Snakes on a Plane (2006)

If you're contemplating a trip to the multiplex to see Snakes on a Plane, you pretty much know what you're signing up for. You will not be disappointed. Snakes on a Plane is chock-full of snakes. On a plane.

As the high-concept title suggests, Snakes on a Plane does not slither far from its B-movie roots, providing ample opportunities for serpents to have fangs-bared hissy fits, and put the bite, and the squeeze, on the particularly hapless passengers of one ill-fated redeye flight from Hawaii. As one would and should expect from a movie like this, passengers who are a pain in the asp are unlikely to get off the plane alive.

One of the great pleasures of Snakes on a Plane, aside from the chomping, hissing, slithering, wriggling snakes of course, is the presence of Samuel L. Jackson, who famously campaigned to keep the movie's awesome title after film execs tried to change it to the utterly uninspired and uninformative *Pacific Air 121*. Jackson won, and legions of fans got on board, turning the film into an internet phenom that spawned mini industries in unofficial t-shirts and bumperstickers. Web fans even managed to get a line of dialogue, too profane to be repeated in a family newspaper, inserted into the film, and convinced the film's producers to up the sex and gore quotient. With two snake attacks occurring in jetliner bathrooms, and the easy eloquence of Mr. Jackson, the Olivier of %$#@!, Snakes on a Plane handily earns its R rating.

Once you know there are snakes on a plane, it doesn't much matter how they got there, but scribes John Heffernan and Sebastian Gutierrez put in the effort to create a modestly plausible explanation. A surfer dude named Sean (Nathan Phillips) witnesses a particularly brutal murder committed by ultra evil gang boss Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson). FBI agent Neville Flynn (Jackson), saves Sean's hash and sneaks him on a redeye flight from Hawaii, filled with unaccompanied children, a mother with a baby, honeymooners, a chihuahua, a baby and dog-hating businessman, and a germ-phobic rapper and his entourage, as well as not one but *two* flight attendants on the verge of retirement. Kim's henchmen fill the plane's cargo hold with deadly snakes and spray pheromones on flower leis to get the serpents riled up. Havoc ensues. Panic ensues. Agent Flynn is required to kick some asp and, inevitably, help fly the plane.

Director David R. Ellis (Cellular) gooses the film with snake-vision-cam, extreme close-ups, fast edits, salacious snake bites, and hundreds upon hundreds of tetchy snakes (some rubber, some CGI, and some the real McCoy). The action is fast-paced and to the point. The snakes are after the passengers. The passengers are scared, desperate and disgruntled. Some will act heroically, others will be jerks. The movie is alternately hilarious and nerve-jangling, and for one brief moment, it was even quite emotionally moving (don't worry -- it was a very brief moment).

Although Snakes on a Plane is a direct descendant of disaster flicks like Airport, and its comedic spawn Airplane!, I couldn't help but be reminded of United 93 while watching Snakes on a Plane, because, despite the obvious differences between a finely-crafted semi-tongue-in-cheek movie about snakes on a plane and a very serious, very arty movie that reenacts the actual hijacking of an actual plane, there are some striking similarities between the two movies. Snakes on a plane and suicidal hijackers on a plane are similarly scary, and while the latter are not likely to bite a guy on his, er, little friend, the human emotions involved, and the potential consequences, are pretty much the same. Now, that's about as timely and politically relevant as Snakes on a Plane can possibly get (aside from a reference to a particularly venomous Middle Eastern snake) because, although it would be quite a serious matter if *your* plane were full of an international assortment of irate snakes, it is somewhat harder to take seriously the idea of slithering serpents bringing down a jumbo jet. 

That notwithstanding, the passengers of Pacific Air 121 have to wrest control of their flight from a bunch of angry snakes. They have the unflappable, decidedly not ophidiophobic Agent Flynn, a no-nonsense representative of our government (although he is more "my man!" than The Man), which gives them a distinct advantage over anyone on a Samuel L. Jackson-free airplane when it comes to fighting terror in the skies. And if there's one other thing you've gotta know going into a movie called Snakes on a Plane, it's that in the Snakes vs. Sam Jackson smackdown, my man in the Kangol hat is gonna prevail.


Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

The dysfunctional family is the bread and butter of indie movies, be they comedies or dramas. Back in the day, they showed up pretty regularly in serious and seriously funny mainstream movies too. Those would be the days when the Hoovers' 70s vintage, school bus yellow Volkswagen bus wasn't a vintage bus at all, but a reasonably recent vehicle. The VW bus, the symbol of a more freewheeling time, has its own mystique, and has been a vehicle of deliverance, discovery, and disaster for passengers who, like the Hoover clan, take to the open road, with all its promise and peril. The road trip movie, too, is a mainstay of the indie movie. Pile a dysfunctional family in a VW bus for a road trip and you've got all the makings for a low budget collection of cinematic cliches. Point that family in the direction of a child beauty pageant and, well, things might get ugly in a very sitcommish way.

Turns out they do get pretty ugly for the Hoover clan, but Little Miss Sunshine, despite a premise that sounds entirely unoriginal, is a caustically funny, persistently melancholy, unexpectedly fresh and spirited little movie about the pursuit of dreams, and a family on the move and on the verge. 

The Hoovers are on the verge of financial ruin, thanks to dad Richard's get rich quick scheme to sell his get rich quick scheme to the masses. The masses, apparently, aren't interested. Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a would-be motivational speaker whose message, a nine step program for success in everything, verges on emotional abuse when he applies it to his kids. The family is on the verge of emotional collapse too. Mom Sheryl (Toni Collette) has just taken her brother Frank (Steve Carell), a suicidal Proust scholar, under her wing and into the Hoover home. Frank is fresh from a failed romance and career-destroying indiscretion, and winds up bunking with his teenage nephew Dwayne (Paul Dano), whose only words of comfort are a hastily scribbled note that reads "Please don't kill yourself tonight." Dwayne, an avid Nietzschean, hates his family so much that he has taken a vow of silence and hasn't spoken in nine months. His 7 year old sister Olive (Abigail Breslin), a cute little dumpling with big glasses and even bigger ambitions, rarely stops talking, and has dreams of beauty pageant glory. Helping her in her quest is Grandpa (Alan Arkin), a crusty old curmudgeon with a taste for porn and heroin.

Olive's unexpected ascendance into the Little Miss Sunshine pageant competition results in the entire family piling into their decrepit VW bus for a hasty trip from Albuquerque to Los Angeles. There are roadblocks along the way -- car trouble, financial trouble, marital and family troubles -- that both threaten and strengthen family unity, such as it is. 

For Richard, his daughter's quest for pageant glory is an occasion for life coaching, nutritional counseling, and the application of the nine steps. Nobody calls him Dick, but they really should. The rest of the family circles the wagons to protect Olive from a cruel world and her own quixotic dreams, although they don't do the same for dad or Dwayne, who, as it happens, really need the protection more. Porn and Proust collide in a convenience store; dreams of freedom -- from worry and want, misery and necessity -- collide with reality on the road to California, as they do on the road of life. Like other families before them, the Hoovers are heading for California in search of a dream, but they may be traveling in the wrong direction.

As road trips tend to do, this one brings out both the best and the worst in the Hoovers. The VW bus ought to be the poster car for unexpected engine trouble, as anyone who has attempted a cross-country trek in one knows only too well. But for that very reason it's also a symbol for the very American do-it-yourself spirit, a roll-up-your-sleeves and get-er-done optimism that well describes the Hoovers. It's an optimism that isn't necessarily grounded in reality, of course, and reality for the Hoovers, as it is for many contemporary Americans, is that disaster and ruin are one missed exit, one lost opportunity, one wrong turn away.

The screenplay by Michael Arndt is brisk, light-footed if not always lighthearted, and crammed with funny moments, absurd sight gags and dialogue that zips from the profane to the profound. Little Miss Sunshine was directed by the husband and wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who make a smooth transition here from music videos to feature films. The movie isn't flashy or particularly stylish, but there's nothing wrong with filmmaking that doesn't call attention to itself, especially when it's enhanced by exquisite comic timing, a careful navigation through wildly swinging moods, and a deft avoidance of false sentimentality. Little Miss Sunshine is grounded by excellent performances across the board, a breezy absurdity, and an unexpected insightfulness that transcends the familiar and predictable. 


A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Like the dysfunctional brains of its characters, A Scanner Darkly is sometimes confused and adrift. The movie, adapted by Richard Linklater from Philip K. Dick's novel, follows a handful of Substance D users. Substance D, a.k.a. "Death" is a pharmaceutical nightmare, a feel-good drug that eventually produces hallucinations, brain damage and serious cognitive dysfunction. In the not too distant future, in a fascist America not too different from present-day America, Substance D users are everywhere, including the police department.

Officer Fred, an undercover narc assigned to infiltrate a Substance D distribution network, is also a user. Under the "scramble suit" that obscures his identity from everyone, including his fellow officers, he's Bob Arctor, who may or may not be involved in selling D. Fred is assigned to keep an eye on Bob -- he (Fred) watches surveillance video of himself (Bob) on a bank of monitors in a generic, flourescent-lit office. Confusing, to be sure, and Bob/Fred isn't really sure who he is or what he's doing a lot of the time.

A Scanner Darkly employs the same interpolated rotoscoping animation technique that Linklater used in Waking Life. It involves tracing over live action images, and results in a wiggly, liqueous, surreal but real look that suits this kind of trippy headgame story. Rotoscoping preserves the visual aspect, the movements and facial expressions, of an actor's performance, while also allowing for interesting visual alterations and enhancements of the characters and backgrounds. The characters in A Scanner Darkly often look like they're floating slightly off the ground, and there's a kind of 3D effect, where people both blend into and stand out from their surroundings. It's a perfect visual metaphor for characters coming unmoored from their lives and the world. 

Beneath the animation, with its chunky slabs of paint-by-numbers color and Play-Doh-y squishiness, are terrific performances, particularly by Robert Downey, Jr. (no stranger to drug abuse problems himself) as the shifty James Barris, and Woody Harrelson (himself a happy hemp activist) as Ernie Luckman. Barris and Luckman live in Bob's house and spend most of their days in frequently hilarious flights of drug-induced paranoia, able to leap from small inconveniences to vast conspiracies in a single bound. Freck (Rory Cochrane) is an occasional hanger-on, an ultra-paranoid D user who experiences continuous and horrifying hallucinations. Bob (Keanu Reeves) struggles to keep the two halves of his brain, and his identity, together. His brain is literally splitting in two, he's told, the two halves involved in a hemispheric battle for dominance. But maybe what he's been told isn't true. The scramble suit he wears creates a constantly shifting external identity, a vague, blurry jigsaw puzzle of faces and bodies that never form a cohesive whole, just as Bob and Fred share the same body but seem to remain vague and blurry to each other. Reeves' vocal mannerisms are reminiscent of *The Matrix*'s Agent Smith, although his confusing experiences are more like Neo's, which adds another intriguing twist to his character.

Dick purportedly wrote A Scanner Darkly after his own nightmarish experience with drug abuse and rehab in the 70s. What, precisely, the story is about tends to be obscure, and there's a drifting looseness to the film's narrative that lets it spin in multiple directions at once: Fascist states that monitor our every move, turning us all into narcs ready to turn on each other, and eventually turn on ourselves; A cautionary tale about the horrors of drug addiction and the pharmaceutical-industrial complex; The soul-dullification and mass delusion of the suburban lifestyle; Cognitive dissonance and the confusing nature of "reality." There's a psychedelic grab-bag of ideas contained in A Scanner Darkly, and the movie is at its best when it drifts with the different currents and undercurrents, and gets temporarily caught in swirling eddies before being spit back into the random, meandering flow. A Scanner Darkly is most interesting when it makes the least sense, and least interesting when it does make sense, at the end, when the tangled strands of the story are pulled together into a tight explanatory twist.