllenhaal blamed the US for bringing the attacks on itself shortly after the disaster), World Trade Center doesn't really delve into politics at all. Stone said he wanted to tell the story of a couple of cops who suffered greatly on that day, and that's exactly what he did. In fact, in the scant moments when politics is mentioned, Stone surprisingly lets it reflect the bent of most of us at that moment in time. Good for him. He's got his own viewpoint and principles, but he's got artistic integrity, too, and I salute him for it.

FAMILY SUITABILITY : The World Trade Center is rated PG 13 for "intense and emotional content, some disturbing images, and language." There are, indeed, some disturbing images. Children will neither understand nor appreciate them, but I never-the-less wouldn't bring young children to see this one. While there's unquestionably some redeeming content here, youngsters shouldn't have to face those kinds of lessons no matter how valuable they may be. I'd definitely keep those younger than 13 away from the theatre for this one, and I'd be ready and willing to talk to my younger teens should they choose to go. It's been five years, but it's appallingly easy to bring back the raw pain even now.

The Night Listener

** out of ****

The Night ListenerThe few trailers I'd seen of The Night Listener made it look intriguing. Since I enjoy a good psychological thriller, I bought my ticket with a pleasant sense of anticipation. An hour and a half later, I was still waiting.

The Night Listener is Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams), a late night radio show host in New York City. Noone is a writer who talks about his writing and his inspirations on the air. He is often, in turn, pleased to find he's inspired others. But Noone's own life falls apart after his partner (Jess, played by Bobby Cannavale) leaves him citing the need for "more space," and his subsequent depression leaves him entirely without hope or any reason to write.

Noone's friends try to cheer him up. But it isn't until a publisher friend (Joe Morton) gives him a manuscript he's planning to publish that Noone once again finds the courage to go on. The manuscript is written by a 14 year-old boy (Rory Culkin), and it tells the harrowing tale of his early childhood abuse at the hands of his parents. Now living with a foster mother (Toni Collette), the pair both cite Noone as an influence on the teen's writing. This obviously pleases and flatters Noone who magnanimously offers to chat with the boy.

Over time, Noone and the young Pete Logand actually become fast friends via letters and phone calls. That only makes it harder for Noone when he learns that Pete is very sick and could die. Pete's foster mother, Donna, keeps Noone informed as to the boy's health ups and downs, and she eventually invites him to visit over the holidays in the hopes of cheering the boy. But despite looking forward to his first face-to-face visit with his new friends, something isn't quite right, and Noone — who feels more uneasy by the day — determines to find out just what it is.

With little else in his personal life to occupy him, Noone becomes obsessed with Pete and Donna. His publisher friend is less and less his friend as he becomes more and more threatened by Noone's accusations; Jess tries to stay friendly, but Noone brushes him aside largely because he's still wounded by the break-up. Noone's accountant, Anna (Sandra Oh) finally pushes him to to everything he can to find out what he can, and it's only then that Noone begins to see just what a tangled web of intrigue, pain, and pretense he's unintentionally discovered.

Robin Williams is understated here and his melancholy is believable. Despite the fact his depression is almost overwhelming, anyone who's loved and lost will doubtless feel some sympathy for Gabriel Noone as he wallows in self-pity. Bobby Cannavale, Joe Morton, and Sandra Oh offer realistic counterpoints, and their growing lack of patience with their friend is both palpable and understandable. Toni Collette, however, is the run real stand-out in the cast. Her character is desperate, empathetic, and all but manic in her defense of Pete and her growing fears of Noone, and she portrays each with perfection.

While the cast lives up to expectation (though only Collette surpasses it), and Patrick Stettner's direction is perfectly fine, the script just doesn't get the audience where it has every right to expect it will go. The psychological is there, but the thrill is not. Imagine getting aboard a roller coaster and strapping in for the slow ride up the first hill. Imagine, then, the brief plateau at the top just before the enervating plunge. The initial build-up is there as is the plateau; but The Night Listener never gives the audience the release and the pleasure of the thrill everything else has been building towards.

The Night Listener is okay, but that's the best I can say for it. The premise is good and more than a little intriguing, but the execution is lacking. I forgot about the movie moments after having left the theatre, and while I had my 90 minute of distraction for the price of a ticket, I really got nothing else. That's too bad. The Night Listener deserved better, and so did we.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: The Night Listener is rated R for "language and some disquieting sexual content." Although the language isn't too bad, the ongoing homosexual relationships aren't suited to the youngest audiences, and the stories Pete tells are horrific enough even without details that even older children should probably stay away. There are a few redeeming qualities for the rest of movie-goers — Collette's performance chief among them — but I don't know that that's enough. It wasn't for me.

Zoom

* out of ****

ZoomEvery once in awhile, I like to see a movie with no redeeming value whatsoever other than it amuses me. I though that Zoom might be one of those movies (remember that I actually really liked Zathura and Sky High, and Zoom appeared from the trailers to be along the same lines). If I'd been, say, 7 or 8 years old, Zoom might have filled the bill.

In Zoom, scientists at Area 52 have detected an inter-dimensional anomaly that they somehow determine is the pending return of the presumed-dead superhero-gone-bad, Concussion (Kevin Zegers). As soon as Dr. Grant (Chevy Chase) is sure Concussion is on his way back, General Larraby (Rip Torn) determines to resurrect the Zenith Project. To that end, he sends psychologist Marsha Holloway (Courteney Cox) to pick up Jack Shepard (Tim Allen), formerly known as Captain Zoom. Unfortunately, Shepard is now an auto mechanic with limited (at best) powers, and he's not particularly inclined to help the scientists who made his childhood such a misery.

But money overcomes principle and convinces Jack to return to the Zenith Project if only on a temporary basis; soon after that, a variety of children — all of whom have some unusual power or another — arrive for the group's consideration. Tucker Williams (Spencer Breslin) is able to make various parts of his body grow to enormous proportions. Summer Jones (Kate Mara) can manipulate gravity. Dylan West (Michael Cassidy) is able to make himself invisible. And Cindy Collins (Ryan Newman) is a little girl with big strength. All are, however, almost as dysfunctional in their own way as is Jack.

Jack may have agreed to stay at Area 52 for the Zenith Project, but he's not particularly inclined to do much more than that. The children, meanwhile, aren't happy to be held prisoner and to be repeatedly tested without being told what's going on. Dr. Holloway tries to do her best, but she has little success with either the children or Jack himself. Meanwhile, General Larraby is about to take more extreme measures if progress isn't made in the immediate future.

Will the new Zenith Team be ready before Concussion arrives? Will Jack help them? Will Dr. Holloway come clean about her feelings? Or will General Larraby foil everybody's plans as he focuses solely on his own agenda?

Tim Allen can be very good (ever seen him do his uncensored stand-up routine?) or considerably less so (let's not talk about Christmas with the Kranks, okay?). In Zoom, he's somewhere in between. Courteney Cox, meanwhile, is entirely over the top. Her physical comedy is extreme, and her acting is hammy at best. But given the subject matter and the entirely trite story, it actually works. The child actors are all okay with Ryan Newman considerably better than that, but Chevy Chase and Rip Torn are just silly as is the script. (It's interesting to note that two of the actors here — Kevin Zegers and Kate Mara — were in a couple of last year's most critically acclaimed films, Transamerica and Brokeback Mountain, respectively. Maybe they wanted a break from more serious fare.)

Zoom reminded me a lot of old Saturday morning TV fare. Everything was exaggerated, including the bad special effects. There were moral lessons overtly hammered home amidst all of the silliness. And everybody seemed to be mugging for a particularly juvenile audience. I don't know that those are bad things if that's the age group you're aiming at. I frankly wouldn't suggest that other age groups bother with Zoom, but I suspect the average six year-old might actually be glad that he or she went.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Zoom is rated PG for "brief rude humor, language, and mild action." The rude humor here is actually aimed squarely at young kids who think such things as fart and snot jokes are funny. If that's not a problem for you or your kids, well, then, Zoom won't be a problem, either. Really small kids won't be able to follow the plot (despite the fact it's a fairly simple one), but those of about age 5 and up will probably have a good time without having to suffer any truly objectionable material. Fair warning, though: Anybody older than, say, ten is going to think that Zoom is just plain stupid.

Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.

 

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