Friday, January 28, 2011


Director: Rodrigo Cortes
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Robert Paterson, Stephen Tobolowsky, Samantha Mathis, Ivana Mino
Running Time: 94 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Of the three single location thrillers released in 2010, Buried had the toughest task ahead of it. Unlike something like Frozen and even 127 Hours, literally every second of the action takes place in one claustrophobic setting. It's 94 minutes of a man buried alive in a coffin with a Zippo and a BlackBerry. And those 94 enthralling minutes go by in a flash. Compared to the those other two films, its screenplay cheats the least and as a result it extracts the most out of its tight concept. After viewing a trailer I thought gave away too much information, my biggest concern was that there would be an unnecessary focus on how the character got into the predicament rather the crisis itself, turning this into a criminal procedural that happens to take place underground. But that's not what we get at all. We know just as much as we need to and there's just the right mix of thriller and survival story, capped off with a cruel, nihilistic twist that's actually rather brave for this kind of movie. It's a compelling human drama, but more impressively stands as the type of intelligent, resourceful thriller that would have made Hitchcock proud.

American truck driver Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) wakes to find himself buried alive inside a wooden coffin in Iraq held for ransom after his convoy is attacked by terrorists. A cell phone with a dying battery and a weak signal is his only connection to the outside world and it's through his conversations with state officials and government buerauocrats we learn more details of Paul's history and what's needed to rescue him. With sand leaking through the coffin and a quickly depleting oxygen supply and an unexpected reptilian visitor it's a race against time made that much more frustrating by the voices on the other end of the phone (the most memorable provided by character actor Stephen Tobolowsky). They all have agendas of some sort, which may not necessarily involve locating and rescuing him. No flashbacks or dream sequences here. Director Rodrigo Cortes to find other more inventive ways to tell the story through lighting, camera angles and sound effects, creating an almost unbearably suspenseful atmosphere and making it feel much more cinematic than the restrictive nature of the setting should allow. He brings us right into that coffin with Paul as we root for his survival and feel the frustration at his inability to control his own fate.

Any doubts as to Ryan Reynolds' dramatic abilities are put to rest here as he passes what would be the ultimate test for any actor. Shot in extreme close-up the entire time there's no escaping the fact that this project's success is directly proportional to the believability of his performance. With no one else to bounce off of he must alone convey the emotional turmoil of this desperate, resourceful victim clinging to anything he can to survive. It's probably the best work of his career and it's easy to imagine a lesser actor lacking the ability to hold our interest or being able to carry this challenging premise past the finish line without it running out of steam. At one point there's a conversation Paul has with someone on the other line that's frighteningly realistic in its hopelessness, hitting almost too close to home. Watching, you'll ask yourself, "It all comes down to THIS?" But it does. Without giving too much away, it's an unexpectedly bold and ambitious statement from a film this small and Reynolds does a great job selling it.

Right from its opening, drenched in total darkness for nearly a minute, followed by an effective Saul Bass-inspired credits sequence, it's clear Cortes knew how huge an undertaking this was and came to play. With all the phone calls this could have gotten easily gotten repetitive with the questions surrounding Paul's predicament sucking the experience dry, but ironically not since Phone Booth has a film made as creative a use of a single location to create suspense. It's proof that sometimes the simplest plots can be the best as long as they're visually arresting and focused and Reynold's grueling performance deserves much of the credit for holding it all together. Buried won't be confused for a life-affirming survival tale with exotic locales, but as a thriller it surpasses all expectations of its very promising premise.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Oscar Nominations Announced (The Good and The Bad)

The 83rd annual Academy Award nominations were announced this morning. Here's the Full List along with the video below. I'll just get right to it with what I felt were the major snubs and surprises, along with some thoughts.


-The Social Network. If we're looking at the glass half-full it got 8 nominations, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Adapted Screenplay and Original Score. Thank you Academy.

-David Fincher. Hopefully soon to be known as "The Oscar-Winning Director of The Game, Fight Club, Zodiac and The Social Network."

- Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer shut out. Sorry, but neither were deserving and whatever  attention they got was due to the reputations of their filmmakers. Especially The Ghost Writer. 

-John Hawkes nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Winter's Bone. I hesitate filing this under "good" considering who he likely pushed out to get this slot (see below). That said, Hawkes deserves this.

-Jeff Bridges Best Actor for True Grit. After winning last year, now joins Tom Hanks, Robert DeNiro and others in the back-to-back nomination club. 

-Michelle Williams officially becomes the first Dawson's Creek actress nominated for an Academy Award in a lead category (for Blue Valentine). She was nominated in Supporting for Brokeback Mountain in '05 but now there's no getting around that I've lost that bet I made against her in 1998. Can't testify to the quality of this performance yet but she's clearly put in a lot of hard work to arrive at this point.

-Both 127 Hours and Toy Story 3 nominated for Best Picture. Expected, but I can deal with it.


-The King's Speech leads the pack with 12 nominations, which is unfortunately enough to secure the Oscar telecast record low ratings, regardless of how likable the hosts are are. I haven't seen the film yet (and honestly have little desire to) so I can only express disappointment at the fact that the The Social Network is trailing.  

-Christopher Nolan snubbed again for Best Director. Someone must really hate this guy. It's a disgraceful omission for sure, but honestly, I've seen worse. At least Inception was nominated for Best Picture. It's kind of ironic the director who's film inadvertently caused this 10 Best Picture nominee thing is now being shut out of the over-crowded Director category because of it.

-Andrew Garfield snubbed for Best Supporting Actor for The Social Network. Now THIS is worse. Forget about Nolan. I have my theories as to how this could have happened, but wow, what an injustice. Easily one of the top five performances of the year in ANY category.

- ONLY 8 nominations for The Social Network. Less than Benjamin Button? Something's wrong there. And only a single acting nomination (for Jesse Eisenberg). In addition to Garfield, a much bigger push should have been made to get Armie Hammer nominated as well.

-The Kids Are All Right nominated for Best Picture. Totally saw it coming, but that doesn't make it any less wrong or ridiculous.

-The Town doesn't get in for Best Picture. Not deserving at all, but I'd trade it in a heartbeat for The Kid Are All Right or Winter's Bone.

-Winter's Bone nominated for Best Picture. I liked it (barely) and its two acting nominations are well deserved, but this is just another case of the Academy thumbing their noses at casual moviegoers by embracing an obscure indie picture that's good, not great, but covers an important social issue (see The Hurt Locker and Precious last year).

-Some feel Ryan Gosling should have joined co-star Michelle Williams but if we're being completely realistic it's a shock a movie that small and under-seen got an acting nod at all. He'll have plenty more chances.

-No TRON: Legacy for visual effects or Daft Punk's original score. I don't even know what to say there.

-No Mila Kunis for Black Swan. It's funny how many Portman fans contend she did everything by herself when she seemed to have A LOT of help from everyone involved.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Piranha (2010)

Director: Alexandre Aja
Starring: Elisabeth Shue, Steven R. McQueen, Jessica Szohr, Adam Scott, Jerry O'Connell, Ving Rhames, , Christopher Lloyd, Richard Dreyfuss, Kelly Brook
Running Time: 90 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Despite seeing Piranha 3D in 2D, I'd say just the combination of Elisabeth Shue, Christopher Lloyd and killer piranhas on Spring Break still guaranteed at least a reasonably good time regardless of the format. And that's pretty much what we get. Director Alexandre Aja's remake of Roger Corman's 1978 cult classic Piranha is a throwback to the the 70's and 80's when low-budget exploitation horror movies were actually allowed to have a sense of humor and revel in their own awfulness, knowing how to have fun and let the audience in on it too. Any complaints this movie was shoddily converted to 3D post-production and the technology being misused for bargain basement horror-comedy would be missing the point. This is exactly the kind of flick that would be shown in crappy 3D at the dingiest drive-in in summer 1985 so it almost seems appropriate it be released in that same format today. While watching I could imagine well enough how those 3D scenes would have played (even if in some cases I didn't want to), but as it stands, this is fun, mindless entertainment that accomplishes what's needed.

It's Spring Break at Lake Victoria, which means 18-year-old Jake (Steven R. McQueen) is once again asked by his mom, Sheriff Julie Forrester (Elisabeth Shue), to watch his little sister and brother while everyone else has the time of their lives, including longtime crush, Kelly (Jessica Szohr). But the arrival of adult filmmaker Derrick Jones (Jerry O' Connell) provides him the opportunity to hit the seas with Kelly while serving as "location scout" for Derrick's latest Wild Wild Girls video starring actresses Danni (Kelly Brook) and Crystal (Riley Steele), and any other scantily clad and/or topless women  available. Meanwhile Julie and Deputy Fallon (Ving Rhames), investigate a mysterious death linked to a school of mutant piranhas that emerged from the floor of the lake. With help from seismologist Novak (Adam Scott) and the town's eccentric marine biologist (Christopher Lloyd), they have to contain the piranhas before they feast on all the partying co-eds.

The 3D release was clearly a profit-driven decision (as it always is), but Piranha seemed to come under fire from many who saw it theatrically for its poor post-production conversion to the format. It could be a blessing in disguise that I skipped it in theaters and can only comment on the decision to do that, rather than its results. This is a cheesy, low-budget schlock fest so the laughable special effects would have probably looked even worse and less clear on the big screen. But again, that's beside the point because you see a movie like this for a good time and it definitely delivers in that respect. It takes a little while to get going but once it does it really gets going, culminating in a relentlessly brutal 15-minute sequence of graphic, blood-soaked mayhem when the hungry piranhas finally strike on unsuspecting tourists. This is a departure from most recent horror outings in that it actually has a sense of humor that reminded me more of the 80's Friday the 13th entries. Those were awful but loads of fun, as is this. The lost art of excessively pointless nudity is resurrected by Aja, who stages a display of girl-on-girl underwater action set to classical music, maybe in an attempt to make up for the projectile vomiting and flying limbs.

The most thrilling part of the movie just might be the inspired casting, most specifically the involvement of certain actors who still would have fit right in if this came out a couple of decades earlier. It's no surprise that Elisabeth Shue seems completely in her element, tough and believable, as the kick-ass sheriff and overprotective mom. Just seeing the criminally underrated Shue given the opportunity to carry something like this again made the movie for me and she doesn't disappoint, stepping up to deliver in a role much more physically demanding than you'd imagine. The only time the movie seems to suffer slightly is when she isn't on screen, making me wonder if it would have been a better idea to focus primarily on her rather than everyone else, who are fine, just not nearly as interesting. As Jake, Steven R. McQueen (yep, it's his grandson) starts the film as the traditional wimpy kid who evolves into a hero through the experience and sells it well while Gossip Girl's Jessica Szohr becomes the third cast member of that series to have a successful big screen showing in 2010, naturally charismatic and likable as the perfect girl-next-door. Somehow Jerry O' Connell finds a way to actually overplay a sleazy porn producer who's not so loosely based on Girls Gone Wild creator Joe Francis. That even he would probably tell O'Connell to tone it down should give you an idea just how over-the-top he goes but I can't say it doesn't fit the material, as grating as he sometimes is. We know that character will eventually get his, and when he does, that punishment ends up disgustingly fitting the crime. And if that's not enough we get a Back To The Future reunion of sorts as Christopher Lloyd joins Shue, essentially plays a variation on Doc Brown while Richard Dreyfuss briefly reprises his legendary Jaws character in a memorable cameo. Eli Roth also appears as the judge of a wet t-Shirt contest and you could probably guess what happens to him.

You probably have to go back to 1997's ridiculously entertaining Anaconda to find a horror movie as fully aware of just how dumb and cheesy it is, so that alone is worth high praise. It's one of those rare guilty pleasures you don't feel the slightest bit guilty about since the phrase "It Is What It Is" couldn't possibly be more applicable than here. The piranhas do need to be bigger and more menacing, so it's a relief when the film implies its forthcoming sequel, cleverly titled Piranha 3DD, will do something about that and has the potential to be even crazier than this. Having not seen the 1978 original, I can't say how this stacks up against it, but we desperately need more fun, campy garbage like this as opposed to the dreary horror films we're currently getting. Even without the supposed benefit of 3D and viewed at home in the dead of winter, Piranha's dedication in going back to basics proves to be a welcome relief.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Town

Director: Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Jon Hamm, Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner, Blake Lively, Titus Welliver, Pete Postlethwaite, Chris Cooper
Running Time: 125 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★)

There are two ways of assessing Ben Affleck's The Town. First, as a gripping heist thriller and slice-of-life character study that impressively rises above the usual conventions of its genre with top-notch performances and tension-filled action sequences. Less favorably, it could be viewed as a successor of sorts to Affleck's previous directorial outing, Gone Baby Gone, giving you a momentary high as it retraces similar steps in a story at risk of being forgotten 15 minutes after it ends. Both of those interpretations would be correct, which isn't such a bad thing when you consider how difficult it is to effectively execute this kind of film. That Affleck has brought this script to life so vividly makes it a little disappointing that he's treading such familiar territory, but he does his best to make it seem fresh and worthwhile. In borrowing elements from the likes of The Godfather, Heat, The Dark Knight and The Departed this is a case where the parts are greater than their sum but many of those parts are impressive. The most interesting of which are the performances, which give us an opportunity to see what some previously untested actors are capable of in the setting of a mainstream crime thriller. And whatever anyone says about Affleck as filmmaker, you can't claim he doesn't know how to stage an exciting shoot-out. 

Affleck plays Doug McCray, a member of a bank-robbing family in the Charlestown borough of Boston, whose team consists of four-life long buddies, the most unpredictable of which is Jem (Jeremy Renner), a wild hothead prone to sudden outbursts of violence. Usually meticulous in covering all their tracks when the crew hit a Cambridge bank things don't go exactly as planned when Jem's sloppiness forces them to take bank manager Claire (Rebecca Hall) hostage. They let her go unharmed, but with a cryptic warning not to talk to the Feds. After discovering she lives in the neighborhood, Doug manufactures an accidental meeting at the laundromat, during which he realizes he might actually be attracted to her and have feelings that go beyond simply containing a witness. She comes to represent the normal life he couldn't have and his desire to escape a legacy of crime passed down from his incarcerated father (Chris Cooper), and that's being overseen by aging local crime boss Fergie (Pete Postelthwaite). But with determined FBI special agent Adam Frawley (Mad Men's Jon Hamm) closing in quickly and intent on using Claire to get his convictions, his days might be numbered.

The movie is pure crime formula with the "Just When I Thought I was Out...They Pull Me Back In" dynamic at its center and the relationship with Claire and Doug powering the emotional engine of the story. Will she discover the truth? If she does, will she protect him? Will she turn him in? Can he change? Of course we know the answers to all of these questions and the scenario stretches credibility in numerous ways, but what lifts the material above that are the characterizations and performances, with Jeremy Renner leading the pack. Affleck is more than suitable in a lead part that plays to his strengths so it's a credit to how much support he gets that's he's upstaged by nearly everyone else. Based on descriptions you could be fooled into thinking Renner's role isn't a huge departure from the similarly unlikable, quick-tempered soldier he portrayed in his Oscar nominated performance in The Hurt Locker, but he makes it different. Considerably heavier and sporting a convincing Boston accent he makes Jem this remorseless thug with bulldog-like tenacity who kills and bullies not necessarily for fun, but because he's been doing it his whole life and seems to know literally nothing else. He's scariest in the final act when you look in his eyes and see he hasn't a clue he's taken an insane plan with no chance of working this far, stupidly marching way past the finish line out of sheer will and determination. Renner subtly suggests an underlying loyalty to Jem that's almost admirable, eliciting sympathy for a character too stubbornly blind to reality to realize the destruction he's causing. The Hurt Locker wasn't a fluke. He can act, owning a supporting role that shouldn't have amounted to nearly as much as it does.

An actress who deserves to be a bigger name, Rebecca Hall, is equally impressive in her most visible role yet, charting in the quietest, non-showiest way possible Claire's transition from nervous wreck to someone who has to seriously grapple with her feelings for this career crook. She's so invisibly good, in certain scenes conveying what seems like all seven stages of grief on her face without saying a word, it wouldn't surprise me if some walk away fooled into thinking she didn't do anything at all when in fact she does everything. Partially responsible for that could be the unrecognizable Blake Lively, who in the shock of all shocks acts her brains out as Jem's strung-out sister Krista, whose baby Doug could be the father of. Unlike Hall, it's a necessarily underwritten role but she fills in all the blanks of this character's history, giving us huge glimpses into what she could have been about in just a couple of piercing scenes. Both heartbreaking and repulsive, she's leagues removed from her lightweight TV persona and it's unlikely anyone guessed she had a performance like this in her. The film also marks one of the final appearances for the late Pete Postelthwaite and has a single scene that's absolutely terrifying because of how unusually low-key he plays it, an approach exemplifying why he was one of our most respected character actors.

The crime procedural portion of the film is ordinary with Hamm's character and a local sell-out cop (played by Lost's Titus Welliver) seemingly clueless and without any leads one second, then on a furious manhunt the next. While you'd figure a big screen teaming of Don Draper and The Man In Black would yield better returns and both are underused to an extent (Welliver moreso), there is a fresh spin to Hamm's special agent in that he's a complete jerk who's impossible to root for. As unlikable as Doug and his crew are, he's a lot worse, manipulating witnesses and using childish bullying tactics to get his way. Whenever he doesn't get his way he looks like he's halfway to a nervous breakdown or ready to cry and throw a fit. Hamm plays Frawley so remorselessly that he makes you want to side with the crooks and injects much needed energy into the film as it spirals toward its Fenway Park finale. That's the best aspect of the script, the ambiguity between good and bad, where the characters actions are colored in shades of gray. The cops don't wear the white hats and the criminals don't wear the black. As much as every development follows strict conventions of the crime genre, it deviates here and the movie's better for it. Pacing is also a strength as it's the rare crime thriller that seems to gain momentum as it heads into the latter stages and the two big action sequences that bookend the film impress because they're filmed in such a way that you can actually tell what's happening. We know the result, but because these scenes are so relentlessly suspenseful Affleck has us doubting their outcomes at times, or at least more interested in seeing how he'll arrive there. 

I get that Ben Affleck wants to make projects he's passionate about and this is the stuff he knows and the area he grew up in, but despite conveying a great feel for the Boston setting and its characters, the film does seem strangely impersonal in a way because of the familiarity of the material (which is adapted from Chuck Hogan's novel Prince of Thieves but may as well be based on any crime novel). He brings the scenario to life on screen as well as possible (if not better) and does a good job making you feel as if you're watching something more significant than what's actually present. Everyone can agree by now that Affleck has more than completely made amends for some of his questionable career decisions since graduating to the "A-List" earlier in the decade and has clearly dedicated himself to doing creatively fulfilling work both in front and behind the camera. Now I'd just like to see him tackle some different, fresher material.  Even aside from the performances, it's easy to see why The Town gotten the praise it has because anyone who's a huge fan of the crime genre will love it and those who aren't will have very little to complain about.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Knight and Day

Director: James Mangold
Starring: Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Peter Sarsgaard, Maggie Grace, Paul Dano, Marc Blucas, Viola Davis
Running Time: 110 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ (out of ★★★★)

Here's something new. The next time you're making a movie and are unsure what to do next just drug one of the main characters and skip to the next scene. It's a great way of avoiding the hassle of plot exposition and even saves you the trouble of writing dialogue. Plus, it's really funny seeing that look on their face when they first realized they've been drugged and then again when they wake up and have no idea where they are. The Tom Cruise-Cameron Diaz action comedy, Knight and Day uses this as an "out" a few times and it's emblematic of just how lazy and careless the filmmakers are about the story, or what there is of one. Sure it involves something about a stolen battery but it's really about producers sitting in a conference room and deciding the re-teaming of Cruise and Diaz could result in big bucks. They're thrown into a movie together because they can be and while neither should plan on winning a celebrity popularity contest any time soon, even they're biggest dissenters would agree that as actors both deserve far better. But as disappointed as I am in them for signing on to this mess, I'm maybe even more disappointed in Quentin Tarantino for naming it one of his 20 Favorite Movies of 2010. He, of all people, should know the true value of movies so bad they're good. This is just bad.

To say Knight and Day starts off promisingly is probably overstating it, but at least the first half hour isn't a total disaster. On her way to her sister's wedding in Boston, June Havens (Diaz) encounters the seemingly normal and friendly Roy Miller (Cruise) in the terminal and then on the flight. In a development that's revealed fairly when he kills everyone on board and attempts to land the plane in a cornfield, Roy is an FBI agent who may or may not have gone rogue. He's now being hunted by  Fitzgerald (Peter Sarsgaard) another untrustworthy agent who suspects Roy has plans to sell genius creator Simon Feck's perpetual energy battery on the black market. That Simon is played kind of hilariously by Paul Dano is one of the few pure joys to come out of the film. June, now an accomplice of sorts, finds herself in a dilemma, torn between trusting a potentially dangerous man not playing with a full deck, but with whom she strangely feels secure, or the agency that could be framing him. Feeling betrayed and jilted, June drives Roy off a bridge, disfiguring his face to the point where he has to wear a scary latex mask, eventually gaining his revenge by smothering her with a pillow while listening to the Monkees. Sorry, wrong movie. What we get instead is a series of nonsensical, CGI-laden action scenes hastily strung together, attempting to hide the fact that we arrive at the conclusion of the film about an hour before the story and its characters do.

There's no doubt everyone will blame the always underrated Cruise for this debacle when he's actually the best thing in it, and the few times the movie clicks is because of his charismatic performance.  That's especially evident in the early scenes where he displays priceless comic timing in spoofing his own public persona as a man unhinged and off his rocker. This was a great idea and if the script had fully capitalized on that instead of heading down a road we've traveled a thousand times before in nearly every other action movie, this could have been interesting. Still, Cruise alternates between comedy and action with ease, faring far better than Diaz, who's really just playing another tired variation on the one-dimensional ditsy blond character we thought she ditched years ago. Despite almost being a decade younger than her co-star, she's the one who seems strangely miscast. I'm probably treading sensitive ground here due to Hollywood's well known age bias against actresses, but given where Diaz's career is currently at, this role seems off. That's actually a compliment because June is written as stupid and helpless, better suited to a younger, fresh-faced ingenue who could more believably convey the immaturity of the character as she goes through this crazy ordeal and gets taken under his wing. It's sad to state this is one of those rare cases where casting way younger would have actually worked better for the nature of the part and serviced the story. Besides, doesn't Cruise have it written into his contract by now that there be at least a twenty-five to thirty year age difference between him and his female co-stars?

There's a long stretch (or at least it feels long) late in the picture when Cruise's character disappears and Diaz has to carry much of the final act on her own, causing the already tired material to suffer even more. Just as they had great chemistry (of a very different variety) in Vanilla Sky, they do again here, only they're not given anything to work with. And just because Cruise can still play this role well doesn't necessarily mean it's a good idea for him to. He's has always done his best work when harshly playing against his action hero persona (think Collateral and Magnolia) so it's disappointing to see him revert back to it with every other release because we know he's capable of much more. Or if he insists on doing that, he should exercise his considerable clout to at least make sure the material's better than this.

That I find the careers of its stars more interesting than anything in the actual film says all there is about how forgettable the whole experience was. While the two main characters aren't particularly likable and the plot is vaguely sketched, at least the tone is consistent and the action scenes are excitingly directed by James Mangold. There could have been something here, especially considering the talent involved.  How much Mangold actually thought he could extract from this script or why he took the project, aside from a hefty payday and the chance to work with two superstars, is anyone's guess. Maybe he just had to get a bad summer action movie out of his system. He's entitled. But now that he did, that means he, Cruise and Diaz can move on to something more worthwhile. And I'll just re-watch Vanilla Sky.

Monday, January 10, 2011


Directors: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Starring: Nev Schulman, Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman, Angela Wesselman
Running Time: 86 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Released behind one of the most mysteriously gripping trailers in years, Catfish, the second social networking film of 2010 is the one that's actually ABOUT Facebook. After viewing that trailer, I've spent the past couple of months trying hard not to read anything about the controversial documentary or talk to anyone who's seen it, worried the "big twist" would be spoiled for me, as has happened countless times in the past. I was even more conscious here knowing that if it could follow through on the promise of those two minutes, the possibilities were limitless. But I was asking the wrong questions because the twist (if you could even call it that) isn't about the "What," but the "How." Twenty minutes in it's pretty clear where this is going so you might be wondering what the big deal is, even if doing that would be missing the point.  The movie's misleading advertising campaign which sells it as a Hitchcockian suspense thriller complete with the tagline, "Don't Tell Anyone What It Is," is at least partially responsible for that reaction. But now after viewing it I see just how deliberate that strategy was in getting the audience to share in the mystery surrounding its premise and place them in the shoes of the protagonist. Or more accurately, it was probably just to get them into the theater. Yet I'd still advise anyone to read as little about it as possible and go in completely fresh, not because of a giant secret needs protecting, but because anyone talking about it will undoubtedly describe the unfolding events as being less than what they are. These events aren't unusual, but the film's smart enough to deeply examine what they mean.

In late 2007, when New York City-based filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost began filming the life of Ariel's 24-year-old photographer brother Nev, they had no idea what they'd be in for. After Nev receives a painting of one of his photographs from Abby Pierce, an eight-year old prodigy artist from Michigan, they strike up an online correspondence. He becomes Facebook friends with her entire family, which includes mother Angela, dad Vincent, and older half-sister Megan Faccio, an 18-year-old songwriter.  Over the course of almost a year, Nev's online connection with the family escalates and his long-distance relationship with the single and attractive Megan heads into romantic territory with late-night phone calls, texting, and internet chats. Soon, it becomes clear through a series of clues that this family isn't at all what they appear to be. On their way back from a work-related trip to Vale, the three decide to stop in Michigan to pay the Pierces a surprise visit and get to the bottom of the mystery. 
From the very beginning, it helps that Nev doesn't come across as a fool.  Naive and hopeful maybe, but definitely not a fool. He knows what he's getting into, seems almost fully aware of the risks, yet falls into the trap anyway, as do his brother and Henry who realize that the further they go with their investigation the more compelling footage they'll get, no matter who gets hurt in the process. In this sense what they're doing is actually very dangerous and there's always this unsettling, uncomfortable feeling hovering over their actions that doesn't subside throughout the picture, even after they discover the truth. Even though this isn't a thriller when these three guys pull up to Megan's farmhouse in the middle of the night in rural Michigan you could have fooled me. I was terrified in way I wasn't while watching "found footage" scenes in movies like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. With pulse pounding, all the potential scenarios of what they'd find or what would happen if they got inside were racing through my mind at a mile a minute. The film lets us share with Nev his nervous anticipation and dread of what will occur when he discovers the truth, and when he does, we share in his disappointment, knowing it wasn't what we expected either.

It's only after the reveal that the film reaps the full benefits of its set-up, taking a surprisingly empathetic turn. I didn't expect it to be as sad as it was, then as strangely uplifting. Just as Nev expects more, so will the audience, likely not realizing what they got.  You come away thinking that if Nev had gotten exactly what he wanted from this entire experience and his relationship with Megan, it wouldn't have been nearly as important than what does actually come from it. Everyone wonders what it would be like to live in a different part of the country with a different job, different friends, different hobbies and even envision the perfect person to share it with. The biggest danger in social networking has always been the creation of a substitute world for those who can't cope with the real one. The internet is the great equalizer because we reveal only what we choose to reveal about ourselves, to the point where the line between deception and reality is blurred, buried behind half-truths and sometimes even outright lies.

Those claiming this whole thing is a hoax had better hope they're right because if it's real that means the boundaries of what we thought a documentary is capable of have been torn down. It would mean that direction, editing, music, and graphics, actual footage were manipulated into a dramatically thrilling narrative that contains plot twists and scenes as thrilling and as funny as any fictional film. If it's fake, then it's brilliant on an entirely different level as a work of meta-fiction, containing a supporting performance from an actress that has to be seen to be believed. A win either way. Doubters claim the pieces fit too perfectly into place (including it's mysterious title) but the likeliest scenario is that these guys set out to make a legitimate documentary, realized what they stumbled on, then wisely saw it through to its end.

This is the movie Mark Zuckerberg should fear because it's an attack on the creation, not its creator, exposing how easy it is for the events here to happen and the lack of protection in place to prevent it. Like The Social Network, this has also come under fire for its factual accuracy, but in neither case is it at all relevant to the final product put on screen. That this was released the same year as that colossal achievement and still proves to be a worthy conversation-stirring companion piece is impressive in itself. The jury might still be out on the value of social networking for us but there's little doubt as to the compelling material it's provided for feature films in the past year. It'll be interesting to see how Catfish holds up on repeated viewings because while it falls prey to promising something no movie could have delivered on, it's thematically more successful than could have possibly been anticipated.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Easy A

Director: Will Gluck
Starring: Emma Stone, Penn Badgley, Amanda Bynes, Dan Byrd, Thomas Haden Church, Patricia Clarkson, Lisa Kudrow, Malcolm McDowell, Aly Michalka, Stanley Tucci
Running Time: 93 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

There's one glaring flaw in the central premise of Easy A, the latest teen comedy to adapt a literary classic into a modern high school setting, and I'm kind of surprised no one's noticed it. Or maybe they have, but like me, don't care because it gets too many other little things right to dwell on it. Or maybe it just isn't a flaw at all. Maybe we're supposed to believe a high school girl losing her virginity is still big news. A huge scandal in fact. Stop the presses. Yet it's also the movie's biggest asset, because we do believe that in this optimistic world this throwback movie creates for itself full of generally good, well-meaning people, that it could be. We also buy that Emma Stone's character could actually be in high school, be that virgin girl, and no guy would want to date her. Not easy at all, but she pulls it off and the further the story moves away from that initial premise the closer it gets to exploring its full consequences and becoming a rare standout among teen coming-of-age comedies. But the big story here is that in genre where stupidity usually reigns supreme, none of the characters come across as stupid, especially its protagonist, who Stone plays in a star-making performance as the most infectiously likable high school heroine not named Buffy or Veronica.

Narrating her own story via web cam, California high schooler Olive Penderghast (Stone) runs down the series of events that led to her being falsely labeled as the school slut, beginning with her lie to best friend Rhie (Aly Michalka) about losing her virginity to a guy from the local community college. Her made-up story is overheard in the bathroom by the school's religious zealot Marianne (Amanda Bynes) who spreads the rumor like wildfire, making Olive infamous, if not exactly popular, for the first time in her high school career. Thrilled she has any reputation at all, she embraces her perceived exploits with a revealing new wardrobe frequently stitched with a scarlet letter "A" and a cocky attitude to match. But perception and reality blur when her gay friend Brandon (Dan Byrd) needs help in appearing to be straight, getting it in a very physical and public (albeit fake) way. By this time what's true and what's not becomes almost irrelevant as Olive is now basically known as a hooker to her peers and must deal with the unhappy consequences of that notoriety.

Emma Stone's Golden Globe nominated performance kind of sneaks up on you because it isn't apparent right away just how much she has to do and how difficult it is to make it look this natural. It turns out her brief but memorable supporting turns in comedies like Superbad, The House Bunny and Zombieland didn't even give an inkling as to her full capabilities as an actress. Asked for the first time to carry a picture she gives a multi-faceted performance I'd put up against Natalie Portman's in Black Swan in any awards race any day of the week so it's a relief that audiences and critics have duly taken notice of how strong it is despite its placement in the often disparaged teen comedy genre. While Bert V. Royal's clever script does admittedly give her some depth to work with, she has to supply much of it, bringing an insanely likable mixture of wittiness, goofiness, insecurity and confidence to Olive. In a pivotal scene when a date goes bad she has to go through an entire movie's worth of emotions in just a few minutes and nails it. The tone of the film is sometimes all over the map but she's right there to cover for it every step of the way, elevating the kind of material that has made some of the biggest, most talented actresses look like fools even when performed well. To say Stone has officially arrived as a top tier star doesn't even begin to cover it, so just as long as she doesn't do anything crazy like  sign up for a 3D Spider-Man reboot, her acting future looks bright.

Despite the film having a plot hole big enough to drive a truck through with the school's overblown reaction to Olive's "scandal," the screenplay's smart, getting so many smaller details right that nearly every other film in this genre routinely botch. A few of the supporting characters are so likable and easygoing at times that they do feel almost too cool or too cleverly written to be believable as actual people but that's okay, mainly because they're not made to look like morons and it's such a rare event when periphery players in a teen comedy are memorable in any way at all. With an all-star line-up of actors, Easy A accomplishes the feat of juggling many supporting characters and sub-plots that never seem like filler. It's rare seeing a teen movie (or ANY movie) with parents (Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci) who are actually clued into reality and supportive of their daughter, but the slice-of-life scenes with Olive and her family are written and performed so well you won't just wish there were more of them, you'll wish you could move in with them. And as someone who references The Bucket List entirely too much in everyday conversation, Tucci's delivery of a joke at that film's expense was greatly appreciated as the comic zinger of the year for me.

The rest of the cast, including Thomas Hayden Church as Olive's English teacher Mr. Griffith (who teaches- you guessed it- Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"), Lisa Kudrow as his guidance counselor wife and Malcolm McDowell as a cranky principal all contribute a lot and are fleshed out really well considering the amount of screen time they're given. You know a film's in good shape when even the stereotypical "gay best friend" isn't just comic relief and is developed enough that we actually kind of care what happens to him. Unfortunately, the same can't be said of Amanda Bynes' annoyingly screechy Marianne, a walking stereotype if there ever was one. In a tired religious fanaticism sub-plot that seems directly ripped from Saved! Bynes mugs and overacts as if she were still in Hairspray. That nonsense starkly contrasts the romantic subplot with Olive and her would-be boyfriend, "Woodchuck" Todd (Penn Badgley), so unobtrusively interwoven into the plot it almost feels invisible. Because both actors are such naturals on screen and the issue isn't shoved down our throats, when they do eventually get together it feels earned.

At one point Olive makes reference to the fact that she wishes her life were a John Hughes movie and we get a montage of '80's films like Say Anything, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Sixteen Candles and Can't Buy Me Love. The most frustrating aspect of Easy A is that in paying tribute to the spirit of those movies it has so many small moments where you think it can break free and match their quality, but it's always just a step behind Stone's comic brilliance. It's also drawn comparisons to Mean Girls but unlike many, I don't think the film has anything substantial or particularly subversive to say about fame or scandal since there isn't much of either present on a big enough scale. But even as the American Pie-type sex humor doesn't always mesh with the sweeter, more innocent tone, it's better at balancing them than could reasonably be expected. Honest and sincere in its intentions to a fault, here's a teen comedy so optimistic and lacking in cynicism that it not only acknowledges the hopeful possibility that high schoolers would be shocked that a classmate is having sex, but also thinks highly enough of them to believe they've actually seen a John Hughes movie.

Monday, January 3, 2011

TRON: Legacy


Director: Joseph Kosinski
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner, Michael Sheen, James Frain
Running Time: 127 min.
Rating: PG

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Now this makes sense. Here's a film released in 3D, and a sequel no less, where an argument can actually be made that it warrants that presentation based on its STORY. TRON: Legacy doesn't feel like a cash grab so commend Disney for taking the financial risk of sequeling a massive flop released nearly thirty years ago to grant diehard fans their wish. They can even be forgiven for pulling the original from DVD shelves because they were secretly worried the uninitiated would see it, realize how bad it was, then stay away from this. Silly thinking when you consider the most interested would be those who saw and loved the original, but not so silly when that cult is probably still too small to make a dent at the box office. Not that the 1982 film is bad, just that it's a draggy mess, and the excitement of watching it always far eclipsed the final product on screen, which now seems more painfully dated than ever. Yet millions (including myself) justifiably love it anyway, having to stand by as it's pummeled by critics, waiting patiently for the sequel we didn't think could ever come, but knew with all the advances in computer generated technology, would make perfect sense.

Now that the follow-up to TRON is here and everything we imagined it could be and more, it's kind of mind-boggling (not to mention hilariously ironic) that naysayers are still looking for things to complain about. Most of the unfair complaints leveled against TRON: Legacy have been at its screenplay which makes me wonder what they thought of the original's script, mostly an incoherent mess from middle to end. This story is an improvement in every way, much sharper focused with a clear-end point destination for its characters whose fates we're completely invested in. First time director Joseph Kosinski takes the forward looking ideas from 1982 to the level we always wanted while still managing to remain remarkably faithful to the original in surprising ways. Worth every year of the wait, he's made a sequel superior in every way to its predecessor and a film that comes as close as possible to matching the actual experience of watching it. 

It's almost surreal seeing Flynn's Arcade again, only this time in a decrepit state, abandoned and unoccupied since its iconic appearance in the last film. Its owner, software engineer and ENCOM CEO Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) has been trapped inside his own creation, The Grid, for the past 20 years. A mysterious pager message originating from the arcade grabs the attention of his 27 year-old son Sam (Garrett Hedlund), who's been in the dark about his father's whereabouts since his disappearance in 1989. As primary shareholder he's effectively pretended to take little interest in what's now become of the company. At the urging of his dad's best friend and colleague, Alan Bradley (a returning Bruce Boxleitner) he investigates the page and is sucked into the machine himself, coming face-to-face with Clu, a dangerous digital copy of his father who's seized control of The Grid, forcing the real Kevin Flynn into hiding. With his help and that of digital apprentice Quorra (Oilvia Wilde), Sam must find a way to defeat Clu and make sure they make it through the portal back to the real world before it closes for good.

Let's just get it out of the way now: The digital rendering of Jeff Bridges in the opening scene isn't anywhere near where it needs to be. It's been pointed out already by everyone but for me it's the only aspect of a technically superb production that sticks out as a big flaw. The CGI Clu that appears later is fine since he's supposed to be a digital creation within a video game, but for a flashback with young Sam in 1989 it sticks out like a sore thumb because he's sharing the screen with a real actor. With dead eyes and minimal texture and expression, Bridges looks like a cross between Benjamin Button, a character from The Polar Express or something out of a Playstation 2 game. Given how advanced movie technology has become it's almost kind of a relief to discover that we still have one problem that needs fixing. I don't know what could have been done instead since a young Bridges had to be shown somehow in these flashbacks but they're clearly not at the point where this approach can be pulled off yet.

The father/son dynamic absolutely had to hit its mark for the narrative to succeed since its the only human interest entry point for those unfamiliar with the original film. Aside from the technical issues with that particular scene, the film perfectly reinforces this aspect throughout, and it'll resonate even more for those who remembers the original, putting them roughly in the same age bracket as the protagonist. They'll also better appreciate the cool touches like the TRON and The Black Hole posters in Sam's room and little details Kosinski retained in the light cycle and disc battles in The Grid, helping make this as much a tribute to the childhood memories of those who grew up with the first film as this past year's atrocious Karate Kid remake was an attempt to butcher them. 

Calling TRON: Legacy a feast for the senses would be an understatement. The cinematography, art and set design, visual effects, costumes, sound and everything going right down the line from a technical and aesthetic standpoint is unmatchable. As hinted at from from the trailer, the trippy look of this film is amazing so it's unlikely 25 years from now the effects will be laughed at the way the original's (revolutionary for their time) are now. Daft Punk's dark, pounding score rivals Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' work on The Social Network as the best of the year, reminding us there are usually two types of great musical scores. The ones that jump out at you with their distinctiveness and almost seem to be operating on a level different from the film in which they appear and the others that so perfectly match the material they literally become part of it. This fits in the latter category, not just fully ingrained into the fabric of the picture but feeling as if it's derived from The Grid itself.

As for the 3D (which this was filmed in, not converted to in post-production) and its benefits, the jury's still out. I'll have a better idea when I rewatch it on DVD and determine how much is lost, but there were times during the action scenes where everything seemed a little muddled making it difficult to follow what was happening, but the same could be said for just about any other action movie regardless of format. It's possible in a couple of months I pop in the DVD and it's visually an empty shell of what it was on the big screen, but that's extremely doubtful given everything else this has going for it from a production design and technical standpoint. A DVD viewing won't lie, a film can't hide behind its effects and environmental factors (people talking, uncomfortable seats) aren't influencing your perception. That said, I'd be crazy to even suggest this shouldn't be seen in a theater for maximum effect or it didn't add to the overall viewing experience so it's a double-edged sword there.

Down the road this will likely hold up better than everyone thinks mainly because the story is far more interesting and developed than anyone's giving it credit for. It's not only a logical progression of the last film's events, but recalls the best elements of the original Star Wars trilogy, such as the father-son dynamic, pupil vs. wise mentor, the light saber battles (but with cycles and discs) and even a plot development mid-way through that seems directly inspired by The Empire Strikes Back. What's so ironic is that even working within restrictive PG confines Kosinski has the guts to go the darker, more adult places George Lucas wimped out of in the prequel trilogy when he instead opted to play with kiddie gloves much like Cameron did with Avatar, an otherwise solid enterprise undermined by his silly desire to deliver an eco-friendly public service announcement. Kosinski, an architect and former director of commercials (who's unsurprisingly a disciple of David Fincher) clearly harbors no ulterior motives other than faithfully expanding Steve Lisberger's original vision from 1982 and the honesty of those intentions bleed through every frame of the picture.

Despite what James Cameron might try to convince you, actors are in no danger of being replaced by motion capture or CGI anytime soon and two performances here will vouch for it. Garrett Hedlund's isn't one of them but he's as good as can be expected in pulling off the standard hero requirements of Sam. The nature of the story doesn't even really need him to be great but he gets the job done just fine. As if we needed a reminder of just how invaluable an actor Jeff Bridges is, we get yet another, proving as he enters the elder statesman portion of his career that he's doing some of his most interesting work. Just about the only thing that could possibly top the thrill of seeing him in a sequel to TRON would be seeing him return to it as The Dude, and he kind of gives that to us with a laid-back, Zen-like turn that recalls some of the little quirks of that character while still projecting the essence of Kevin Flynn. Exiled in an "off-grid" hideout exactly resembling in both design and sound the white hotel room in 2001: A Space Odyssey (clearly another homage), a dinner table sequence reuniting father and son might be one of the most impressive scenes of the year in terms of narrative content and visual execution. Because she's so disarmingly beautiful it's easy to be distracted and miss all the things Olivia Wilde does with her eyes, facial expressions and vocal inflections to suggest Quorra's innocent curiosity and bewilderment of the world around her, as well as Sam's arrival. Doing so much with little dialogue it's the kind of strong female portrayal that's been sorely missing of late in big budget sci-fi movies, leaving any leftover memories of Cindy Morgan's work from the first film in the dust. Based on all the evidence here, she's set to become a big star very soon. In no danger of being overlooked is Michael Sheen's eerie channeling of the Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie as flamboyant nightclub owner Castor. His screen time is limited but he more than makes the most of it, owning those scenes with a bombastic, creepy flare.

Ending a movie effectively is tough and rarely accomplished which makes it all the more impressive that a first-time filmmaker knew to how construct a final scene and shot that's perfect in every way.  It's possible to move forward with another sequel or choose not to, but based on this conclusion, neither choice is wrong. I can't understand how anyone can look at that final moment, how the story logically arrived there, and even attempt to claim Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis' screenplay is shaky or incoherent. This could easily be considered the most underrated effort of the year proving, just as Inception as did, that when science fiction is executed well few other genres are capable of generating as much thought and excitement. The ideas are the effects and the effects are the ideas, creating complete immersion for the viewer. It's unfortunate even those who have mildly praised the film have done so backhandedly, writing it off as nothing more than a "guilty pleasure" or excusing their endorsement by claiming to have gone in with low expectations. It has its flaws and isn't perfect, but that's kind of fitting isn't it? The sequel to a film that for many was perfect precisely because of its goofy imperfections is getting the same condescending response its prequel has been receiving for the past 25 years. TRON was always about style over substance and the feeling of excitement it created in viewers who hoped it could live up to its ideas. TRON: Legacy successfully recaptures that feeling but goes further in being the film we always wanted the original to be.