Sunday, October 31, 2010

I Don't Know About Ya'll...

But this was the scariest frickin' movie I saw this Halloween season.

Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"This Isn't Going to End, Is It?"

I am not, by a reasonable stretch of the imagination, a horror junkie. Or even that big a fan of horror films in general. I often joke that I don't have the constitution for the jump-out-and-scare-ya/reach-out-and-grab-ya form the genre so often takes, and that's really true - the adrenaline rush of the modern horror flick just disturbs way more than it excites me. This isn't me looking down on that form. It's just not for me.

I am, however, sort of a junkie for psychological horror. This isn't necessarily the horror of the mind - as in The Shining, for example - but more fear, anxiety, terror, and an overwhelming sense of dread taking hold in your mind. The feeling that your fate, however gruesome, is entirely inescapable. In these films, there is no "winning." Neither the characters, nor the audience, are given the release they've come to expect from protagonists besting their enemies. Because in this case, the enemy is death itself - dressed in a more genre-fitting form - and in some significant way, these films directly address our own mortality. Most of us don't spend a lot of time thinking about the fact that some day we will die. Anyway, I know I don't. But these films force us to take stock of that very real inevitability by placing its protagonists in situations where death is a certainty, and a very immediate one at that.

The zombie film is one of the best sub-genres to explore this with. They move slowly towards you, and seem fairly harmless. But once a huge group of them identifies you, escape is impossible. They descend slowly until you're entirely surrounded. In these moments, beautifully explored in everything from Night of the Living Dead to Shaun of the Dead, we see who we really are underneath the artifice that we are immortal.

And one needn't zombies, necessarily, to do it. Two of my favorite films of all time, hands down, are The Mist and The Thing. Both use the power of the unknowable force of evil to descend upon and trap people until they are slowly picked off. Like the zombie film, the "villain" of these is not a person, but really a genre substitution for death itself. They all deal with characters who slowly, but surely, realize that if there is some "escape," it is at best a vague hope. In The Mist, in spite of everything they've attempted, they still end up out of gas at the edge of the abyss (the much-maligned ending is a subject for another time). Death will come for them, one way or another. In The Thing, or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, not only is it a force beyond reason, but it is impossible to detect. This is why Kevin McCarthy's final "you're next!" warning is so effective (even if it is undone by the sham that is the "real" ending) - he has stared into the abyss. He knows what's coming. Death will come suddenly, from someplace you least expect it. They even address a common fear (for others, a desire) - that we will die in our sleep, unaware of what is taking place.

These direct explorations of the very realness of death can be as affecting and powerful as those by Ingmar Bergman (and this is coming from a massive Bergman fan). In The Seventh Seal, Bergman had Death itself pursue Antonius Block in his travels across the land, waging intellectual war in the meantime to give Block the illusion that he could beat death. In a cosmic sense, is that so different from the illusion those trapped in The Mist's supermarket had - that this thing descending on them was something they could defeat? The best any of them can hope to do is buy themselves days (hours? minutes?) to relive the human experience - uncertainty, wonder, love, compassion, fear - before their fate finally arrives.

These are powerful feelings and ideas, and I'm always pleased to find films willing and able to explore them. I'm dying to see what Frank Darabont (writer and director of The Mist) does with The Walking Dead, which (from what I understand) takes the idea of neverending horror and draws it out over...well, however long the show ends up running I suppose. There's something massively satisfying about exploring the inevitability of death within the time constraints of a film, but a series presents other, tantalizing possibilities that I hope they capitalize on.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

You Can't Not Love Him

A guy who's seen every great thing and every horrible thing filmmaking has to offer, and still...this.

"The cinema is just such a being and a magnificent art form that – you know, a lot of people ask me 'what's your favorite movie?' and I think, gee, I could tell you ten favorite movies before 1927, and I wonder how is it that the cinema is only 100 years old and yet it is so impressively shock full of masterpieces from all over the world – Japan, Italy and everywhere. The only answer I can come up with is that the cinema, mankind was waiting for it; it didn't have the technology to do it, but it had the yearning for an art form that combined poetry and visual imagery and sound and music and drama.

"For hundreds and hundreds of years, they were just waiting for the cinema, and finally it was born at the turn of the century, and then just there was this rush of great work. That's the only way I can explain it, and that is the allure of the cinema; you're always passionate when you think about it, because you learn so much from it and it's so intriguing and so magical. And now I find that more than ever, although I have very infinitesimal budgets compared to what people have to work with in movies, is that it's more thrilling than ever because it can be more personal than I ever could consider before. But you know what I say? The smaller the budget, the bigger the ideas."

-Francis Ford Coppola

Friday, October 15, 2010

Jack Goes Boating (dir. Philip Seymour Hoffman)

I was really surprised by this, I gotta tell you. I'm a big fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman (like nearly anyone who watches enough movies), but after a pretty middling trailer, I ended up attending a matinee of this solely to see another Hoffman performance and, more intriguingly, his directorial debut. The film seemed to have little to recommend itself; add to which nobody had singled it out in any way, major or minor. It seemed like it was just kind of out there.

But wow, is this a wonderful little movie, or what. Modest though it may be, it has more than enough heart to make up for it, and four great performances to boot. Hoffman stars as Jack, as the kind of guy Hoffman made his name off of - lonely, sadsack, but tremendously honest and heartfelt. Hoffman is one of those guys, man, who is just incapable of telling a lie. Jack doesn't have a deep-dark secret about his childhood; he only hints at some really antisocial tendencies. He's just one of those guys who never made it work - career, relationships, friends, whatever. He listens to a lot of reggae to keep himself zen.

Similarly, when Connie (Amy Ryan) comes into his life, she doesn't succumb to the current trend of forcefully turning his life around. Jack is not some kind of project for him; she has her own concerns and is just as delighted with his company as he is with hers. She mentions she likes to go boating, so Jack learns to swim. She mentions that nobody has ever cooked for her, so Jack learns to cook. When she's in the hospital, he buys her a stuffed koala bear at the hospital gift shop. And she loves it; really, truly. We see in this scene that they simply belong together. There's not a lot in the way of getting-to-know-you stuff. There's no "click." They are just instantly at home with one another. It's really beautiful in a simple, unforced way.

They have two friends in common, Clyde and Lucy, played by John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega, respectively. They've been married for a while now, and Ortiz and Rubin-Vega waste no time in perfectly establishing a couple that was once unbelievably comfortable with each other, but has over time been beaten into caution. Their scenes range from awkward to absolutely brutal, and the way Jack and Connie change their perceptions of this couple who brought them together is at once fitting and shows how they are growing as their own unit. Ortiz in particular emerges as a tremendous screen presence, riding the edge of theatricality without diving into it. Rubin-Vega's character calls for more subtle emotional shifts, which she plays beautifully. Her quiet changes of expression are capable of communicating years of regret, uncertainty, and exhaustion.

Adapted from a stage play by Robert Glaudini (who also wrote the screenplay), it does suffer from a slight feeling of staginess. There are some scenes - not even scenes, but lines, really - that would play better in that form. I've never terribly minded that feeling, and ultimately it barely intruded here. I was simply too delighted. Glaudini has no problem disposing with what many films get terribly hung up on: trying to explain why people are the way they are. All four of these people at some point do something completely unexpected that you do not see coming, and nobody makes any effort to clarify their behavior. The actors are strong enough to fold it into the whole of their character, and Glaudini and Hoffman (as director) trust us enough to recognize that whatever makes people the way they are is the combination of a billion other things that may have happened decades before we met them.

I suppose it should come as little surprise that Hoffman has emerged, instantly, a perfect actor's director. His visual style is expectedly restrained, but any more flourish would almost certainly feel intrusive. The cast here is unified and each play off the others with ease, reacting both as people in a situation and as part of an ensemble building towards a greater goal.

Not a terribly ambitious film, but necessarily so, Jack Goes Boating is nonetheless one of this year's most delightful films. Come for the Hoffman, stay for the romance.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Never Let Me Go (dir. Mark Romanek)

Never Let Me Go is some kind of minor miracle. It's a slowly paced, lightly plotted major Oscar season release that spends most of its time considering death and mortality, and just how fleeting everything can be. The emotional heft of it snuck up on me, to the point that I was at work today when I was quite suddenly bowled over by the tragedy of it all. Not that it didn't occur to me when the film finished initially - and I was plenty moved then as well - but it is simply a film that benefits tremendously from time. That, ironically, is also its major weakness.

To discuss the film with any degree of consideration is to give away its central mystery - which doesn't really remain a mystery too long anyway - so consider this your warning. You have my general thoughts, but from here on out anything goes.

The central struggle in the film is all about time - the time we have left and what we do with it. For Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley), and Tommy (Andrew Garfield), time is all they have, and all they lack. Cloned from the undesirable elements of society, they are created solely to donate organs and body parts to people who need them. Everything is provided for them from the moment they enter this world to when they leave it, and by the time they're eighteen, they can leave the boarding school they were brought up in and live relatively independent lives. But by the time they're twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five, they'll have been harvested for their vital organs and will be left to die.

It's a devastating premise for a film, and writer Alex Garland - adapting a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro - and director Mark Romanek wisely allow the audience to fill that tragedy in on their own. There is only one true outburst of emotion. All else is hinted, indicated, and felt so powerfully in the cinema (that is, the composition and editing) and acting, particularly by Carey Mulligan. She completely won me over with An Education, but she might be even finer here. Her eyes alone express everything in the film; the entire human experience.

And it's all so quietly heartbreaking. I nearly get choked up thinking back on certain images in the film - Kathy holding a pillow tightly as a forgotten love song plays on her tape deck, the image that opens the film when it is revisited towards the end, Tommy taking command of a wrecked ship. Many more I'd rather not mention, for they are the true spoilers. This is only Romanek's second film (third if you count his 1985 film Static, which he has since disowned), and while I'm not onboard with all of his decisions - his use of handheld in particular feels a little lazy - I was bowled over by how much he was capable of expressing in some of those images.

Garland's screenplay is, admittedly, imperfect. As time is everything in this film, it would have benefitted from something to communicate the passage of time a bit more. As it is, weeks will pass slowly but they'll happily skip over years in the blink of an eye. My initial impulse was to add another hour or so to the film, but Terrence Malick accomplished this feeling with less time in Days of Heaven, so, hey, whatever works. I just needed to touch base with these characters as they grew, rather than catch up with them after they already had. Additionally, the themes and plotting can be a little on-the-nose at times, though even that's hard to fault because Kathy's final monologue - undoubtedly the greatest offense in this arena - is so exquisitely written and conveys so much depth of feeling and understanding that it's hard to really fault it too much.

That said, its ambition and considerable accomplishment far outweigh its flaws. Never Let Me Go is a quietly heartbreaking, haunting film that will stay with me long after the lights come up.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Buried (dir. Rodrigo Cortés)

It happens...well, at least every summer, but it feels like every couple of months, really. People go nuts for some big action film. Some big action film gets the thorough beating it probably deserves in the critical community (well, these days, it only takes one negative review for a riot to break out), and the old "just turn off your brain and enjoy it!" line gets thrown out. Now here's the thing - I am all for turning off my brain at the movies. But my whole thing is that I want the people who made the damn thing to have put some thought into it. And frankly, I can tell when that process has taken place and when it hasn't, and there is quite often a direct line between them thinking and me enjoying.

Buried is a really smart piece of entertainment, even when it's not. By this I mean that it's a 95-minute movie that takes place entirely inside a damn box. So if you thought Hitchcock was inventive with Lifeboat or Rope or Rear Window, you don't even know from limitations. But it's more aggressive or propulsive than anything else I've seen all year. However, it does stretch its limitations - Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) has been buried alive with only a cell phone, a bit of food, a flask of alcohol, and a lighter, and the people he calls routinely treat him like a prank caller. We're all familiar with the runaround when we're calling because the cable's out, but I think there's some truth to the story that government officials treat every call like a serious call.

But even when that's frustrating - both for Paul and for dramatic plausibility - Cortés and Reynolds more than make up for it. Reynolds is one of cinema's most charismatic actors these days, and few others, including a great deal of more talented ones, would be better suited to his task. After all, we hear other voices on the phone, but every real emotional beat rests with him, and he's not allowed a ton of room for physical expression. Cortés, for his part, finds every nook and cranny from which to shoot, and keeps a cutting rhythm as exciting as any scene in Inception (only he, you know, maintains it for the film's running time), building to one of the most breathless climaxes in (wait for it) film history. Yes, I just went there.

The Social Network (dir. David Fincher)

Yeah, I'm not pleased about the huge Yahoo! Movies tag in the corner of the screencaps, either. But being as I'm a nerd for representing the movie, and not the advertising materials surrounding them, trailer screencaps remain the way to go.

In the months - nay, years - leading up to its release, The Social Network was repeatedly met with skepticism, sarcasm, and the spawn of the two - snark. Those of us confident in the storytelling powers of Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher repeatedly went to back to the standard line - "It's not really about Facebook, it's about friendship, betrayal, greed." As though we needed an excuse.

The truth is, aside from the obvious notion that a film isn't really about what it's about (who remembers that Chinatown is about a man taking control of public utilities?), it is fascinating material. As Glenn Kenny perfectly put it, why wouldn't you be interested in Facebook, except for the opportunity to place yourself above it? Whether you approve of the brave new world or not (and I say this as someone who would just as soon see the entire Internet implode), Facebook has changed the way people communicate, probably for good. You may not use it, and in a generation it may be gone, but the elaborate network of communication it has established is permanent. And we're right at the beginning of a revolution. There may be more socio-politically relevant stories out there about current issues, but in terms of things that are happening right now that have a lasting impact on who were are as people...why wouldn't you want to see a movie about Facebook?

That the film is also the story of, yes, friendship, betrayal, and greed makes for good, classic drama. Then you have Aaron Sorkin writing it, and whatever his faults, I can't think of any screenwriter who, at the top of his game, can make a movie centered around dorm rooms and depositions more electric. And then there's David Fincher, a director second only to Paul Thomas Anderson among his peers and one of the best working filmmakers, period, deciding to tackle something completely outside of what he's known for. And, as it turns out, succeeding.

And you ask why you'd want to see a movie about Facebook.

Sorkin's script is what keeps this thing dancing, no doubt, and although I shy away from such predictions in the public forum, if there's one award that's locked up this holiday season, it has to be Sorkin's for The Social Network. I've never found any cases against him terribly compelling. Conversations on film are rarely, if ever, interesting when they sound the way people speak in real life, so it is necessary for dialogue to do two things - sound like an outward expression of who this person is (this is totally apart from what they actually say, but is involved solely with how they say it), and communicate what this person wants the world to believe about him or her. And yes, Sorkin has a tendency to have all of his characters speak the same way, but at his worst, he's still ten times more exciting a writer than many with more diversity.

So when, as here, Sorkin gives his characters that needed diversity - of speaking style, of background (social, financial, educational), of goals (immediate or lifelong) - nobody is better able to entertain us solely through the written (or spoken, I suppose) word. And in addition to everything that could be said about the structural and thematic attributes of the screenplay, which are considerable, it is just damned entertaining.

A lot has been said about the film's portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg, and it should come as no surprise that I don't really care how closely it hews to the real guy, specifically how the character plays across generational lines. In an article published yesterday at The New York Times, David Carr wrote that for older generations, Zuckerberg was seen as "a cautionary tale about a callous young man who betrays friends, partners, and principles as he hacks his way to lucre and fame. But many of the generation who grew in a world that Mr. Zuckerberg helped invent will applaud someone who saw his chance and seized it with both hands." While I think placing both readings along generational divides is a little convenient, I do think both readings exist - for me, simultaneously.

There is little doubt that Mark (played masterfully by Jesse Eisenberg) is right both morally and strategically when he is cautious moving into the moneymaking aspect of Facebook, or continuing to create groundbreaking websites without profit in mind at all, and while his actions betray him, he does show genuine concern for how Eduardo (Andrew Garfield) will fit into the ultimate scheme. I haven't found a single reading of their relationship completely satisfying, in fact. Mark isn't out to screw Eduardo, and he says "I'm afraid you're going to get left behind," not "I think you will" or "if you keep this up, you're going to." Mark wants Eduardo aboard, but he's just not willing to let friendship get in the way of what he thinks he can achieve. There simply comes a point at which Eduardo has nothing to add. I personally don't find this attitude terribly noble, but I also recognize that most of the great revolutions wouldn't have taken place without similar mindsets. It's not for me, but it is the way things happen.

Also, refreshingly, Mark is not a greedy character, insofar as he embarks on his quest not for money, or even ultimately for the popularity he sought at the start (and the title cleverly refers both to the system he ultimately struggled in and one he eventually built), but simply because it became something he must do. And coming out of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps earlier that day, a film that bolstered my beliefs that the only innovation taking place these days is the continuing innovation for how to make more money, I was thrilled to see some old-fashioned American ingenuity at play. Though Mark is not doing something for the greater good, he is at least doing something he feels is important, and everything he does - right or wrong - is at the service of this thing. It's that mindset that I find admirable, apart from the actions he takes for it.

I couldn't write this without in some way mentioning David Fincher, a director who has evolved considerably from a pretty stunning starting place into a very mature, thoughtful filmmaker. Even if it does turn out that he peaked with Zodiac (but what a peak!), his work continues to show unprecedented talent. This is probably his most outwardly comedic film to date (though Fight Club is more of a comedy in its soul than The Social Network, the latter has by far the more traditional laughs), and Fincher displays a remarkable ability at making us laugh while maintaining an altogether different mood (much, I suppose, as Fight Club kept us squirming while maintaining a humorous undercurrent). This is actually a weird marriage of the old Fincher and the new, between the pace and energy of Fight Club and the more soulful outlook Fincher's displayed in Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

His work here is almost invisible, the deft, confident, consummately professional touch one would be more accustomed to from a studio era director (a Preminger or a Losey perhaps) than one who made his name with such visual flourish. There was no escaping the Fincher of Fight Club or Panic Room, for instance, while one can take in the Fincher of new unobstructed. His framing may be more modest, his cutting less aggressive, but his filmmaking is as powerful as ever. In spite of the many change-ups each scene requires, Fincher never misses a beat in creating something tonally and rhythmically cohesive. He leaps right from the opening scene, a classic Sorkin set-up of two people talking over, around, and across each other, to perhaps his best title sequence to date, featuring Mark jogging home, isolated from the surrounding Harvard community. Going right from high-energy conversation to moody study of character-as-action is more than just putting the two side-by-side. Mark has to seem apart from his world in that first scene or the second won't feel right, and he can't simply walk home from such an exchange. Determination must play a factor, either for escape or revenge or whatever. It sounds easy, but if it were, more movies would be this good.

As you might have noticed, there's quite a bit going on in this film, in spite of its modest running time. I've barely touched on its considerable performances (Justin Timberlake for Best Supporting Actor!), and there are themes and ideas I probably never will. But I'd like to. A second viewing is most certainly in order, and if you've stuck with me this long, I'm sure you'll be back for more.