Tuesday, October 31, 2006

REVIEW: Slither

Aliens, zombies and worms, oh my!

An alien being crash lands on Earth. A man is attacked by a creature that parasitically begins to transform him into something inhuman. Slimy red slugs begin crawling everywhere, with one goal: to leap into your mouth and thereby infect you.

And all of this may have something to do with sex.

That’s the premise behind James Gunn’s latest horror-comedy Slither, which stars Nathan Fillion and Michael Rooker. The plot follows a married couple as the potentially unfaithful husband (Rooker) is body snatched by a creature from another world intent on infecting mankind. It isn’t long before Sheriff Pardy (Fillion) from the small town of Wheelsy is in over his head. What follows is bloody, funny, and downright entertaining.

In the vein of The Evil Dead and Eight Legged Freaks, the film pays homage to horror films of old while also poking fun at the genre itself. The acting has that slight overdramatic feel to it. The blood flies everywhere. The plot twists are shallow and unbelievable. But these are what make the film shine!

Sure, it’s not perfect. The beginning is slow and the ending is painfully anti-climactic. But once Slither gets moving, it doesn’t stop until it’s touched on every major horror element the classics are made of. Zombies? Animal attacks? Gratuitous nudity? It’s all here, in one 96-minute package, ready for your viewing pleasure.

Gunn has written a fantastic script, complete with witty dialogue and the perfect campy mood. But even more impressive is his directing. Besides the verbal swordplay, there are also plenty of visual gags. The interesting thing is that most of these physical jokes, though innocent on the surface, hint at a larger – dare I say it – point layers down.

Perhaps it’s the exaggerated monologues about the sanctity of marriage. Or the tongue-in-cheek shots of penetrating tubes and phallic-shaped slugs. Or maybe I’m just a pervert. But it seems clear that, for the intellectual viewer, Gunn’s script might actually be more intelligent than it first appears, working entirely as a metaphor for infidelity and the corruption of marriage.

If you’re looking for escapist entertainment at its near finest, Slither is worth checking out. It’s also recommended for people who appreciate a little thought behind the all the slime and guts.

The big-budget B-movie is back, at least for now. And if this film is any indication, hopefully they’re here to stay. It’s far from perfect, but in the end, Slither is just plain fun.

Rating: 7/10 stars

REVIEW: United 93

Forgetting the falsehood behind the truth

French author and Nobel Prize winner Andre Gide once said, “Believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who find it.” In a time in which perceptions of reality collide and truth is fleeting, cinema and art are constantly critiquing the world and age we live in. It isn’t unusual for films to tackle real issues, but what is unusual is for a film to have captured “the Truth”, with a capital T. Ever since the first interviews were made and the first trailers released, it became clear United 93 was claiming to present the real, undeniable truth behind the events of 9/11, and all of the emotional baggage that entails.

Though occasionally there was controversy, until now it was generally acceptable for directors to utilize artistic license in their portrayal of real events. Cinema was viewed as a subjective presentation of the truth, not the truth itself. When filmmakers claimed to uncover what really happened, it was still mutually understood that while it may be possible to present part of the truth, truth is too abstract to be viewed objectively. In The Untouchables, Brian DePalma focused on only four “untouchables” as opposed to the actual ten. Mel Gibson used specific events from Catholic theology in his recent presentation of the crucifixion of Christ. In Pearl Harbor, entire subplots of character development were fictionalized. Even Oliver Stone in his conspiracy-ridden film JFK ended with a text acknowledging that important government documents related to the assassination of President Kennedy would not be made available to the public until 2017.

Whereas those films focused on events that had occurred at least decades previously, the events of September 11 took place less than five years before the production of United 93. Perhaps in tackling the story of Flight 93 so soon, the studios and Paul Greengrass found themselves in a creative trap. When a country is still facing the political and global ramifications of the largest terrorist attack in its history, the issue is still controversial and the emotions still fresh. Any portrayal of events that strays away from the “reality” of what occurred runs the risk of being considered offensive, or even defamatory. Artistic license must be pushed aside in the search for “the truth”, if such a portrayal is to be well-received.

After all, a film that strives solely to present reality cannot be judged like other films. Three main criteria must be used. The first is the least important, and contributes to the second: realism. Does the film portray the events realistically? If a film is solely striving to present truth, the conventional areas of judgment – acting, directing, cinematography – are only small brushes in a larger picture. And it is in these small details that Greengrass succeeds, and succeeds well. His cast is made up of real flight attendants, actual FAA personnel, and unknown actors. The effect is that the people portrayed are just as much strangers to the audience as the people in reality. Dialogue is largely improvised, and taken from actual interviews with family members of the deceased. The cinematography has a shaking and jarring “home video” feel to it, creating the sense that one is actually on the plane with them. All these elements combine to make United 93 feel less cinematic and more real than most films based on real events.

The second criterion one must examine in regards to a film that claims to provide an authentic rendition of events (and nothing more) is authenticity itself. Is it indeed factually accurate? Is this how things really happened that day?

The answer, simply put, is yes. There are certain things we know to be true: We know that two planes were hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center. We know that a third plane flew into the Pentagon. We know that a fourth, United flight 93, crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after the passengers attempted to overthrow the hijackers. And we know that all these events made everyone involved very surprised, very afraid, and very confused. All of this is presented in United 93. For all appearances, United 93 is as “true” as a third-party account can be.

It is with the third and final criterion, the criterion by which all films should be and usually are judged, that the film ultimately fails: artistic value. Is the film entertaining and informative? Is it a relevant and perceptive presentation of events?


In his quest for critical and ideological security, Greengrass has forgotten that cinema is not reality, but only an observation of it. The essence of reality can be captured, but reality itself can only happen once. In the case of United 93, the reality happened five years ago. In order for a film to be relevant, it must make reality even more real, in a sense, than it was before the events portrayed. And this is where United 93 falls apart – it has the appearance of truth, and the facts of truth, but in the end, cinema is more than truth. As Fellini put it, “A created thing is never invented and it is never true: it is always and ever itself.” United 93 succeeds so well in achieving its goal of being truthful that the result is too close to reality to serve any purpose as a work of art.

The only truth portrayed in United 93 is the truth that is already known. The details are left on the sidelines. Nothing new is learned, not even the passengers’ names. They are just as flat and one-dimensional as they were when we first heard about them on the news. No commentary is given about their actions, and so while we’re told what happened, we aren’t told why it matters. As a whole, the film only goes through the motions, inspiring the same feelings of sadness and pity that we already felt, and nothing more. Watching it is the equivalent of emotional masturbation, serving only as a means to be engulfed in the tragedy without the poignancy and artistry to make it worthwhile. If a film is not entertaining, educational, or emotionally and spiritually enlightening, what is its purpose?

If we leave cynicism aside, there is only one answer: homage. This is Greengrass’ tribute to the victims of 9/11, as the dedication at the end of the film explains. Nothing more. Films based on real life are nothing new. However, what dooms United 93 as work of cinema is not an unauthentic portrayal of events, but the lack thereof, and a commitment to remain so close to reality that nothing beneficial is gained. As a work of cinema and art, United 93 is only as fulfilling as reality will allow it to be. One can only be thankful that the passengers of Flight 93 are no longer around to see how, in the pursuit of realism, their actions have been cheapened and their souls forgotten.

Rating: 2/10


New Cultural Learnings are humorous, insightful

Television sketches rarely make good films. If there’s anything the myriad of SNL-inspired movies have taught us, it’s that five-minute skits don’t switch mediums very smoothly - Wayne’s World being the sole exception. The latest in the attempts to translate an idea across media forms is Borat, a film based on a series of sketches shown on Da Ali G Show. Surprisingly, not only does the concept fit snugly into a longer timeframe, but it also happens to be uproariously funny.

The film follows Borat Sagdiyev, a television journalist from Kazakhstan who is assigned to report on the United States, believing this will enrich the people of his home country. With documentary film crew in tow, he goes from coast to coast interviewing people from a variety of backgrounds and worldviews. It isn’t long before Borat is making a fool of himself and saying things most people would deem inappropriate at least, and inflammatory at worst.

Borat comes from a backwards country, and combined with the fact that he isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, his naïve assumptions about American culture leave more than a few shocked and insulted. Lucky for us, Borat’s lack of cultural etiquette results in some of the most delightfully hilarious bigotry in recent cinema.

Indeed, perhaps the best thing about Borat is that it is tolerant in its portrayal of intolerance – there is something to offend everyone. Homosexuals, women, Jews and Christians are only a few of the groups that come under the scrutiny of Borat’s insensitivity. And yet, the Kazakhstani reporter is so charmingly child-like in his ignorance we can’t help but smile and support him in his pursuit of knowledge and acceptance. Not since last year’s The 40-Year Old Virgin has a comic lead exuded such an atmosphere of innocence and genuine sweetness.

The film moves along at a brisk pace, and crams a lot of laughs into its 82-minute run time. Though a few jokes aren’t quite as humorous as others, you’ll still be chuckling hard enough from the last wisecrack to care. There’s an unrestrained randomness to all the quips and jabs, and part of the fun is trying to guess what outrageous claims our dear journalist will make next.

After all, there’s a purpose to all the political incorrectness. What makes Borat such an effective comedy is that it goes beyond simply telling jokes, and emerges as a biting and relevant social satire that reveals the hypocrisy behind prejudice and discrimination. Borat views women as inferior, yet spends the entire film in pursuit of one. He is uncomfortable around gays, but his actions often contain blatant homosexual undertones. His nationalism borders on fanatical, yet he holds the United States in the highest esteem. And is it mere coincidence that the character of Borat is exaggeratedly paranoid in his anti-Semitism, yet actor Sacha Baron Cohen is Jewish? There’s a message at work behind the scenes for those willing to look for it, but this film is funny enough to satisfy those that just want to sit back and enjoy the cultural learnings.

When all is said and done, Borat is the best comedy of the year. As a certain journalist might put it: Niiiice!

Rating: 9/10