United 93: PICK


Return from Witch Mountain: PICK


Escape to Witch Mountain: PICK


Content advisory:

United 93: Restrained depictions of strong violence; some profane language and obscenity; realistic depiction of intense terrorist menace. Teens and up. Escape to Witch Mountain, Return From Witch Mountain: Mild menace and action hijinks. Okay for kids.

Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center may have made more money in its first couple of weeks than Paul Greengrass’s United 93 (new on DVD) made in its whole theatrical run — but United 93 is by far the best 9/11 film to date, also outshining A&E’s similarly themed TV movie “Flight 93.” (Don’t confuse the two.) In our image-driven culture, movies provide a yardstick of reality. “It was like something from a movie” was a common refrain in the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001. Film critic Peter Chattaway suggests that “something doesn’t seem ‘real’ until a movie has been made about it.”

We are fortunate, then, that Hollywood’s first 9/11 project fell to one-time BBC documentarian Greengrass. Low-key, even-handed, unflinching and deeply persuasive, United 93 is a work of extraordinary restraint and integrity. The 9/11 attacks remain for many an open wound. Yet if a movie can help make events “real,” such a movie may be, at least for many, an important step in fully assimilating what happened, which in turn is part of healing.

If a movie can make it real, the wrong movie could make it obscenely unreal. Greengrass and his collaborators have made the right movie. They have also focused on the right event, the one front on that day of infamy where the terrorists were dealt a decisive defeat. World Trade Center may focus on heroes who survive, but United 93 gives us heroes who stopped the terrorists from blowing up the Capitol or the White House. At every turn, the filmmakers resist the temptation to succumb to one agenda or another, to gloss over or punch up any of the possible hot potatoes. From the religious context and motives of the terrorists to the confused responses and communication problems on the ground, every frame rings true.

Toward the end, Greengrass intercuts between the terrorists praying in Arabic and the passengers praying the Our Father in English. Some cynical critics have suggested that the prayers of both sides went unanswered, for they all died. Yet those who face death know that prayer at the moment of greatest duress has a far more urgent purpose than the petition to be spared. Instead of depicting unanswered prayers, United 93 shows both sides following their convictions to the end — at which point it commits them to God for judgment or reward.

Also new this week on DVD are a pair of modestly entertaining family-action films from Disney about a pair of fraternal twins with paranormal abilities. Despite the magical-sounding titles, there’s no witchcraft in Escape to Witch Mountain and Return From Witch Mountain; there’s a different, non-magical explanation for why young Tony (Ike Eisenmann) and sister Tia (Kim Richards) can move objects with their minds and communicate telepathically.

The first movie, based on a children’s novel by Alexander Key, finds Tony and Tia in an orphanage, mysteriously unable to remember who they are. A nefarious millionaire (Ray Milland) adopts them, planning to exploit their powers, but a crusty Irish widower (Eddie Albert) — originally a priest in the book! — helps them find their way home.

The sequel film, an original story subsequently novelized by Key, separates the twins for most of the film as Tia, aided by a squeaky-clean “gang” of would-be toughs, seeks to rescue Tony from a mad scientist (Christopher Lee) and his wealthy patroness (Bette Davis).