‘Snakes On A Plane’: Wild Fang, By Kurt Loder

Movie of the year — or movie of the moment?

Also: 'Material Girls,' a top-shelf picture that should have stayed there.

There’s no way to separate the experience of actually seeing “Snakes on a Plane” from the year-long carnival of Internet anticipation that preceded it: the fake trailers, the viral videos, the posters, the songs, the T-shirts. God, it’s been fun. But now the movie itself is here. Is it any good?

That may depend on whom you see it with. New Line Cinema sneaked the film out in a scattering of 10 p.m. premieres on Thursday night, and I caught one in New York. The theater was only half full, but the people on hand were there to party. A woman walked through the lobby with a snake and a plane crashed into the bun of hair atop her head. A man ambled by with a long rubber serpent flung stylishly around his neck. Inside, people were cracking beers and cackling dementedly as they settled in for the long-awaited experience. Then the lights went down. Some preview trailers started unspooling, and those not busy scratching “Tenacious D in: The Pick of Destiny” off their list of must-see movies peppered the air with shouts of “Snakes!” and scattered effusions of “Ssssss. …”

Then the main event got underway, greeted by much happy hooting and clapping. “Snakes on a Plane” has a fairly long setup in Hawaii, where we see a clutch of drug thugs whaling on a strung-up lawman with a baseball bat. A kid named Sean (Nathan Phillips) observes this rubout, and as he flees the scene on his motorbike, the head thug orders his men to find the luckless lad and, needless to say, kill him. Some time later, they track Sean down to his Honolulu apartment, and are just barging in the door when suddenly, out of nowhere, Samuel L. Jackson appears, gat in hand. (Cue explosion of cheers from audience.) What’s he doing there? Well, Sam’s FBI, and he’s taking Sean into protective custody. Why? “You witnessed a murder and didn’t tell anybody,” he says. Great line! (Think about it!)


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Turns out the murderous gang boss is being indicted in Los Angeles, and Sam and his fellow feds want to fly Sean to the mainland to testify for the prosecution. The drug lord isn’t about to let this happen, of course. His minions smuggle several hundred poisonous snakes aboard the plane in crates, and then spray some sort of pheromones all over to … drive the snakes crazy or something. Anyway, the movie really begins when the plane lifts off from the runway — a sight that was greeted by the people around me with huge whoops of delight. And for the next 90 minutes or so, one or another excited viewer would intermittently lurch to his feet (the “Snakes” phenomenon is a guy thing) and bellow at the screen in a deliriously incomprehensible but clearly affirmative way. The fun never stopped.

But again, is the movie any good? Actually, “Snakes” is two movies. One is a fairly standard action-disaster flick — well, a fairly standard action-disaster flick with snakes — that was shot in Vancouver last year. Apart from some PG-13 blood and violence, and some lightweight sexual innuendo (wounded pilot to long-suffering flight attendant: “You’d be amazed what a man can do with one hand”), there’s nothing especially wild about the original film. The wild stuff was shot over the course of five days in L.A. last March, in a determined effort to turn “Snakes” into a different sort of picture, one worthy of all the Internet hubbub — which is to say, worthy of an R rating. The result is an odd hybrid, with the bare bones of the moderately amusing original picture now slathered with great, ripping gore effects, rich gouts of blood and, of course, boldly unholstered breasts (with snakes attached!).

I loved the new stuff. The snakes are nasty, and they do a lot of damage. They chomp into eyeballs and chew through the plane’s wiring. One really impressive specimen has the circumference of a fire hose, and is so evil it actually growls. These rampaging reptiles do a couple of things I felt like I’d waited my whole life to witness. There’s a lavatory scene, for example, where a guy unzips to pee and a snake comes hissing up out of the bowl and … well, you have to see it. And the part where a giant python, busily squeezing the guts out of one of the more unpleasant passengers, starts sizing the guy’s head with its ever-widening jaws, and then — whoa! Heaven! There’s also a cute little dog to which something happens that’s so horrible, so uncalled for, that you want to stand up and cheer.

And of course there’s Sam Jackson, roaring out his exasperation with these doggone snakes, and wishing them gone from this doggone aircraft. Finally getting to hear him utter the already-famous line is pretty great, too.

But this is a conflicted movie. It’s half a straight airborne-disaster tale and half an airborne-disaster satire, in the manner of the 1980 comedy classic, “Airplane!” (Somebody in this film, too, comes running out of the cockpit to anxiously inquire, “Is there anybody here who can fly a plane?”) The movie’s willful cheesiness doesn’t work, either. True cheese requires that the cheese-makers be unaware of what they’re doing. Cheesiness that’s aspired-to is unconvincing, and thus, for connoisseurs of le vrai fromage, unrewarding, as well.

In the end, “Snakes on a Plane” isn’t so much a movie — and a good one, in parts — as it is the concluding installment of a long-building new-media phenomenon. As was also the case with “The Blair Witch Project,” seven years ago, once you finally get to see this film, you’ll probably feel little need to see it again. It’s been a fun ride. Now, I suspect, we can all move on.

‘Material Girls’: Duff Movie

There’s no reason teen comedies have to suck. The genre has plenty of room for smarts and sparkle — think “Clueless,” “Bring It On” and “Mean Girls.” This movie is, to say the very least, nothing like those. Its plot is idiotic (and not in a dumb-fun way), its performances are remarkably drab, and its dialogue is lame and laughless. The picture, directed by Martha Coolidge, was shot more than a year ago, and should have remained on the dark back shelf where it had been quietly gathering dust. But no, here it is.

Sisters Hilary and Haylie Duff play sisters Tanzie and Ava Marchetta. They’re the rich, spoiled daughters of a cosmetics mogul, now deceased, and an absent mom who’s left them to be raised by a Colombian housekeeper named Inez (Maria Conchita Alonso). (We know Inez is Latina because her living room is thick with campy crucifixes.) The girls pass their shallow lives in an unending round of partying and posing for paparazzi, while their late dad’s buffoonish partner (a supremely tiresome Brent Spiner) tends to the family business.

When a rival cosmetics tycoon named Fabiella (Anjelica Huston, sailing through the story like a luxury yacht that’s lost its bearings) makes a bid to take over the Marchetta family business, Tanzie says no. Then, suspiciously, a scandal erupts: a Marchetta beauty cream is alleged to cause skin damage. What follows is relentlessly unentertaining. The sisters return to the family mansion, where — although it has been emphatically noted that the girls don’t smoke — Ava whips out a pack of cigarettes and lights up. This allows Tanzie to get on her case, which in turn allows Ava to flick the cigarette away — and set the house on fire. Then, instead of calling the fire department, they take off in their sports car to check into a hotel, where they discover that their corporate credit cards have been cancelled. (Why do they have corporate credit cards? These heiresses aren’t minors — are there no trust funds in their names?) They move on to seek shelter with housekeeper Inez, and in the street outside her apartment building they encounter two punks (Joel and Benji Madden of Good Charlotte) who are just, like, standing around. Ridiculously assuming that they’re valet-parking attendants, Tanzie hands them the keys — and of course the two men climb into the car and drive off. Now “destitute,” the girls move in with Inez. Says Ava, glumly: “We’ve gone from Tiffany to Target in one night.” It is kind of hard to believe.

The story slogs on. Two love interests crop up, played by Lukas Haas and Marcus Coloma. Soon, a conspiracy is suspected, and Tanzie and Ava determine to investigate. It’s a little complicated. If only it were interesting, too, even a little.

The movie’s script is a farrago of strangely dated dialogue. Phrases like “thank you for sharing” and “beam me up” (a leaden in-joke) go limping by, along with musty witticisms like, “This thing is screwier than Courtney Love.” A dim cosmetics exec talks about “Madonna, Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson — all beautiful women.” A legal-aid lawyer tells Ava he assists people who are afflicted by poverty, and she says, “Well, that’s not really a disease — it doesn’t even have a ribbon.” And when the sisters are reduced to waiting for a bus, Tanzie observes that they’ll soon be “On the 6, just like JLo” — a reference to an album that is now seven years old.

Apart from Anjelica Houston, whose career is bomb-proof by now, none of the actors in “Material Girls” appears to be having any fun. (Sit through the movie and you’ll know how they feel.) The Duff sisters exude a giddy, oblivious energy (maybe they didn’t notice the cinematic wreckage piling up around them), and possibly their fans will like them in this. That’s the best-case scenario. Because apart from those fans, this dismal movie won’t win them any new ones.

 
— Kurt Loder

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