Sunday, October 31, 2010

Indie Aliens - Monsters

With a title like Monsters fixed to a movie about a desperate couple traveling through a zone “infected” by extraterrestrial life forms spread by a NASA deep space probe that broke up over northern Mexico, you would be right to expect a creature-feature, Aliens-like splatter-fest. Instead, what Gareth Edwards’s Monsters delivers is a contemplative character study with the atmosphere of an indie travel-pic like The Motorcycle Dairies, full of foreign sights framed by talented cinematography.

Like District 9 (2009), Monsters uses news-footage realism to depict an area of northern Mexico that has been turned into a war zone, but this time no one metamorphoses into an oversized grasshopper and does battle in robotic body armor like something out of Transformers. Here the news-footage realism, and the shots of the destruction eagerly taken by Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), a photographer on assignment, establish the look and tone of a PBS travel show about a war-torn country.

As jets scream overhead, and explosions thump in the distance, it feels like Kaulder and Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), the daughter of the magazine’s owner, could be wandering through Iraq. Demolished buildings, a whole flattened town, the wreckage of tanks and helicopters, all this makes it clear that the U.S. and Mexican forces have been battling nasty beasties, grown from glowing seedpods spread throughout the jungle like fungi.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Phone Call Hell - Buried

Buried starts out in darkness. We never see the ambush by Iraqi insurgents of the convoy that lands U.S. contractor/truck driver Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) in a box buried under the sand, held for ransom and coerced to make a damaging confessional video to be placed on YouTube. Paul wakes up in darkness, comes to a realization of his predicament by feeling the wooden walls around him, struggles in terror, and then lights a cigarette lighter to confirm the horror. Buried alive! Right there the film plays on anybody’s fear, and it’s hard not to be engaged.

The artful camerawork does more in this single setting than you’d think possible. The inevitable extreme close-ups capture Paul’s anguish and frenzy as the camera looks over his forehead, angles across his cheek, or frames his full face, grimy and bloody, from above. In addition, the camera follows Paul’s point of view, down the length of his body to the foot of his confines, and along the wooden surfaces as he looks for… what? In a wooden crate, what could you possibly look for that might help you escape? Yet, we would all look. Amazingly, the film also employs extreme long shots, pulling back to show Paul enclosed in an underground rectangle of blackness, or following the walls as they extend metaphorically into a deep mine shaft that traps him below.

I’m not a big fan of Ryan Reynolds, and I never thought of him as playing a rugged, desperate character, but here he does a passionate job, using a cell phone left by the insurgents to listen to their demands, but also to connect with anyone who might help him. For anyone who hates making phone calls – and that’s me – it’s a case of phone call hell. Think of the frustration we feel when put on hold to the accompaniment of mind-sapping background music or when we have to deal with a bureaucrat speaking with a tone of official insolence that holds not the slightest speck of sympathy. Now imagine calls like that when you’re buried in a box and running out of air, and you get a good idea of how the film builds tension with dark humor and situations we understand.

For a one-man, single-setting show starring Reynolds, supported by voices ranging from the son-of-a-bitch robotic monotone of his employer from the contracting company (Stephen Tobolowsky) and the British-accented compassion of the agent (Robert Paterson) in Iraq trying to find him, the story is gripping and Reynolds keeps things moving as much as he can within his box while the off-screen voices suggest offices in D.C. or a field agent pursuing leads in Iraq in a beat-up Land Rover.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

"Go ahead! Communicate with my dead mother!" - Clint Eastwood's Hereafter

Back in the 1983 one day I was supposed to be scouring the streets of San Francisco in search of a job, but I ended up in a movie theater on Van Ness where I took in a matinee double feature that included Brainstorm with Natalie Wood and Christopher Walken. Here, Walken plays Michael Brace, a scientist who has paired up with cantankerous scientist Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher) to develop a device that records what goes on in the brain. This is being picked up by a company that plans to record experiences and market the device as a way for people to jump out of an airplane or climb Mount Everest in the comfort of the living room. But the movie’s central theme is the hereafter, not virtual reality technology. When Lillian suffers a coronary, she straps on the headset and records her terminal experience. Much to the worry of wife Karen (Wood), Michael experiences Lillian’s journey into a bright realm of winged souls – impressive visual effects for the time – which proves that heaven exists!

I immediately thought of this entertaining sci-fi movie as I watched Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, which also strongly suggests there is an afterlife, or perhaps that’s what Eastwood and all people in their 80s would like to believe. Knowing that my mother, 88, wonders and worries about what death has in store for her – even though she has been a faithful Catholic all her life – it is clear that Eastwood has chosen a sensitive and thought-provoking topic to explore in a film that should come off as grave and cerebral, but instead achieves a few touching moments within a whole that is mostly silly.

In Hereafter Clint takes his turn at telling a Crash or Babel-like epic incorporating multiple storylines in international settings.

In Sri Lanka a vacationing French TV-journalist Marie LeLay (Cécile De France) barely survives the tsunami of 2004, and her near-death experience and visions of a bright place populated by shimmering figures of people launch her into an obsessive crusade to convince the world, by means of her rapidly produced book: Hereafter, that the afterlife exists.

In London, twin lads Marcus and Jason (both played alternately by George and Frankie McLaren) suffer the stress of working hard as adult children, covering for their drug-addicted mum in order to keep the workers from Social Welfare at bay. If this isn’t bad enough, Marcus’s world crumbles when his brother is struck and killed by a car. This leads Marcus to Google psychics who attest to being able to communicate with the dead. Marcus’s quest slimly ties in the whole fascination with communicating with the dead, or debunking these communications, that occupied famous 19th and 20th century figures such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Houdini.

In San Francisco, the central character George Lonegan (Matt Damon) is hiding from the career he had made out of communicating with people’s deceased loved ones. George drives a forklift at C&H but has a passion for novelist Charles Dickens, whose novels show an obsession with death and a hopeful belief in life everlasting.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Never Let Me Go

If Never Let Me Go is science fiction, it is that oddly British sort of science-fiction, begun by H.G. Wells, full of anachronistic contrasts, in which chaps fly to the moon or travel through time while other chaps play cricket and drink beer in pubs. Or perhaps it shares more similarities with British dystopian novels such as Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, and A Handmaid’s Tale, in which the futuristic setting is merely a platform for the exploration of ideas, and the workings of that world are unimportant or vaguely explained. Whatever the case might be, Never Let Me Go takes science fiction elements, places them in contemporary English settings, most of them pastoral, and uses the incongruities as a backdrop for a touching story of love and identity in the face of a dark destiny.

In Never Let Me Go, directed by Mark Romanek, screenplay by Alex Garland based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, an English boarding school called Hailsham, housed in a sprawling stone manor in the country, controls the upbringing of “orphaned” children chosen for a special function. In the quiet, somewhat slow first third of the movie, young Kathy H. (Izzy Meikle-Small) must suppress her affection for Tommy (Charile Rowe), an awkward, slow-witted lad who’s nevertheless rather cute in a disheveled, baggy-trousers, preppie sort of way. Kathy suffers as she watches her best friend, Ruth (Ella Purnell), win Tommy’s affection before she can.

At Hailsham, Headmistress Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling) keeps a tight ship. The kids file off to bed with a cup of vitamins and a small bottle of milk, their artwork is examined and collected by Madame (Nathalie Richard), and the children’s favorite occasion involves a pathetic flea market stocked with a “bumper crop” of castoff, broken odds and ends they purchase with buttons and plastic tokens.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Let Me In

In Let Me In, directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield), a twelve-year-old boy named Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee of The Road) lives in fear of a sadistic school bully. Sadder still is Owen’s life because his mother is divorced, she drinks to anaesthetize, and she isn’t around very much. On top of that Owen lives in a shabby apartment complex outside of Los Alamos, New Mexico. (Can Los Alamos be as shabby and dismal as this movie seems to suggest?) Here he loiters all alone in the snow-covered courtyard where the playground jungle-gym bars mirror the pattern of the Rubik’s cube he plays with to pass the time. Then new residents arrive: a twelve-year-old girl named Amy (Chloë Grace Moretz of Kickass) accompanied by a slouching, dried up old “Father” (Richard Jenkins) who seems enslaved by this little girl’s needs. When Owen and Amy develop a tender, warm relationship, and Amy emboldens Owen to stand up to the bully, we get one of the most touching portrayals of young love I have seen in a long time. That Amy is a vampire adds terror to poignancy in a film that gripped me and got my full attention more than any other movie in the past two months.

After the blood-sucking overkill of Daybreakers, I swore I was done with vampire movies, but I was glad I let this one in, mostly because of the touching interactions between Smit-McPhee, who makes Owen’s courage and character belie his pale face and scrawny build, and Moretz, whose soft tones and large, wan eyes express Amy’s initial weariness with Owen’s neediness but eventually express the love for him she needs at this point in her immortality.

Set mostly in the derelict apartment complex that stands as an unreal world separated from the real world where a police detective (Elias Koteas), disheveled and haggard, tries to solve the mystery of bloody deaths he calls “ritual slayings,” the fact that Amy is a vampire just seems part of the deal. With a mournful score, the film succeeds at disturbing you while it touches you with Smit-McPhee and Moretz’s performances. Disturbing indeed is the mystery surrounding the identity of Amy’s “Father” and how he came to be enslaved as a blood collector for his “daughter.”

Playing straight with vampire lore, Let Me In stays away from Twilight silliness. Direct sunlight doesn’t make a vampire sparkle; it engulfs them in flames. Daytime is strictly off limits. Whereas renditions of Dracula depict the vampire lord merely snarling at the blood droplets coming from a human visitor’s accident with cutlery or razor, Amy's reaction to the blood dripping from Owen's cut hand is a chilling, stomach-churning scene of unbridled vampire bloodlust.

What works best here is the story of star-crossed lovers that plays out as fantasy in the most dismal, other worldly apartment complex I've ever seen, as well as in a negligent school mostly presided over by an unshaven gym teacher with a Hungarian accent. Silliness results from a scene ruined by poor make-up as well as from an ill-conceived resolution, but all is made worth while by a gripping scene in which “Father” stages a kidnapping that goes wrong and ends up in a violent car wreck during which you never see the other cars, and a glorious scene of orgasmic bloodletting that is exhilarating wish-fulfillment for anyone who has ever lived in fear of schoolyard bullying.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

ADD AS FRIEND/ IGNORE: The Social Network

David Fincher’s The Social Network starts out with a lot of words. In rapid-fire run-on sentences that fill most of the lengthy opening scene, Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) talks his way into a break-up with girlfriend Erica Albright (Mara Rooney) … and talks and talks, revealing himself as tactless and insensitive and spurring him on to the blog tirade that leads him to the invention of a who’s-the-hotter-coed website that reels in thousands of visitors and burns out Harvard’s network - that leads him to meeting the preppie Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer/ Josh Pence) with their idea for an exclusive Harvard student site - that leads him to the invention of Facebook - that leads to alienating himself from financial backer and best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) - that leads to two lawsuits seeking a share of the bountiful profits gleaned by this facelift of the Internet social scene.

In this cause and effect chain of events, Fincher moves the action along expeditiously but I never felt a gripping sense of witnessing a clever invention that gave birth to an Internet revolution. Zuckerberg gets an idea. He runs across the campus. He modifies the site to include relationship status. Meanwhile, the ongoing rising toll of subscribers is supposed to generate suspense, but that's as gripping as watching the growing prize total of a state lottery for which you haven’t bought a ticket. “Refresh,” says promoter Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) when the running total of subscribers nears a million in the oh-so-cool offices of Facebook. Don’t hackers know when to hit “refresh”?

The Social Network is about motives. Saverin clearly wants the money he deserves after being betrayed by his best friend. The Winklevoss twins want to assuage the bitterness they feel from missing out on an invention they think was their idea. They don’t like coming in second, which is clearly shown in the flashy, noisily staged scene in which the talented rowers come in a close second at the Henley-on-Thames Regatta. As for Zuckerberg, as he slouches and doodles and jokes sardonically throughout two different lawsuits, it’s clear that his motive has never been money. His motive has been doing what he knows how to do best, and doing it better than anyone else.