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It’s time for ‘United 93’ 

Worries about big-budget 9/11 movie unfounded; ‘Merry Christmas,’ ‘Lonesome Jim’ and ‘Akeelah and the Bee’ worth a look.

click to enlarge REAL THING: FAA's Ben Sliney as himself.
  • REAL THING: FAA's Ben Sliney as himself.

One of the most surreal aspects of 9/11 and the days afterward was the sheer number of people who said, “It’s like something you’d see in a movie.” Only in the mind of a Hollywood hack, the unspoken coda to that line went, could a plot like that succeed: four planes hijacked simultaneously and turned on us as weapons.

I’ve dreaded the first big-budget 9/11 movie. And when the topic of that first film was announced — the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers tried to retake the cockpit — I felt an even bigger stone in the pit of my stomach.

Perhaps more than any event that day, the circumstances on board Flight 93 have been the most propagandized. In the days leading up to war with Afghanistan and Iraq, the current presidential administration turned Flight 93 into a flying Alamo, exchanging terrified passengers who decided to bravely fight for their lives into a bunch of cigar-chawing John Waynes, charging forward under a battle cry of “Let’s roll!” — their goal not to save themselves, but some distant marble emblem of the republic in Washington, D.C.

Whatever I expected of the new “United 93,” my suspicions were unfounded. Willing to leave the flags furled and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” unsung, this is a film of utmost respect for all the lives broken and lost that day. Though it uncovers some still-raw wounds, it does so in the name of healing, not sensationalism.

One of the best things that “United 93” does is show us the other side of 9/11, as seen through the eyes of military commanders and air-traffic controllers who had to sit by and watch it unfold before their eyes. Frustration and red-tape ruled the day, a fact that makes you want to find someone from the FAA and shake the fillings out of his teeth (and though he likes to gild himself in the heroics of Flight 93, George W. doesn’t fare well here, appearing only via his absence, with military commanders frantically trying to reach him for orders and — later — shoot-down authority. The scenes on the plane are no less harrowing, and are plenty heroic enough, even though the passengers fight for their own survival and not the challenged supremacy of Old Glory.

Though the circumstances here are still painful, “United 93” is not a movie to be avoided. Harrowing but reverent, it’s a fitting tribute to those who died that day.

— David Koon



Christmas season
Maybe no other conflict proved that war is hell with more clarity than the First World War featuring the debut of weapons such as mustard gas and the tank, but still fought under the gentlemanly terms of war.

There was, however, one bright spot in that war, since become a kind of myth: the Christmas Truce of 1914. That year, on Christmas Eve, troops from France, Germany and England came out of their trenches and celebrated the holiday together in No-Man’s Land.

This scene is dramatized to great effect in the new film “Merry Christmas,” now playing at Market Street Cinema. A tale of young men at war and the peculiar brand of rabid nationalism that drives conflict, it’s a gorgeous thing. While it’s much too bleak to call heartwarming, it is a film full of heart.

Told in three languages, “Merry Christmas” is largely the story of Nikolous Sprink (Benno Fermann), a world-renowned tenor who is drafted into the German Army with the outbreak of war. Shipped off to life in the trenches of a backwater battlefield in France, Sprink is a broken man by the time Christmas 1914 rolls around. That season brings a surprise, however —his fiancee, Anna (Diane Kruger) an equally renowned soprano, has pulled strings with the high command to allow her to come and sing for his battalion — a fact that puts the war-addled Sprink on his guard.

Something like a miracle happens during their trench duet for German troops, however. The English and French soldiers, stalemated just a few dozen yards away in their own trenches, begin to applaud their songs, with Scottish bagpipers playing along. From there, after Sprink carries a Christmas tree across to his would-be adversaries, the soldiers of all nations emerge and begin to learn who they’ve been hating and killing for years. Though they all pay eventually for their moment of Christmas charity, for one moment they cease being enemies and become human beings again.

A gritty film, “Merry Christmas” has a glow of sincerity and honesty about it that’s difficult to duplicate. Never willing to submit to the kind of Hallmark Hall of Fame schmaltz that it could have been, the film is destined to be a low-key classic in coming years. Catch it if you can. You won’t be sorry.

— David Koon



Jerks will be lonesome
In “Lonesome Jim,” Jim (Casey Affleck) has returned home to Indiana a failed, broke writer who was trying to make it in New York walking dogs and working at Applebee’s. His older brother, Tim (Kevin Corrigan), is a failed husband living at home and working at the family ladder company, while coaching his two daughters to not only no wins, but no POINTS in a girls basketball league. Dad (Seymour Cassel) isn’t the most pleasant of sorts either. Somehow, among all that misery, is the mother (Mary Kay Place) of these sad-sack boys, who is stepped on throughout the film but who finds positives everywhere and continues to offer love.

These males are mean to mom and mean to each other. “I’m a f*** up, but compared to me you’re a tragedy,” Jim tells Tim, who’s too beaten down to care what his brother says.

But when Jim says he’s surprised Tim can even live like he does, Tim goes out and drives his car into a tree, only not with enough force to to end it all. He’s just laid up in the hospital, meaning Jim can take his place for a while at the ladder factory and do drugs with Uncle Evil Mark Boone Junior.

There are three redeeming people among this whole lot: Place’s mom; Anika (Liv Tyler), a divorced nurse that Jim meets at a bar and has sex with in a hospital bed, and Anika’s intuitive son.

The actors all seem to enjoy their parts in this dark comedy, most especially Boone Junior, who has all the answers about women but only pays for hookers, and also runs drugs in his job at the ladder company.

There’s also great direction from Steve Buscemi, who paints an Indiana landscape from the start and does a great job following up his “Trees Lounge.”

I’m reminded of Zach Braff’s “Garden State” — main subject, beaten down by lifelong problems within his family, returns home a shell only to be brought out of it by a love interest. “Garden State” was funnier. Braff was a more likeable character than Affleck’s Jim. “Lonesome Jim,” though, may be more believable. It’s playing at Market Street Cinema.

— Jim Harris



Many positives
“Akeelah and the Bee” is a family movie literally bursting with positive messages.

One: Not every child in a low-income black community is illiterate, on drugs, or gang-banging. Two, even a flawed community — and family — can come together and support one of its own. Three, much can be achieved when fear is overcome. Four, sometimes even the fiercest rivals can put aside their differences and become friends.

Such messages have the potential to make the biggest cynic get a lump in his throat. It’s a nice first film venture for coffee powerhouse Starbucks, which produced the movie and is using its stores to advertise it.

The title character, Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer), is an 11-year-old at Crenshaw Middle School in South Central L.A. Akeelah is a spelling wiz and an excellent student. But, thanks to a couple female bullies, she feels the need to hide her intelligence.

At home, she gets little attention from her mother, Tanya (Angela Bassett), a widow struggling to meet the demands of her grueling nursing job and maintain a household that also includes Akeelah’s single-mom older sister, Kiana (Erica Hubbard) and one-step-away-from-gang-banging older brother, Devon (Lee Thompson Young). All Akeelah has is her computer, which she uses to help expand her vocabulary; her deceased father, to whose photo she often talks to help her cope with the difficulties of her life; and her only friend, Georgia (Sahara Garey).

Realizing her potential, Akeelah’s principal, Mr. Welch (Curtis Armstrong of “Revenge of the Nerds” infamy), encourages her to enter the school’s spelling bee. Akeelah easily wins, qualifying her to compete in the L.A. School District Spelling Bee and, possibly, go on to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Akeelah reluctantly finds a tutor in Dr. Joshua Larabee (Lawrence Fishburne), a college professor invited by Welch to attend the school’s spelling bee.

Larabee puts Akeelah through rigorous training to get her ready for competition, showing her everything from how to use correct language, to how to break big words down into smaller words in order to spell them correctly. He also has her lift vocabulary from the speeches of such black-history figures as W.E.B. Dubois and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When he learns that she helps herself to spell by using rhythm, he even has her jump rope to help her spelling. But, most importantly, Larabee instills something in Akeelah she sadly lacked before: confidence to excel in a world dominated by spelling-bee veterans with well-to-do parents.

The movie’s major downside is that it’s a bit formulaic and predictable — something easily forgotten during the climatic competition, which is sure to have viewers on the edge of their seats. Is this Oscar material? No, but it’s a decent feel-good flick to start off the summer.

—Renarda Williams








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