Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Quick Look: 127 HOURS

One of Danny Boyle’s greatest skills as a director is his ease with unease. Through his throat-grabbing jump cuts and frenetic cinematography (mostly, as of late, from Anthony Dod Mantle), he summons up great dread. It’s not just his horror films (28 Days Later) or druggie portraits (Trainspotting) that utilize this skill. Even his most crowd-pleasing Slumdog Millionaire is a film with characters perpetually on the edge of potential destruction. Now, with 127 Hours, Boyle once again utilizes unease to maximum effect in telling the true story of Aron Ralston, the hiker who found himself alone and pinned to the side of a canyon in a freak accident when a boulder landed on his arm. James Franco, as Ralston, brings a laid-back charm to the opening scenes that nicely complement the dire circumstances he soon tumbles into. He’s a compelling screen presence, easily entertaining even in an increasingly desperate situation. Naturally, the film progresses with its protagonist trapped in one location, but Boyle surrounds him with a cacophonous visual and aural collage. It’s electrifyingly busy filmmaking that uses the character’s excruciating pain and increasing claustrophobic isolation and hopelessness to fuel a hallucinatory stream of consciousness with imagery and sound. After five days, when Ralston decides that the only way to be free is through self-amputation, it’s a highly charged moment of gore and viscera followed by a denouement of overwhelming, transcendent release. While the thematic elements of the film feel a bit schematic at times, the film’s pulse of emotion, deriving its power from the unceasing visceral unease and tension that course through the movie, leaves an undeniable impact.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Quick Look: BURLESQUE

The gaudy, bedazzled showbiz musical Burlesque, directed by Steve Antin, is Cabaret by way of Showgirls without the art of the former or the sleaze of the latter. It’s not good enough, but it’s not bad enough either. It fails to climb to the delirious heights of slaphappy camp to which it so clearly aspires. Pop star Christina Aguilera is in her film debut as a young Midwestern girl who heads off to Hollywood to become a star. It’s the kind of gee-whiz cliché that only works if the actress is charming. Aguilera, despite her considerable singing voice, brings nothing but dead air to her time on screen. The more the film focuses on her, the worse it gets. Luckily, her dream gets downgraded fairly quickly once she stumbles into a neo-burlesque club lorded over by its diva owner (Cher). The club is a kind of vaguely defined place with a sassy doorman (an overlooked Alan Cumming), a sassy assistant (the always welcome Stanley Tucci), a sassy bartender (Cam Gigandet), a sassy prima donna (Kristen Bell), and a sleazy regular (Eric Dane). It’s purple and glittery, but there’s no sense of atmosphere or style. The filmmakers may be in love with this place, but there’s no sense of why Aguilera wants so badly to be a part of it, or why we should care that this place is in financial trouble. Antin shoots in such a woozy cheap music video style that any sense of space and time is quickly negated. The numbers performed on the stage take on a nonsensical sheen, chopped up into little pieces that undermine any sense that these are actual performances. And, of course, working against the fun is the plot’s primary focus on the dreams and ambitions, vague as they are, of their dull leading lady. Making Aguilera seem all the worse, Cher, the singer-turned-actress who won an Oscar for the lovely Moonstruck and held her own against Meryl Streep in Silkwood, proves that, despite some recently developed facial mobility problems, she still commands attention. There’s exactly one remarkable moment in the film that finds Cher, all by herself, belting out a ballad that serves as a declaration and reminder of why she was a star in the first place and why she's better than the film she's in.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Long Beautiful Hair: TANGLED

Disney’s latest animated feature is Tangled, a retelling of the story of Rapunzel, the princess with the incredibly long golden hair. The film’s a straight-up fairy tale, no apologies. It doesn’t feel the need to wink at the audience, distancing itself from the formula for cheap gags or in a bid for elusive contemporary coolness. That kind of hedging and equivocating has infected not just Disney films, but many animated family films in the last decade. There was a rush to learn from Pixar’s example by using computer animation, while overlooking the true strengths of Pixar: sincerity and simple emotion, the same qualities that Disney itself once knew by heart.

With Tangled, Disney finds its way back to its sweet spot, building on last year’s good first step with Princess and the Frog. Their latest film is sweet and charming. It’s not exactly innovating, but it’s fresh and surprisingly powerful. In Dan Fogelman’s script, Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) has been locked in a tower for her entire childhood. The evil Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) has raised her as her daughter after kidnapping the infant princess. You see, Rapunzel’s hair is a fountain of youth. Now, on the precipice of adulthood, Rapunzel yearns to explore the outside world. Of course, for all this time, the king and queen have been searching for their missing daughter. Gothel knows that to let Rapunzel leave the tower would mean to lose youth forever.

The film is filled with rich mother issues. It’s essentially a stand-off between an old view of femininity that tells women to stay locked in a domestic setting, useful only for their physical qualities, and a modern view of women as complete, resourceful individuals of great inherent worth, with talents and insights well worth sharing with the outside world. Rapunzel’s small, personal rebellion against her “mother” consists of secretly cultivating myriad talents. Gothel knows the girl paints, bakes, reads, thinks, and dreams (for starters), but does she know how well? And does she even begin to realize the girl’s potential? She keeps Rapunzel captive by subtly undermining her self-esteem. The film sits on this conflict, deepened by the sense of awful betrayal at the center. Rapunzel has a love for this maternal figure that is painfully sad to us in the audience, aware as we are of the kidnapping.

Dropping into the tower to complicate the plot is Flynn Ryder (Zachary Levi), a thief who, by ditching his thuggish partners-in-crime (Ron Perlman), has just barely escaped the royal guards chasing him. To Rapunzel he represents both a novelty and an opportunity. He is the outside world and all the promise and danger that entails. She talks him into escorting her outside the tower, so together they climb down, kicking off a plot that is a well-oiled machine consisting of various overlapping chases. Mother Gothel’s on the hunt for Rapunzel while two groups, both the royal guards and the cheated thugs, are on the trail of Flynn. The film develops into a bright and sunny chase picture with plenty of funny little detours and zippy, exciting action sequences.

It’s never a possibility to forget that it’s a Disney picture, filled as it is with the trappings of the Disney formula, but that’s hardly a burden in this case. Rather than feeling rote, these elements soar by being exceptionally well done. Co-directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard have made the best animated feature to come out of Disney since 2002’s Lilo and Stitch and the studio's best fairy tale since 1991’s Beauty and the Beast. The animation is a gorgeous, rounded CG style that is a close approximation to the traditional Disney 2D style. (It even uses the new 3D technology to lovely effect). The songs are delightful (if not immediately catchy), the supporting characters are likable, and the animal sidekicks are more than ready for their reaction shots. A goofy little chameleon is surprisingly subdued for a sidekick, with cute, nonverbal expressiveness. Even better is a mute law-enforcement horse that engages in a single-minded pursuit that gallops through the film bringing only hilarious antics.

And, of course, what would a Disney movie be without a romance? The relationship between Flynn and Rapunzel develops with admirable restraint, emerging slowly and cautiously out of the characters themselves. There’s never a sense that she needs a man to rescue her. (If any saving happens in the film, she saves him, or they save each other). Nor is there a sense that the romance is what’s driving her curiosity. She learns that she’s self-sufficient. Her romance develops along with her love of the outside world.

More than the average family film, and certainly more than anything Disney has done in a decade, Tangled packs plenty of emotion into a breezily entertaining romp. It’s pleasantly complicated and surprisingly touching. This is a film of direct, earnestly simple, skillfully playful, and self-assured storytelling that builds (in advance of its very satisfying climax) to one of the most beautiful sequences to hit the big screen all year. It starts with a tear running down a monarch’s face and ends with hundreds of floating lanterns surrounding a pair of potential lovers in a rowboat. It's surprisingly moving sequences like this, especially when they hit with such unexpected force, that make the movies worthwhile.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Quick Look: LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS

Love and Other Drugs is as bad as it is ambitious. Here’s a sexy romance, a goofy comedy, and a disease-of-the-week tearjerker with aspirations of being a semi-satirical commentary on pharmaceutical companies. It’s basically a duller Up in the Air with an extra layer of pretensions ladled on top and it comes out looking too cluttered for its own good. The various competing ideas cancel each other out. The script, from director Edward Zwick and co-writers Charles Randolph and Marshall Herskovitz, follows Jake Gyllenhaal as a young, wide-eyed pharmaceutical representative and ladies’ man. In the course of his travels, he meets Anne Hathaway, and the two fall into a relationship fairly quickly. Hathaway, despite a severely underwritten role, acts circles around Gyllenhaal. Though the film is preoccupied with his job and family life, we barely see what she hopes to do with her artistic talents, how she’s living with her early-onset Parkinson’s disease, and why she can afford to pay for her medical care in rolls of big bills. These elements are brought up and dropped at the whims of the plot. She’s a moody cipher, meant to bring love and drama into the life of a charming-but-cold yuppie. It’s a shame. Hathaway does so much with so little that it would have been nice to see her in a role that respected her talents. The film is more or less dead when she’s off the screen, little more than a collection of moments that engendered little more than eye rolling from me. I particularly loathed a subplot involving Gyllenhaal’s sloppy brother (Josh Gad) that’s so miscalculated that it seems to have stumbled in out of an even worse film. Also disappointing are the cruelly underused talents of Oliver Platt and Hank Azaria who could have turned their small roles into gems of character acting if given just a little more screen time. Edward Zwick, usually at work leaving me unmoved with big somber epics like Glory and Blood Diamond, finds little of visual interest in the film, carries along the blandly sloppy mess with just enough skill to make me wish it were better. When, in the span of a few scenes, you’re careening from a serious look at the ramifications of Parkinson’s into overextended gags about Viagra side effects, you know the film is simply adrift beyond repair.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Catching Up on 2010: Epic Yawn Edition

There’s no good reason for Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood to be so dull, with the exception of copious development problems and the decision to make an overlong origin story that pushes all that is fun about the character past the end credits and out of the picture entirely. There’s also the thudding predictable epic-battle stylistic rut that Scott has found himself in (he’s basically recycling his own Gladiator) that cannot lift the tattered script. And, of course, there’s the fact that Russell Crowe, an actor with some nice range, is woefully miscast. On the scale of screen Robin Hoods, Crowe’s better than Kevin Costner, but he’s no Errol Flynn (or even Cary Elwes). This is a turgid epic that looks like little more than a high-priced game of dress-up as extras clop around muddy forests looking as grim and miserable as I was watching them. Not even the combined talents of Cate Blanchett, William Hurt, Danny Huston, Max von Sydow, Matthew Macfadyen, and Mark Strong (a “how could this go wrong?” kind of cast) can scrape up more than a little entertainment value. Don’t get me wrong, this is as slick and dumbly watchable as empty failed epics get. The money was well spent on the production values. Where the film is bankrupt is where it counts: story, emotion, character, and excitement.

Another failed summer epic at least has the dignity to go a little crazy. It’s not any better than Robin Hood, but Mike Newell’s video game adaptation Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time at least has Alfred Molina racing ostriches and Ben Kingsley as a man who knows all about procuring poisoned cloaks in between his mustache twirling. Oh, and a miscast Jake Gyllenhaal’s hanging around too, though despite his status as the lead of the film, he leaves very little impact. He’s the orphan-turned-prince who stumbles into possession of the Sands of Time that are conveniently held inside a goofy dagger. They turn back time, but they can only turn back as much time as there is sand in the dagger. (I think). So, for a convoluted set of reasons, the prince marches around the desert with the blank beauty love-interest Gemma Arterton while they figure out how to conquer the forces of evil and protect the world from the villainous forces that would use the sand to…I don’t know what exactly, but let’s assume it’s bad. Though, really, I spent about as long wishing they would use the sand to go back to a time before the movie started and try again. The film’s all red-blooded matinee fun, or at least it would be if it weren’t so frequently incomprehensible in the action scenes. Not only does CGI cloud any sense of physical space in the acrobatic flips and spins, but the magic is oddly rendered and decidedly hokey. The characters are bland, the plot is cardboard, and the filmmaking is just flat and affectless. I was bored or confused for most of the movie. It’s bland, but at least it’s not entirely without flavor.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Some of the President's Men: FAIR GAME

In a time when an ugly right-wing rumor mill has been undermining a presidency through non-stop insinuations, it’s nice to see a film like Fair Game. It's not a great film, but it serves as a good reminder that not too long ago we actually did have a presidential administration that engaged in sneaky, probably criminal, tactics that infected decision-making in the governmental bureaucracy. It was in power for most of the last decade.

In 2002, when the C.I.A. had former ambassador Joe Wilson investigate a rumor that Niger sold uranium to Iraq, he reported back that the transaction couldn’t have taken place. He was understandably shocked when he heard president George W. Bush mention that very rumor as fact in the State of the Union address in support of invading Iraq. Outraged, he wrote an editorial in The New York Times saying that Bush and his administration had distorted facts in order to support a war of choice. But his outrage wouldn’t end there.

His wife, Valerie Plame, was an undercover C.I.A. agent, deep into missions of sensitive and dangerous natures in the Middle East. Imagine her surprise to wake up one morning to see her cover blown on the morning news. Some high-ranking Bush official, or perhaps several, had leaked her identity in an attempt to discredit her husband and to quiet anti-war sentiment. After all, bombs had already fallen on Baghdad. Meanwhile a smear campaign began to launch its attack on this family.

In Fair Game, Naomi Watts plays Plame. She’s a capable career agent and analyst, working on gathering intelligence and helping defectors. When she is revealed to the world as an agent, she is naturally distraught. Watts plays these scenes with great nuance and care. What could have easily become weepy histrionics is nicely tuned on a realistic level. We sense her pain written across her face, in the tiniest shift of her expression, in the small shine of tears sitting in her eyes.

She’s well matched with Sean Penn, who plays Joe Wilson as a principled man who speaks his mind, sometimes to the detriment of those around him. Penn’s performance threatens to overpower the film with his capital-A acting, but it ends up being a nice, controlled smolder of a performance. The deep lines in Penn’s forehead accentuate the deep anger both feel towards the situation.

What’s best about the film is the way it mostly sidesteps easy political moralizing in order to focus on a couple in crisis. Wilson and Plame are essentially a typical suburban married couple with a two kids, two cars, and a nice house. Though they find themselves in the middle of an unexpected situation with grave consequences, the tidy script by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth steers clear of making Wilson and Plame left-wing martyrs. Instead, the focus remains on who these two people are and what makes them tick. These are real people who are being pushed to the breaking point by forces far beyond their control.

Director Doug Liman, who directed the very good spy film The Bourne Identity, shoots this film with a tense, nervous camera that enlivens the domestic scenes with a jittery energy. This style extends into the moments in which the film’s scope opens up onto the stage of international intrigue and narrows into the winding halls of Washington D.C.’s powerful shadows. Of particular interest are scenes with the Vice President’s Chief of Staff, Scooter Libby. As played by David Andrews, Libby is a conniving administration tool, ruthlessly bullying the administration’s spin into the decision-making bureaucracy made up of studious public servants.

This is a nice film, though it feels a bit more dispensable than it should. It’s a film of fine performances and calmly unraveling anger. It’s compelling without being overly insistent, but I couldn’t help but wish for a bit more power behind its punches. This is an enraging film, but it fades faster than I would have expected. It’s just a bit too clinical to resonate as deeply as it could.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Beginning of the End: HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 1

The filmmakers of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows have been telling us that the decision to split the film into two parts was made with purely creative reasons, the better to faithfully reproduce J.K. Rowling’s text, but having seen Part 1 I can only think that the reason had to have been Warner Brothers’ desire to double their profits. This is a decision that has only hobbled the creativity. Sure, Stuart Craig’s production design is outstanding. The cast is excellent. But director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves don’t quite know what to do with all this extra screen time on their hands. They create some really wonderful moments but separate them with meandering and wheel spinning that distracts and, ultimately, makes the experience feel like a let down. Alexandre Desplat’s score can barely even manage a few bars of John William’s great original themes. It’s like someone promised fireworks only to set off a couple of firecrackers and call it good enough.

Oh, the fun one swift three-and-a-half-hour finale could have been. Instead, we have been served up a two-and-a-half hour prelude to next summer’s main attraction. There’s a lot of monotonous exposition to be found here. The film begins by picking up where last year’s wonderful Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince left off. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) are facing a posthumous task from Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) to destroy the devices that allow the evil Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) to remain immortal. Meanwhile, evil forces are gathering, taking over the Ministry of Magic, installing the snaky Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) to the position of Headmaster of Hogwarts, striking fear in the hearts of all good wizards and witches, and spilling menace into the Muggle world.

Our three heroes are unsure how to proceed. A host of British character actors are there to help them, at first. Returning once again are, among others, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Robbie Coltrane, Julie Walters, Mark Williams, John Hurt, and Toby Jones. New to the cast are Rhys Ifans as a threatened publisher and Bill Nighy as the new Minister of Magic. The adults are used most sparingly in the film. Even the villains, including Helena Bonham Carter, Jason Isaacs, Helen McCrory and Timothy Spall, are rarely glimpsed. The film features our three heroes alone for much of the run time, saddled with a somewhat repetitive, often perfunctory, script. Luckily, by this point they’re wonderful actors. I suppose growing up around all these supremely talented thespians will do wonders from a young actor.

But the rich ensemble is greatly missed, as are the magical riches of Craig’s sets for Hogwarts. I know they’ll be utilized to a far greater extent in the next installment, but that knowledge did little to ease the empty feeling where Hogwarts belongs. There’s a sense that the filmmakers, taking their cues from Rowling, are deliberately thwarting series-finale nostalgia by shaking up the form of the series, sending our characters adrift into the Muggle wilderness, hunted and stalked. Indeed, there are many affecting and effective moments to be found here. A memory-changing spell opens the film on a sad note, a daring infiltration into the Ministry of Magic is thrilling, a coffee shop shootout is tense, a small dance as a respite amidst danger is tender and touching, and a deadly dark cloud of fear that bursts forth from an evil enchantment sets the stage for a harrowing emotional high point for the film.

I’m sure that the film sets up the narrative and emotional points needed to launch into the conclusion proper. Having read the books, I can see that the filmmakers haven’t lost the thread of the plot. Having loved the movies, I can tell that the technical qualities of this entry are as good as any. What’s missing is a sense of shape, of drive, of a journey. So many of the books’ subplots have been stripped away from the previous adaptations that it’s hard to have a film that tries to make some of them matter without prior introduction. (Have we even seen the character Mundungus before?) The details don’t always feel properly relevant. We begin the film knowing that Harry and his friends are in danger from an increasingly powerful source of evil and end the film with little gained or lost. There are some nice moments, sure, but the film, as a whole, should feel a whole lot livelier. It leaves much to be desired. I don’t know what I was expecting, heading into the film knowing full well that this was only half a Harry Potter movie and fully aware that it would likely be a faithful adaptation of the dullest patch of plotting in the book series. As should have been expected, the film is the first of the series to not feel densely packed with characters, plot points, and magic.

Like the first several hundred pages of the book, Deathly Hallows Part 1 begins to set up a finale. Just as those pages alone would not make a satisfying book, this is not a satisfying film. After the full story is complete, the film could look retroactively rosier, but as of right now the experience of seeing the film is more than a little tedious. This film can’t, and maybe shouldn’t, stand alone, but I wish it did a little more to stand out as something better than a mere mechanical set-up for the forthcoming resolution. Sure, it’s nice to see these characters and this world once again, but I’m looking ahead. I’m looking forward to (hopefully) having more time to luxuriate in the world’s imaginative details, enjoy the deeply talented ensemble, and to experience the magic once again.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

An Early Gift: A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Last fall, there was something very odd about sitting in a state-of-the-art multiplex, wearing plastic 3D glasses, and watching a movie that is, in some ways, so thoroughly, reverentially, old-fashioned. A Christmas Carol is one of the most often retold stories, starting with Charles Dickens’s original story from the mid-1800’s and including at least one version for each generation afterwards. Now director Robert Zemeckis has taken cutting-edge Hollywood technology (the same motion-capture animation that he used in the brilliant Polar Express and the noble failure Beowulf) and put it to work on this old story, seemingly lifting most of the dialogue word-for-word from the original text. The sense of looking both backwards and forwards doesn’t distract from the story, however. I’ve heard it many times before. Who hasn’t? But by the end I was still elated for Scrooge and filled with goodwill and Christmas cheer.

The movie mostly follows the mood and spirit of the classic tale like clockwork, moving through the very familiar plot once again, but the dust doesn’t settle around the gears. Zemeckis uses long flowing shots that slide and glide. Many sequences play out in one long take. A marvelous trip through 19th century London is a stunning opening to the film, grounding the movie in an impressive sense of time and place. The encounters with the ghosts are likewise stunning, expressive and bold and sometimes quite frightening. Zemeckis doesn’t forget that this is a ghost story, using swiftly shifting scale, color, and movement to throw the viewer, and Scrooge, off balance. I’m thinking specifically of an extraordinarily well-done sequence with the Ghost of Christmas Present that finds the floor of a room becoming translucent, and then the room itself breaking free from the laws of physics to take Scrooge on a vertigo-inducing trip around London without him ever having to leave his house. Except for a slightly miscalculated sequence involving icicle-related slapstick, this is a film of amazing imagery and narrative fidelity.

Speaking of Scrooge, he’s creepy and crotchety, a great example of excellent character design. He’s wrinkled and elongated with long, bony fingers and a slightly crooked, pointy chin. Jim Carrey, as the performance-capture and voice of the character, does not, despite my worst fears, devolve the role into rubbery shtick. Instead, he remains, like the film itself, remarkably faithful to Dickens words, capably delivering the dialogue and intent behind it. (Though, to be fair, there’s a bit of Alastair Sim in his performance). Carrey also plays the ghosts quite well and the animation supports him superbly; each design is strong and striking, even appropriately haunting. The acting and animation excellence extends to the rest of the cast. Gary Oldman shows up in a handful of roles (including Marley, Mr. Cratchit and Tiny Tim) as do Colin Firth, Bob Hoskins, and Robin Wright Penn. They all bring fine physicality and welcome voices.

Even though this is an oft-repeated story, it still moved me. Supported by his excellent cast and a stirring score from Alvin Silvestri, who weaves in rousing renditions of Christmas carols, Zemeckis dazzles visually. He’s always possessed the potential to be, and many times he has been, a great visual storyteller, and with this particular style of animation he has brought his visions to greater heights. Always an innovator, from the time he mixed hand-drawn animation into a neo-noir comedy in the masterful Who Framed Roger Rabbit to the CG tweaking of archival footage in Forrest Gump, Zemeckis has now found, for better or worse, the perfect expression for his technologically driven storytelling. Bringing his skills as a live-action director into a fully animated environment, he moves the camera in ways that would be impossible in the real world, but he rarely lets his technology merely show off. The stunning technique only underlines the story’s inherent compelling qualities. In this case, he creates an admirably faithful, and smart, adaptation of a great story. What’s old is new again. This scary ghost story and moving, comfortably warm Christmas chestnut feels at once fresh and timeless. It thrills and moves like I never thought a new adaptation of A Christmas Carol would or could.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Clickety-Clack: UNSTOPPABLE

Early in Unstoppable, two slacker train-yard workers (T.J. Miller and Ethan Suplee) fumblingly start a chain of events that leads to a large freight train carrying toxic chemicals going full speed and unmanned down the tracks. In the grand tradition of Speed and, well, Runaway Train, Unstoppable is an action film about a seemingly unstoppable force. The train blasts down the track, its constant chugging animating the soundtrack as a constant source of tension. It literally howls an animalistic roar as it blasts forward. The danger is omnipresent. This train is clearly on a collision course and when it crashes, it will be messy.

It’s directed by Tony Scott and so is, perhaps inevitably, filled with the kinds of stylistic ticks that he has accrued over the last several years. The camera jitters around while the editing cuts away mid-pan. There are tense little zooms that come out of nowhere. Color filters are intermittently applied. Shots slip out of focus, or start blurry just to be pulled sharply into extreme clarity. Quick frames of double-exposure or pops of white light show up intermittently. You’d think I’d consistently dislike all this busyness, but sometimes Scott puts it to good use. (I particularly enjoyed its deployment in such confidently preposterous actioners as 2005’s Domino and 2006’s Déjà vu). In Unstoppable, the train careening nonstop throughout provides enough of a steady stream of tension that his style here ends up distracting much less than it should.

Speaking of distracting less than it should, the ham-fisted screenplay by Mark Bomback is never afraid to spell out messages in capital letters. Corporations don’t care about people! Rosario Dawson spends the movie in a train control center, sweating out the crisis with safety expert Kevin Corrigan who (irony!) just happens to be visiting this day. She gets on the phone with higher ups (like Kevin Dunn) that are only worried about the bottom line. Repeat. Veteran train engineer Denzel Washington and rookie Chris Pine might have a good idea about how to stop the train. Higher ups don’t listen. Repeat! It’s a good thing the cast has such great charisma and unexpected chemistry. They make their often corny dialogue sound, well, not exactly natural, but somehow simply right.

When the plot ventures outside of the propulsive thrills of that crazy train, the movie is generally out of its comfort zone. Where the movie succeeds the most, though, is in its matter-of-fact moments, portrayals of people at work. It’s something approaching fascinating when the movie takes, even for just a few seconds, a look at the process of how trains work, to simply pay attention to how Dawson, Washington, and Pine are just doing their jobs on a day that happens to feature some particularly harrowing life-and-death decisions.

Where it’s most disappointing is in the cursory family subplots given to Washington and Pine. They’re our main protagonists, but Scott could have easily cut Washington’s two college-aged daughters waitressing at Hooters, especially the uncomfortable scene that cuts from his paternal concern to a close-up of their tight orange shorts. Also easily removed is a vaguely defined subplot about Pine’s estranged family life. Sure, it’s nice to know more about the characters, but not if the information will be dumped into the film indiscriminately. These scenes are just dead weight.

But this is a movie that’s always moving forward. There is always something happening. It may not be something that will be explained, but it will be something exciting, or, failing that, just something loud and frantic. Though it comes with plenty of potential for nitpicking, I must say that this is a fun movie. It’s a kinetic explosion of thrills that barrels along without a second thought given to nuance or meaning. This is cinema that is little more than pleasingly stupid and exciting.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Quick Look: MORNING GLORY

Morning Glory is such a gentle, middling workplace comedy that it started to disappear from my memory even before it was over. If it weren’t for the lovely Rachel McAdams, the film would be even more forgettable than it already is. She plays an ambitious, energetic workaholic who lands a job producing a network’s low-rated morning show. She’s immediately overwhelmed, but confidently handles all the problems involved with balancing a tough boss (Jeff Goldblum), a flirty colleague (Patrick Wilson), and two difficult hosts (Diane Keaton and Ty Burrell). The film is light and fluffy as it evaporates. Director Roger Michell works from a screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna, who is content to do little more than cannibalize her own far superior script for The Devil Wears Prada while making a softheaded version of James L. Brooks’s Broadcast News. Morning Glory runs through standard comedy and romance tropes with minimal energy and it carries a bad aftertaste. Most of the movie is given over to McAdams’s attempts to raise the profile of her show by convincing a veteran newsman (a serious, scowling Harrison Ford) to join the staff as a new anchor. It’s a real he says she says. He says that he doesn’t want to participate in dumbing down the news. She says loosen up. When it ends, literally walking off into the sunset, the movie hasn’t resolved the central conflict, ignoring the very battle for the soul of the modern news media that it introduces. If the movie weren’t so blandly competent and entirely inoffensive in every other way, I’d be much more inclined to hate it.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Quick Look: INSIDE JOB

In 2007, documentarian Charles Ferguson released No End in Sight, the definitive chronicle of the early days of the Iraq war. His follow up, Inside Job, uses much of what made that earlier film great. This documentary calmly and with great clarity peels back the layers of disinformation and obfuscation to compile a carefully researched portrait of the worldwide economic crisis that exploded in late 2008 and has left us stranded in a recession ever since. With incredible interviews and expert use of visual aids, narrated by a somber Matt Damon, the facts and statistics have never looked so damning. This film is a downpour of information that takes the mostly superficial reporting that has been done thus far and presents it as a unified whole. This is the big picture displayed in a masterful documentary that is stunningly thorough. It’s beautifully photographed, crisply edited, and skillfully assembled. Truth really is stranger than fiction; this is what was entertainingly and messily fictionalized in the mildly disappointing Wall Street 2. This is the true story of the booms and busts and meltdowns and bailouts of the last decade, and the decades of market manipulation that made it possible. The depth of investigation is impressive. Just how “free” is our free market? While the full extent of the comprehensive reporting produced by the film is certainly too much to fully explicate here, it is safe to say that the thoroughly deregulated greed of the financial industry has a symbiotic death-grip on our country’s politics. Obscene riches are built on deception and willful ignorance. The income gap in this country is rarely so starkly shown. When the film ended, I remained in my seat for a few minutes, infuriated and emotional, trying to catch my breath and still my hands. Here is a documentary that has to power to leave you literally shaken. It smashes past easy ideologically driven answers and arrives at something cogent, frustrating, and deeply felt. Inside Job is the best, most complete look at this crisis that I’ve so far encountered. It’s far more essential and far more satisfying than the usual financial reporting. This is a truly indispensible work of journalism. This is a bleakly funny true-crime documentary, terrifying and maddening.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

On the Road Again: DUE DATE

After last year’s runaway success with The Hangover, it’s not a surprise to see that director Todd Phillips’s latest film, Due Date, is cut from the same cloth. It’s an aggressive comedy that careens from one comic moment to the next. It spends the entirety of its runtime throwing vulgarity, violence and non-sequiturs at the audience in a nonstop onslaught. It’s comedy of shocks and giggles.

Unlike The Hangover, though, Due Date feels creakier. It’s lumpily formed around the same basic buddy-movie road-trip format that has been around since at least the time Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were always on the road to somewhere. This particularly iteration uses a plot device put to good use in John Hughes’s Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, a film Todd Phillips and his co-writers Alan R. Cohen, Alan Freedland and Adam Sztykiel, must know pretty well. Two dissimilar men are forced to drive cross-country on a deadline. It’s a nice hook on which to hang a plot.

Robert Downey, Jr. plays an architect, a mostly accidental jerk who has to get from Atlanta to Los Angeles to be with his wife (Michelle Monaghan) for the birth of their first child. We know he needs to be taught humility because he talks rapid-fire into a cell phone. Zach Galifianakis is a socially awkward weirdo who happens to be going through some painful grief on his way to L.A. to become an actor. We know he’s a potentially annoying combination of pretentious and oblivious because he wears a scarf.

The two of them get caught up in a misunderstanding that leads to their placement on the No Fly List. Naturally, they decide to rent a car and make the cross-country drive together. This only exaggerates their respective quirks. Downey grows meaner. Galifianakis seems ever stranger. Their personalities are on a collision course, but if you can’t tell by now that they’ll grow to respect each other, you’ve never seen a road trip movie before.

You’d think locking two of our most compelling actors, both of them equally blessed with the gift of seemingly effortless comedic timing, into a car for the duration of a film would produce better results. These two men, plenty funny on their own, display some nice chemistry, but the movie lets them down. It’s clumpy and episodic with the two guys interacting with cameo after cameo, but even worse, the characters never come to life. They begin as flat, one-dimensional types and end the same way, moving about from scene to scene with little change to be found. Along the route the movie is sloppily disengaged without control of tone, expecting the audience to quickly shift from laughing at the characters to feeling overpowering sympathy, often within the blink of an eye.

Even though it disappoints scene to scene, the movie nonetheless gives off a sufficiently pleasant feeling as it unspools. After all, though given little to work with, Downey and Galifianakis are fun to watch. Even when the movie is giving them ridiculously unbelievable episodes to act out, the two of them can almost make it work. It’s the kind of movie that’s just diverting enough to more or less keep me from realizing how much I wasn’t enjoying it. The instant the end credits started, the illusion collapsed.

Love and Death: HEREAFTER

In Hereafter, Clint Eastwood’s latest feature, we follow three separate stories in which people that are forced to confront death find nothing but endless questions filling their restless minds. There’s the French journalist (Cécile de France) who is caught in a natural disaster. There are the London-dwelling twin boys (Frankie and George McLaren) who are about to experience a death in the family. Then there’s the Californian psychic (Matt Damon) who can communicate with the dead; the briefest touch of a stranger gives him visions of blurry blue-gray figures that wish to communicate. Each encounter leaves the characters rattled. The journalist can’t keep her mind on her work. The boys are forced to cope with a painful loss that can’t be understood. The psychic has long since stopped giving readings; each communication is simply too painful, too distressing. They all just want to be whole again, to live normal lives, but the mysteries of life and death are too insistent and persistent.

It’s to Eastwood’s credit, and to the credit of Peter Morgan’s screenplay, messy though it is, that this is a film uninterested in forcing answers to these questions. This is a film about wondering, about searching, about grasping for answers where certainty is an utter impossibility. How does one live a full life after a glimpse into death? France can’t concentrate on her job. McLaren’s yearning for answers leads to an increasing feeling of solitude. For Damon’s character the burden is the heaviest. He cannot make a human connection without the risk of feeling all of another’s past pain.

This shaken yearning from the leads causes the film to feel more than a little inert. There’s no momentum here. There are no clear objectives. This is a quiet and deliberate (some may say “plodding”) rumination and it has some lovely character moments. The scenes between Damon and a potential love interest, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, play out with tender suspense. The dazed feeling written on France’s face as she goes back to work still haunted by her experience is palpable. Other scenes fall flat, like moments involving a poorly cast Jay Mohr as Damon’s brother or a montage of con artists who are cashing in on their pretended psychic powers. Indeed, by the end of the film the plotting, which already seemed to feel some strain while moving between the various storylines, seems to fizzle out.

But this is not a film primarily concerned with plot. This is a film of mood and pondering, with characters that come face to face with death and are deeply shaken by it. Eastwood has once again surrounded himself with capable artists and craftspeople that have created a film with a simple, professional shine, like the team of special effects artists that provides a mostly astonishing natural disaster with which to open the film and director of photography Tom Stern, who gives the film a cold glow. Eastwood is not a flashy visual stylist. He sets up his shots simply and unobtrusively to frame the dialogue and whenever he stretches to show a few unclear seconds of a foggy hereafter, he doesn’t always achieve the needed effect.

Even so, the primal power of the topic pushes the film forward. This is a film that boldly and uneasily takes on the subject of death. It’s not conventionally satisfying, and a bit confused. But it’s compelling enough with scenes of strong feeling and a gripping, futile longing for the comfort of certainty.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Super Bad: MEGAMIND

These days, as long as an animated production has a large supply of studio money flowing in, the movie will at the very least look amazing. That’s the case with Megamind, the latest disappointment from Dreamworks Animation, which is nonetheless blest with bright primary colors and detailed designs. Director Todd McGrath, who previously co-directed the two lame Madagascars, and screenwriters Alan J. Schoolcraft and Brent Simons bring little of interest to the story, which is little more than warmed-over scraps from better animation studios’ far superior efforts. It’s takes the superhero comedy of Pixar’s The Incredibles and the inept supervillain plot of Illumination Entertainment’s Despicable Me and then drains them of wit, speed, and likability.

In fact, it’s hard not to think of the creatively underachieving Dreamworks Animation as Megamind begins with two alien infants fleeing a cataclysmic event, essentially flying through a parody of Superman’s first act on their way to Earth. One is a handsome little tyke for whom it’s all smooth sailing, landing gently under a wealthy couple’s Christmas tree. The other is a blue boy with a bulbous head who has a rocket that clatters through an asteroid field and lands in a prison. They grow up to be superpowered nemeses with the charmed life of hero Metroman (Brad Pitt) being a source of envy for the clumsily diabolical Megamind (Will Ferrell) who constantly wonders how that guy sails effortlessly to acclaim while he has to stew in the shadows. It’s easy to think that the creative team at Dreamworks would have reason to sympathize with Megamind, since their films are so critically underwhelming while their closest rival Pixar puts out films that are consistently acclaimed.

I would have been only too happy to praise Dreamworks latest film. In fact, earlier this year their How to Train Your Dragon was a film that was pleasantly surprising, great fun and the best film they’ve ever produced. (Though maybe the credit should mostly go to Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, who definitely left their auteuerist mark on the project.) Megamind, on the other hand, is basically indefensible. It’s sluggish and grating with flat, uninspired vocal performances that sometimes inspire stiff animation. It’s also a film with thin characterization and a deeply uninteresting plot that does little to encourage an atmosphere of fun. It plays like a creation from people who know all the notes to hit when creating a family film but they can’t for the life of them actually figure out how to play the song.

Despite its visually precise and often lovely to regard locations and textures - I especially liked a moment when thousands of flying robots form a face in the sky - this is a nearly unfathomably uninvolving movie. It plays out in fits and starts of clichés and halfhearted jokes. The main battle-of-good-and-evil plot gets off to a fairly promising start with a sequence that finds Megamind, along with his talking fish (David Cross), finally besting Metroman and reacting like a dog that has for once actually caught the car he was chasing. He has no idea what to do next. The filmmakers are right there with him.

Early promise is squandered on a squirmy love-triangle between a disguised Megamind and a sloppy cameraman (Jonah Hill) battling for the affections of a local news reporter (Tina Fey). This plotline then becomes needlessly convoluted with a wholly unconvincing attempt to jump-start the superpowered conflicts. The characters are simply not defined enough to feel convincing. The stakes aren’t imbued with any real sense of danger. Even when the big climax comes and characters are literally swinging buildings around, I found it of some small visual interest but entirely empty of emotion.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Quick Look: MY SOUL TO TAKE

My Soul to Take is a low-impact genre exercise written and directed by Wes Craven. With the story of a dead schizophrenic serial killer who may or may not have returned from the dead after sixteen years just to kill a group of high schoolers, Craven’s offering up leftovers from his greatest accomplishments. It’s a little Nightmare on Elm Street here, a little Scream there. I had a good time. It’s a fairly shaggy slasher picture, but it’s sort of charming in its steady, almost anachronistic style and its straight-faced use of red herrings and obvious twisty horror plotting makes it a bit of an earnest, unselfconscious throwback. The killer’s prey is a carefully diverse group of teenagers (all in their twenties, of course.) There’s a jock (Nick Lashaway), popular girls (Emily Meade and Paulina Olszynski), an Evangelical Christian (Zena Grey), a geek (John Magaro), and a blind kid (Denzel Whitaker). Our main point of entry into the story, which is partly an unfocused coming-of-age story, is a troubled teen played by Max Thieriot, who handles quite well a part that calls for a blend of high emotion and low pop-psychological semi-supernatural oddness. He’s given several moments that could very well have become accidental camp in lesser hands. The cast has some nice banter mixed in with some real clunkers, like a failed bon mot from the Christian girl suggesting relief from the heat of their crisis with some “prayer conditioning.” But above all, Craven’s film works in its erratic, loopy way as a look at a community that is literally haunted by memories of sudden and scarring violence. Its high point comes not from a particularly frightening scare or a squeamishly gross gash of gore, but instead from a scene that finds a brother and a sister, both marked by the town’s killings of sixteen years prior, smashing apart the last relics of their tainted memories.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

True Stories: NOWHERE BOY and CONVICTION

When making a film based on a true story the easiest and biggest problem is failing to find the compelling story within the facts. Especially when dealing with a figure like John Lennon, the temptation to go sprawling into unfocused hagiography must look pretty appealing. In Nowhere Boy, director Sam Taylor-Wood and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh wisely focus on the coming-of-age years in which Lennon was an older teenager, forging his identity and falling in love with rock and roll while experiencing some turbulent family conflict. The film is nothing spectacular. It’s awfully conventional and sometimes falls into biopic pitfalls, like including scenes that only resonate for viewers already aware of the history being told, but the nice period detail and fine acting really carry the picture.

Aaron Johnson, last seen as the lead in Kick-Ass, capably channels Lennon’s teen angst while showing hints of his developing musical talent. In the film, Lennon is torn between the maternal love of two women, his mother (Anne-Marie Duff) and the aunt who raised him (Kristin Scott Thomas). While Greenhalgh’s screenplay can get a bit too melodramatic at times, Wood’s unmemorable direction tends to balance it out so the family drama mostly works on the strength of the performers. The great Kristin Scott Thomas, most of all, delivers an excellent performance, inhabiting a strict, stiff-lipped, matter-of-fact woman who seems to take bad news all too well. Her barriers are strong, but it’s easy to see the strong emotions behind her sad eyes and pursed lips.

Running parallel to the family plot is Lennon’s increasing musical ambitions that give the movie its drive and pulse. I particularly enjoyed the scenes between Lennon and McCartney (Thomas Sangster), though they are imbued with the kind of vague weight that would easily puzzle those not already familiar with who these characters become. But who doesn’t know Lennon and McCartney? When the film ends, Lennon goes off to Germany to play some gigs with a new band. His aunt can’t remember the name.

This is a film that contains not one measure of The Beatles music, ending with Lennon on the precipice of ubiquity. It’s a film with young men stumbling towards the limelight, but when the credits roll it’s still nothing but a glint in their eyes. This is a solid film that remains tightly focused on a short period of time, a factor that’s key to its modest success and to its slight feeling of incompleteness.

Also based on true events is Conviction, which is a film that has no difficulty finding a narrative through-line. This is not a biopic. This is a legal drama about Kenny Waters, a wrongly convicted man (Sam Rockwell) who is imprisoned for years. No scene goes by without relating directly to the core plot. We get some flashbacks that feature childhood troublemaking with his sister, Betty Anne. The two kids, who lived with a neglectful mother and subsequently in a handful of foster homes, would break into houses to pretend they had a normal life. They would also stand up for each other, fighting ferociously and determinedly to right wrongs perceived to have been done to them. So of course, when Kenny gets life without parole for a crime he didn’t commit, Betty Anne springs into action. She gets her G.E.D. and then goes to law school, hoping to become a lawyer and argue on his behalf.

Rather than letting the story just speak for itself, veteran television director Tony Goldwyn, working from a script by Pamela Gray, spells out the inspiration we should all be feeling by indulging mawkish dialogue and pouring over nearly every scene an insistently sentimental piano score. Hilary Swank, as Betty Anne, is presented as a heroine of the Pyrrhic victory. With the case, she makes a little progress and gets pushed back a little further from her goal with regularity. In her personal life her single-minded pursuit of justice plays a part in her divorce and in her strained relationships. Swank puts on a distracting accent and appears to be perpetually on the brink of tears. I suppose it’s what the presentation asks for, but it’s far from her best performance.

These mildly disappointing elements don’t quite manage to fully distract from the inherent interest the story supplies. When the film works, it’s not always as an inspiring against-all-odds true story, though I am easily won over by a competent courtroom scene. Instead, the film works best as a showcase for character actors. Rockwell brings a humor and vitality to the role despite being limited by the material he has to work with. Smaller roles for the likes of Minnie Driver, Peter Gallagher, Juliette Lewis, and Melissa Leo are even better: total bite-sized delights. Driver has some genuinely fun one-liners, Gallagher is always a welcome presence, Lewis chews some scenery and Leo gets to deliver a nice bit of menace as a small-town cop.

Conviction is a film of good intentions, but it’s mostly one-note and one-dimensional. The tone and style is all TV-movie-of-the-week with a dull creakiness to its predictability. If it weren’t for the fine acting from the supporting cast, it would be easy to write it off entirely while urging those interested in the facts of the case to put Google to good use. As it stands, it’s a just-barely serviceable drama. It eagerly and unrelentingly hits its marks, but it doesn’t do much more than that.

Friday, October 22, 2010

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2: Same as the First, a Little Bit Louder and a Little Bit Worse

Last year’s Paranormal Activity, from writer-director Oren Peli, was scary, but it also got under the skin. It was creepy with its slow building dread and its escalating freak-outs. Its simplicity was its greatest virtue. It was no more than a gimmick, but it was a surprisingly effective gimmick. It was also produced cheaply and made hundreds of millions of dollars. Thus we have the inevitable Paranormal Activity 2, a quickly produced combination prequel and sequel directed by Tod Williams and written by Michael R. Perry.

If you saw the first movie, you will remember that it focused on Katie and Micah (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat), a young couple that turned on a video camera to capture proof that things were going bump in the night. The new film follows a different and expanded cast of characters in the house that belongs to Katie’s sister (Sprague Grayden), who has a one-year-old son with her husband (Brian Boland). Also in the house are her stepdaughter (Molly Ephraim) and a maid (Vivis Cortez). The movie barely starts before the maid knows that an evil spirit haunts the house. She must be related to the security guard from Devil who knew all about spotting demons from the most innocuous of signs. Or maybe she was just paying attention to the dog, for, as any horror fan knows, it always means trouble when a dog barks at nothing.

The film plays like a dull echo of its predecessor. Once again this is “found footage,” though this time the source is a handful of security cameras placed strategically around the house after a real-world break-in that gets the family spooked. The first film’s single camera provided much better scares by playing with our fixed viewpoint and teasing us with what we couldn’t see and what we could barely hear. In this film, the editing is more pronounced, bouncing between different angles trying to capture the full extent of the flickering lights, the clattering pans and the creaking doors. It’s just not as scary that way, though adding a baby to the mix immediately enhances the dread.

The cast is up to the task of getting gradually more and more freaked out. It’s not boring to watch them go from denial to suspicion to rattled jumpiness. What is boring is the predictability of the scares, which crop up far too infrequently. There’s no sense of building menace. The film goes straight from weird, but mostly explainable, occurrences to the full manifestation of paranormal supernatural horror. By the time of the scariest moment of the film, a moment of genuine chills nearly two-thirds of the way through the runtime, I found myself eager to see how the filmmakers were going to top themselves. They didn’t.

It’s certainly a good effort. The film is true to what made the first film so successful. The characters seem more or less real. The use of silence and stillness is still appealing. It’s unnerving to watch a shadowy image of a dark room waiting, just waiting, for that other shoe to drop. Too often, nothing happens or, even worse, a Very Loud Noise smashes against the soundtrack. This is a horror movie that managed to startle me a handful of times, but it never truly unnerved me the way it should have.

Rage Against the Dying of the Light: NEVER LET ME GO

Screenwriter Alex Garland’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s wonderful novel Never Let Me Go is a literate, moving screenplay that derives as much of its power from the pauses between the lines as it does from what characters say. The story of three young children growing up in an imposing, strict, orderly boarding school tucked away in the British countryside has a great deal of power and mystery. The rules are strict for a very specific reason. The secret behind these circumstances is pure science fiction, but this is not a film of blinking doo-dads, slimy creatures or flurries of jargon. This is a film that considers its subject deeply and seriously. There are great depths of emotion here, hidden just beneath the calm rhythms and hushed tones.

Picking up on the spare, suggestive emotionality of the writing, director Mark Romanek, last seen directing 2002’s One Hour Photo, creates a chilled, artful mood that feels patient and foreboding. This is a film filled with beautiful dread and calm menace. This is a deliberate film with not a single wasted shot. It’s a sort of zen sci-fi, with compositions and words so finely tuned and chosen that it becomes a film of intricate beauty, an exquisitely structured and affecting piece of mood and style.

When we first see the school, Hailsham, it appears as an imposing brick-and-stone structure set in the middle of a clearing. Within its walls are hundreds of seemingly typical children who are eerily composed and disquieting in their poise. They have the bearings of ones who have been carefully trained, skillfully regimented. This is, after all, a prep school prepping the kids for a very specific purpose. Presiding over the school is the regal headmistress (Charlotte Rampling) who knows more than she tells.

Still, when we meet young Cathy (Izzy Meikle-Small) and Ruth (Ella Purnell) they seem to be very normal preteen girls. They discuss horses and gossip about their classmates. Cathy has a crush on Tommy (Charlie Rowe), a misfit who is emotional and creative, but awfully insecure. These are children who, despite their appearance of maturity, are quite naïve and stunted. We don’t entirely comprehend the rules that govern their lives at Hailsham, but then neither do they. But still, this school is all they’ve ever known. Even when a well-meaning new teacher (Sally Hawkins), wrestling with her conscience, tells the students the true nature of their futures, they don’t quite know what to make of it.

When we catch up with the kids some years later, in their late teens, they are still grappling with their fates, struggling to make sense of their place in the world. Ruth and Tommy, having grown up to be Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield, seem, at first glance, content to live in the moment, covering up their knowledge with their youthful optimism and cautious exploration of the adult world. Cathy (now the luminous Carey Mulligan) finds her future more unsettling. She’s lonelier than her friends, more serious. Though she doesn’t ever really open up to those around her, emotions and urges are powerfully stirring within her. She’s quietly accepting her lot in life, but she’s hardly happy.

Mulligan’s brilliant performance is a quiet one filled with meaningful looks and the smallest of facial expressions. It matches the deliberate tone of the filmmaking in the way the sparest, most economical gesture can suggest so much. This is a film of quiet and solitude, of uncomfortable facts and sad realizations. This is a film that is concerned with matters of life and death. But there are no hysterics. There is little sentimentality. This is a film of grace and beauty that is serenely overwhelming.

Romanek’s work here is gripping, emotional filmmaking. It’s melodrama stripped of embellishment. It’s sci-fi in name only, stripped of its standard accoutrements. It’s a film that’s both a startling, small-scale exploration of scientific ethics and a beautiful story of unrequited love. It’s a study of love and mortality that grows deeper and lovelier with each passing scene. It’s subtle power sneaks up and overpowers. The surface beauty and the finely crafted performances are commanding, but the depths of the feelings beneath them are even more surprising, nuanced and devastating. There’s an awful yearning at the center of the film, a sense of a horrible void in these characters’ lives that can never be filled.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Girl Next Door: LET ME IN

The 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In was one of my absolute favorite films of that year. It’s also one of, if not the, finest horror film of the last ten years. It’s a perfect shiver of mood and tension. I certainly wasn’t approaching Let Me In, the Americanized remake, with anything resembling anticipation. The only thing that got me in the theater was my sense of curiosity. Now that I’ve seen it, I can’t say it’s necessary. After all, the original still exists and is still superior. What surprised me, though, is how, after an early adjusting period in which I was consciously comparing it to its predecessor, the film works on its own terms. If you’re going to remake a masterpiece, you might as well try for a masterpiece yourself. In this case, the remake crew very nearly got there.

Retaining most of the icy dread and hushed tones, writer-director Matt Reeves (of the underrated Cloverfield) pulls off a nifty feat of cultural transposition. Instead of harsh Swedish winter, the story now takes place in a chilly 1980’s winter in a small high-altitude New Mexico town. In Reeves’s telling, the setting becomes a harsh and homey landscape dotted with Regan-era iconography. Kodi Smit-McPhee is Owen, an intensely bullied, quiet, sullen 12-year-old. He’s pale and thin, painfully vulnerable. He’s feeling particularly disjointed because of his parent’s divorce. His mother (Cara Buono), mostly unseen, has become a convert of the right-wing Moral Majority. The cramped, dark apartment she shares with her son is covered with Christian iconography and echoes with the sounds of televangelists.

Owen imagines violent acts, seemingly inspired by his daily abuse at the hands of his peers and filtered through 80’s-era slasher flicks. Early in the film he takes a large knife from the kitchen and uses it in his playing. Brandishing the impromptu weapon while standing before his bedroom mirror with a Halloween mask covering his face, he asks his hypothetical victim “Are you scared?” Soon enough, real violence comes to town. A local teen goes missing and is found dead. The local policeman (Elias Koteas) warns that there is a murderer on the loose.

Owen is spying on the neighbors across the courtyard – echoes of Rear Window – when he sees new tenants moving in. They make a stark pair, a haunted, bespectacled middle-aged man (Richard Jenkins) and a pallid 12-year-old girl (Chloe Grace Moretz). The man disappears some nights seemingly intent on performing unknown tasks under cover of darkness. The girl, though, is quiet and brooding. She has dark eyes and high cheekbones; an eerie ageless sheen sits on her colorless, vampiric skin. She walks barefoot through the snow. Owen finds her intriguing.

Reeves skillfully manipulates tone while drawing excellent, evocative performances out of these very talented young actors. The hesitant friendship that develops between the two of them is palpably sweet yet tinged with danger. It can be moving and disturbing in the same instant. The tricky tone is handled impressively with great maturity and care. This is a vampire movie that never once stoops to easy explanations or belabored back-story. This is a hushed, creepy film that moves hairs on the back of the neck with impeccable sound design and an evocative Michael Giacchino score. It has dark, warm interior spaces of classrooms and apartments juxtaposed with the dry crunch of snow and the damp chill of a public pool. The environment is expertly rendered, the stage beautifully set for the sequences of artfully displayed violence.

In an attempt to avoid merely copying the great moments of horror and gore from the original film, the remake, which contains some small plot variation in addition to its continental shift, sometimes goes for quick, choppy terror of the modern Hollywood variety, complete with dubious CGI. I was much impressed, however, with moments of startling originality that Reeves was able to find. A mid-film murder gone wrong culminates in a car crash that unfolds in one long horrifying take, the camera locked down in the backseat as the car gets smashed and flipped as it skids off the road. Instead of going big and flashy, Reeves keeps things visceral but suggestive, a technique that serves the film well here and in other well-staged scenes.

Let Me In is like a very good cover of a great song. It’s memorable and worthwhile on its own. It doesn’t replace or overshadow the original version. It plays the same melody, but finds different ways to get there with little additions, small subtractions, and effective variations and shifts in emphasis. Audiences who walk in unaware of the film’s inspiration will find a compelling, original narrative. Audiences who walk in loving the original will find a solid new version of a recent favorite.

UPDATE: In the weeks after I saw the film I grew to love it even more. I am now of the opinion that this is the rare remake that is every bit as good as the original.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Status Update: CATFISH

Catfish is like one of those Magic Eye pictures that require you to stare at a meaningless pattern until the real picture hidden within pops out. The film opens with a lengthy introduction to Nev Schulman, a professional photographer living in New York City. One day he gets a message from a little girl in Michigan who asks for permission to paint one of his published pictures. He agrees and a few days later he receives a painting in the mail. He soon strikes up an online friendship with the girl, her mother, her father, her brother, and her stepsister. He calls them the Facebook family, since that’s the only way he knows them.

The stepsister is a gorgeous dancer, an animal-lover, a talented singer, and an artist. He starts an online flirtation with her. She has a crush on him. Does it develop into a romance? You could say that. Nev’s brother, Ariel Schulman, and their colleague Henry Joost decide to film this developing relationship, thinking that it will make a good documentary.

If the film had continued along their original idea, this would be a terrible movie. As it is, the first half of the film is of mild interest. The three twenty-something guys are more or less watchable. After all, they’re constantly smiling. The concept of getting in touch with complete strangers and developing relationships with them has some soft appeal and is adequately presented. This is material that would make a perfectly likable human-interest story that would take up all of ten minutes on the nightly news.

As fate would have it, the guys lucked into having great material for a documentary when they decided to drive to Michigan and meet these people in person. It’s a shame that the advertising campaign for Catfish prepares the audience for a thriller with a secret. True, the film is best seen without any knowledge of the second half, but it’s not scary or frightening. This is no snuff film or sideshow freakout. This is, above all, a study in empathy. The surprise is not shocking, nor is it even totally surprising. People on the Internet are not always honest in representing their identities? I, for one, am not taken aback by that concept.

What they find is tenderly depicted with great sympathy for the real people involved. What these guys discover upon meeting the flesh-and-blood versions of the profile pictures goes much deeper than merely reconciling the truth with what they expected. This is not a movie about three New Yorkers who go to rural Michigan and feel betrayed. It’s better than that.

There’s little condescension to be found in the film’s second half. The directors wisely present the “secret” with sympathy and care, making the film less about what they find than about whom they find. What makes these people do what they do and say what they say? What is the nature of art and reality, fiction and fantasy? These aren’t easy questions to answer, and the filmmakers don’t try to answer them. Instead, they ask them in compelling ways. While the first half errs on the side of navel-gazing, the second half is memorable and affecting.

Medically Accurate: THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE

Once you know the sick details of The Human Centipede, you can’t totally forget them. Like it or not it gets stuck in your brain. (I won’t get too specific here.) Its basic concept is a work of some kind of depraved ingenuity; it might even be some kind of twisted horror genius. All I know is that I don’t want to see it again to find out.

Dutch filmmaker Tom Six wrote and directed this horror movie that exists only to disgust and provoke. Dieter Laser plays Dr. Heiter, a German surgeon who gets a swell idea for a science project to take up in his spare time. He wants to sew three people together. You read that right. In his day job, he specializes in separating conjoined twins. Now he wants to see if he can reverse the process and create, you guessed it, a human centipede. (I’ll leave out the details in order to allow your lunch to remain in your stomach.)

Plot is virtually nonexistent. Dimensional characters? Forget about it. Is it stylish? It’s only at a level of basic competency. But, I have to admit, this movie wants to shock and it gets there. It’s a gimmick-driven horror movie, like something a more grotesque William Castle would have dreamed up. Though, to be fair to Mr. Castle, he would have placed in the lobby a large rattling cage covered with a sheet to dare people into the theater to witness the madness.

Madness is another apt description for the film. When the earnestly wooden Ashley C. Williams and Ashlynn Yennie, playing young Americans vacationing in Germany, get trapped in Dr. Heiter’s house, we know how this is going to end. Even if you were watching unaware of the forthcoming centipede, you would know immediately these girls will not meet a pleasant end. Heiter moves stiffly and speaks ominously. He’s like a subdued Klaus Kinski mixed with a gaunt Christopher Walken. At one point he bulges out his eyes and intones, “I don’t like humans.” I could tell.

Soon enough, Akihiro Kitamura shows up to be the third part of the centipede and the movie can get down to its repulsive business. Heiter stands before his captives and delivers his explanation for the procedure in graphic detail. (The overhead projector is a nice touch.) It’s funny in a giggly gross kind of way. Then we see squirm-inducing glimpses of the surgery. And then, well, I’ll let the braver among us see for themselves rather than allowing myself to relive (spoiling?) any further uncomfortableness.

This is the kind of movie that pushes limits of audience endurance just for the sake of pushing limits though, to my relief, it uses suggestion a bit more than showing. Every time I thought it had reached a new low, it sank further. To a certain kind of horror fan, that will be enough. It’s certainly an original concept – this isn’t yet another slasher picture – and it sometimes manipulates medical phobias quite effectively, even though it’s never scary or moody. It’s just preposterously disgusting.

If you really want to go see a movie about an unbelievably gross medical procedure, you’ll get what you want. I kind of have to admire it on some level. It’s one-of-a-kind. But at the same time, I have to wonder why we need even one of this kind. The film comes with the subtitle “The First Sequence,” carrying the threat of a sequel. Tom Six is working on that very film which he promises will combine 12 people into an even larger more unbearable grotesquerie. I think I’ll skip that one.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Billion Dollar Baby: THE SOCIAL NETWORK

Even if The Social Network weren’t a great film, it would still be worth seeing. David Fincher is one of our greatest working directors. He is consistently turning out interesting films with complex, mature themes and striking images that are digitally tweaked so subtly yet persistently that it builds a cohesive, meticulous visual mastery into every shot. He makes films that linger. When he makes a great film, he uses the lingering to astonishing effect. His last film was 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a film of wonderful beauty and emotion, but nothing more than merely very good. His last great film was 2007’s Zodiac, his masterpiece. His newest great film is The Social Network. It’s not quite as good as a masterpiece, but it’s awfully close.

The film is structured around two depositions for two simultaneous lawsuits filed against Mark Zuckerberg, the C.E.O. of Facebook, the website with 500 million users who share photos, links and all the latest news and gossip about their lives. (There’s a good chance that, like me, most people reading this are among them). One lawsuit is filed by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer, in a seamless digitally-enhanced dual role), two Harvard rowers who approached their classmate Zuckerberg with an idea to make a dating site exclusively for Harvard students. They think he could help them because Zuckerberg had recently gained notoriety on campus by crashing the university’s servers in mere hours when he created a website that allowed users to rank students by attractiveness. In the lawsuit, the Winklevoss twins allege that Zuckerberg stole their basic idea and used it, in 2003, to create Facebook. Despite good cause for their alarm they end up looking like the Salieri of the situation.

The other lawsuit is from Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), Zuckerberg’s best friend. He put up the initial money for Facebook, helped develop the idea and served as co-founder and C.F.O. only to be allegedly forced out of the company with no financial compensation. Needless to say, the two men aren’t friends anymore. All of the principal players were in their late-teens and early-twenties when this all began, when suddenly the world of Harvard became the business world. These were men who found (or lost, or missed) huge success at a very young age. It’s not hard to believe that they were unprepared for what happened.

Aaron Sorkin’s electric screenplay dances with clarity through the facts and exaggerations of the cases, shifting points of view, views of truth, and between depositions to flesh out the story. It’s impossible to know if we have the whole truth, or even if there could ever be such a thing in this case. But it’s clear that the film gets at emotional truths. As Mark Zuckerberg, Jesse Eisenberg gives a marvelous performance as a young, socially insecure college student, quick with computers and bad with girls. The opening scene features him getting dumped by his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) who finds herself fed up with the intensity of Zuckerberg’s rapid-fire conversational style that is often brusque and confrontational. “You think girls don’t like you because you’re nerdy,” she tells him, helpfully informing him that it’s actually his personality that’s off-putting.

The film builds a picture of Zuckerberg as something of a computer genius. He had a great concept, but almost stumbled into success. It caught on because of the simple, attractive concept. Facebook took the basic way people used the web – people like to email, comment, Google old friends – and created a virtual social environment. The sad irony is that it took someone already socially awkward alienating his friends and allies to start a service meant to bring people together.

This a film intensely focused on this small, contentious piece of recent times. It’s a riotous, detailed look at an Internet startup and an exploration of the rapidly shifting ramifications of online behavior, two topics we are forced to confront on a daily basis. As such, it feels vibrant, rich with the smell of fresh history. Sorkin’s script and Fincher’s absolutely swoon-worthy formalist perfection make this film feel instantly timeless as well. There’s a sweeping, time-capturing feeling to it, a sense of a small-scale epic that gathers up various strands of current thought and uses them to drive forward a narrative that takes on the force of a parable and the detail of a deposition. It’s the story of a man who got rich quick and the problems it caused him.

Though the details differ from case to case, sudden riches are also the story of many web companies. It’s not about problems exclusive to Facebook. The film has a cameo appearance by Bill Gates (Steve Sires), seen delivering a lecture to an audience of Harvard students. There’s also an integral supporting role for Sean Parker, the troubled founder of the equally troubled mp3-sharing site Napster, among other ventures. Justin Timberlake plays him in a great, slick whirlwind of a performance. As the Facebook begins to roll out to a few campuses across the country, he sees an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the next great thing.

Parker brings a flurry of business contacts and the possibility for attention of investors. He also brings unpredictability and garrulousness that begins to drive a wedge between the co-founders. Timberlake has a great scene opposite Eisenberg set in a nightclub with a thumping bass beat pounding away at the film’s soundtrack, nearly drowning out their conversation. He talks about the earnings potential of Facebook in such persuasive, and slightly sinister, terms that the scene feels almost like a seduction. The bass pounding, Timberlake is lit solely by the slowly shifting dark neon glow of the club, causing his face to deepen with an ominous, deep multihued smolder.

It’s fitting, though, that in the end, a film about the creation of Facebook is a film about relationship statuses. After all, that’s what Facebook was created for. The Social Network is about friends and acquaintances and what people decide to share with them. It’s about one young man with an idea. It’s about people who helped him, and people he treated badly. It’s even about genius and the age-old tension between brilliance and luck. Fincher crafts a film of sustained visual excellence at the highest level of filmmaking and, with Sorkin’s excellent writing and a cast that’s across-the-board excellent, tells a compelling procedural wrapped around a business thriller and a social satire. And within all that is a moving drama about the thin lines of respect between friends and colleagues. This is one of the year’s best films.
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