When someone asks if a movie entertained you, or if it is entertaining, the usual assumption is that they refer to its having been something to enjoy, make you feel good, possibly offer some escapism. Hence the popular refrain that UNITED 93 cannot possibly be entertaining.
But feeling good is far from the only reason people consume entertainment.
Most “serious” critics tend to like movies that speak to the human condition, or Say Something about the Way We Live today. My ex liked relationship movies, in order to see how different characters deal with universal situations. A significant section of the audience likes to be scared. Some people want to be disturbed by movies — Gaspar Noe, for one, owes his career to them. Among the year’s most acclaimed movies in 2005 were BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, about repressed people who are unhappy most of the time and make all the people around them unhappy too; and MYSTERIOUS SKIN, a movie in which one of the protagonists keeps having molestation memories and the other repeatedly has sex with ugly, nasty middle-aged men. Did either one entertain you?
These are some of the things that went through my mind after viewing UNITED 93 and HARD CANDY in relatively quick succession. Both, I think, require an alcoholic beverage afterward.
Regarding UNITED 93, I would have to say that in a certain way, it is “entertaining,” in that it grips you and keeps you on the edge of your seat for the entirety of its running time. We all know how it ends; the tension is wondering when the characters onscreen will figure out the 9-11 master plan that no-one predicted but we all know too well in hindsight. It’s an effect similar to that of reading the original Bram Stoker DRACULA novel, which tells the story from several perspectives, allowing you, the reader, to see the big picture and figure things out way before the characters do, making you want to yell at them to figure the shit out before they’re totally doomed.
UNITED 93 also shoots to hell most movie cliches about hijacking. In any other movie, establishing that one of the passengers is a pilot and another is a retired air traffic controller would be an obvious planting for the inevitable payoff where they have to land the thing themselves. It ain’t like that.
There’s a need on the part of any audience to try to single out characters to identify with, and in this case the person closest to a lead is the gray-haired air traffic controller, playing himself, who ultimately makes the call to ground all planes. I don’t know that you can call it a great acting job, per se, but it feels truly real.
Two very minor questions I have, as a frequent air traveller: United flight 93 appears to have more legroom than most planes. Also, the passengers seem to strike up an awful lot of conversations for a group of random strangers — and I’m talking pre-hijack.
I think it was Manohla Dargis who said that there isn’t really much to be learned from this movie, but I think there is something. Our wars tend to be cast by those who wage them as grand struggles of good and evil, but this particular movie of this first battle in the War on Terror depicts the people on both sides as human beings with all their frailties, fears, and ideals. And neither side really “wins” – they only thwart one another’s goals.
Is it accurate? It depicts the passengers breaking into the cockpit, which I’ve heard never happened. The stuff on the ground can be reasonably assumed accurate, since all involved are playing themselves. I suspect the stuff on the plane is as close as we’ll ever get. Interesting that director Paul Greengrass has found himself in this verite niche — how would he have handled WATCHMEN, if he had gotten it? Would he have used his current style, or made it more straightforward like THE THEORY OF FLIGHT?
Anyway, as difficult as UNITED 93 is to take, HARD CANDY is almost as bad, though it doesn’t have the same real-world echoes. But again: Do you want to be “entertained” by a movie about pedophilia? It’s very well done, and I’d choose it over MYSTERIOUS SKIN, mainly because everything that happens is in the service of moving the story along, whereas I felt like Gregg Araki was simply getting off on the myriad digressions into what David Ehrenstein calls “the dulcet tones of ejaculate gagging.”
It’s mostly a two-character story, driven by dialogue, but it isn’t like a filmed play, if you were worrying. It is inherently cinematic in that certain scenes absolutely require you to be unable to see everything that’s happening in particular room. Some of those scenes could have used a bit more visual shorthand, but would almost certainly have been slapped with an NC-17 had it been done so.
The plot is like Takashi Miike’s AUDITION, only it cuts to the chase much more quickly. A thirtysomething photographer (Patrick Wilson) of underage models in risque poses brings a 14-year-old girl (Ellen Page, soon to be Kitty Pryde in X-MEN 3) home with him, only to have her drug him and then reveal herself to be the Queen Bitch of Vengeance. What follows is mostly her torturing him as he tries to escape — it’s only towards the end that we get any sense of whether or not he deserves it begging the question of whether or not anyone deserves such treatment. If you’re a guy, you’d be hard-pressed not to feel at least some sense of vicarious emasculation at what transpires.
Too much description will affect your enjoyment of the thing. I would have liked to see more of a balance of power, perhaps — imagine, say, if MISERY didn’t have the typewriter-to-the-head scene. Page will be a natural member of the X-Men, as she’s basically super-powered here too, with the intellect of Batman and the evasion skills of Nightcrawler. Brian Nelson’s script is tight, but a more ambiguous, evenhanded finale might have been more thought-provoking. It might also have led to an NC-17, however.
Director David Slade makes the best transition from music videos to feature film I’ve seen since Mark Romanek’s ONE HOUR PHOTO. The movie’s pretty much just set in a one-story hosue, but it’s never visually boring.
Both HARD CANDY and UNITED 93 are among the year’s best films, but are they entertainment?
I hope I’ve given you enough information to decide that for yourself.