Buried(10/17/2010)

            What if there was a bomb that would explode a bus if it slowed down?  What if a kid could see ghosts walking around him?  What if an undercover cop infiltrated the Mafia while a gangster infiltrated the police force?  It’s really easy to identify exactly what movies I was just describing and it only took one sentence in order to do it.  In case you don’t already know, these are descriptions of what are called “high concept” projects, films that can be pitched with a pithy little description.  This isn’t to say that these are simplistic films; it’s just that the basic plot skeleton that they rest upon is simple and catchy in and of themselves.  The new film Buried is very much in this tradition; it’s a movie that asks “what if a man was buried alive with a cell phone?”  But the question, as always, isn’t what the concept is but what the filmmakers are able to do with it. 

            The only onscreen character in the film is Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds), who wakes up at the beginning to the movie to find himself locked and buried in a coffin.  It’s clear that this is no accident: he’s been given a select set of supplies like a lighter, a flashlight, a couple of glow sticks, and most importantly a cell phone.  Conroy uses this phone in order to desperately call his friends and family, but soon he’s called by none other than his captor.  This is when we learn that Conroy has been a truck driver working for a private contractor in Iraq for the last year and that the people who’ve buried him are Iraqi insurgents looking for ransom money.  Conroy calls up the state department, but finds himself increasingly frustrated as he’s put on hold, directed toward numbers of people who aren’t home, and other who generally are more interested in their own agenda than in his safety.

            In addition to being a high concept piece, the film also fits within the tradition of “one location” films.  The entire movie is set inside of this coffin; there are no flashbacks away from the coffin, we never cut to the rescue workers looking for Conway, and no before or after material.  This is something that really hasn’t been done all that often, especially not with thrillers.  I suppose the closest analogue would be Hitchcock’s Lifeboat or perhaps more recently the movie Phone Booth.  But as similarly claustrophobic as these movies are, this movie’s single location is even smaller and it also has the challenge of being a one man show outside of the voices on the other end of the phone.  Director Rodrigo Cortés does everything he can to make this single set come alive, you’ll see Conway from every conceivable angle in this thing and they also change up light sources frequently.  The movie is certainly claustrophobic, it’s supposed to be, but the set never gets boring.

            The movie has no love for the people who put Clayton in his hole, but the real villain of the movie seems to be the people on the other end of the line, who seem less than dedicated to saving him; at least that’s how it seems to the character.  This is actually a pretty interesting way of tackling the Iraq War, not only must Conway deal with vicious terrorists but he also has to deal with a mismanaged bureaucracy that is more concerned with their propaganda than with the people on (or in this case under) the ground.  This comes to a head late in the film, where the audience is witness to one of the most (deliberately) infuriating conversations you’re likely to see this year.  Of course the blame for this isn’t completely removed from Conway himself, who comes to admit that it was a mistake to come to Iraq in the first place and just wishes to come home.  In part this is an allegory for the war as a whole, but not in a way that’s really preachy or anything, the film is a thriller and this sense of abandonment is primarily done in order to build tension.  The audience grows frustrated along with Conway and the building desperation really does give the movie this sort of frantic pace.

            This is, of course, a movie about a man locked into a coffin and that’s not a concept that’s going to be for everyone.  If you are prone to claustrophobia this obviously isn’t the movie for you.  I also wouldn’t necessarily call it great drama either, the central character isn’t really all that interesting beyond his predicament and I wasn’t a huge fan of some of the one-liners he was given here and there either.  Ryan Reynolds is great at selling the movie’s central desperation, but I did see some of his more annoying tendencies as an actor show up at times.  Overall, this is kind of the movie you think it is, a sort of audacious exercise played out for everything its worth.  It’s not going to change the world but it’s a good and unique watch that I expect will develop a decent following through word of mouth, possibly after it comes out on DVD.

***1/2 out of Four

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The Social Network(10/1/2010)

            Ever since it was first announced, The Social Network has been dismissively called hat Facebook movie.  I guess this reaction was understandable at first, around the time of the film’s announcement there was story after story of Hollywood studios buying up the rights to every comic book, TV series, and board game and it kind of made sense to assume that this was one more brand name to inexplicably have its own film out of some braindead assumption that because the people like something they’ll go to a movie about it.  I stopped thinking about the project in those terms the minute I learned that it was being written by Arron Sorkin and directed by David Fincher and that it would be about the corporate intrigue behind the site’s creation rather than about the site itself, but this hasn’t stopped the internet’s masters of snark from making fun of the project.  It’s officially time to cut that silliness out; it should be clear to everyone by now that this film, like it or not, is a serious work about a modern phenomenon.

            The film tells the true, and often unflattering, story of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) the creator and CEO of Facebook (the names have not been changed to protect the “innocent”).  Zuckerberg is currently the world’s youngest billionaire because he was able to start a major site from a young age along with a number of his peers, many of whom (as we quickly learn from the film’s frame story) would go on to sue him.  Like many revolutionary ideas, Facebook was born on the Harvard campus; where Zuckerberg drunkenly sets up a website allowing Harvard students to vote on the hotness of various female students and the site goes viral (this was shortly before anyone was saying “viral”).  The site he set up was so popular so fast that the very night it’s unleashed it overloads the Harvard servers.  If anything, this site showed him the appeal of a site where people can have contact with their friends.  Soon Zuckerberg would use this realization to create a social network to end all social networks along with his friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), but only after he’s approached by two extremely wealthy and popular students who suggested a similar idea themselves.

            Zuckerberg himself is a cipher, a quiet, socially awkward young man who’s clearly a genius at what he does but with a ruthlessness hidden beneath the surface.  We see him sitting bored in deposition hearings, he knows he has a personal stake in the proceedings but he doesn’t seem particularly concerned with the money at stake, which will be a small fraction of his fortune.  What Zuckerberg really wants is the independence and success that he sees other people falling into almost as a birthright.  He says that the two of the people suing him the Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer), who were both athletic wasps from old money, weren’t suing him for “theft of intellectual property” but rather because “this is the first time things haven’t worked out for them exactly as they planned.”  In the past these upper-class jocks would have been the ones happily screwing over people like Zuckerberg and he’s happy to turn the tables on them, to beat them at their own game and hand them a business card that says “I’m C.E.O., bitch!”  Of course this doesn’t make Zuckerberg any less of an asshole than they would have been, but it’s only their privileged disposition that makes them think they’re any different in the first place.

            That’s what drives him anyway, but the skill that really makes all the difference to him is simply his initiative.  Zuckerberg wasn’t someone who would sit on an idea and wait for everything to come together; instead he’d just go out and do it.  This is a privilege offered by the nature of internet business; he only needs a couple thousand dollars in order to and as long as he can get people going to his site he doesn’t need to go through the myriad of lawyers, bankers, and corporations that other businessmen need to deal with when they’re first starting.  This is also what gets him into trouble, while Zuckerberg is moving at the speed of life the other people around him aren’t.  People that don’t have his initiative can’t keep up with him and he doesn’t have the time or the will to argue with them about their differences.  The Winklevosses could have done everything that Zuckerberg did, but they didn’t, they got left behind.  Eduardo Saverin also could have been on board with what Zuckerberg, but he didn’t have the vision either.  Simply put, they couldn’t get with the program and they were lucky to have gotten as far as they did.  When Zuckerberg finally meets Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the creator of Napster and future business partner to Zuckerberg, you see Zuckerberg’s eyes light up at the opportunity to finally work with someone that can keep up with him.

            This speed is essential to the movie and it’s part of why Aaron Sorkin was the perfect choice to write the film.  Sorkin has made a career out of writing fast-paced conversations between really smart people about important contemporary issues.  The opening scene of the film, a conversation between Zuckerberg and his soon-to-be-ex girlfriend, is particularly Sorkinian; but after that the writing calms down a bit.  The dialogue remains witty throughout the film but it doesn’t have the same beautifully un-naturalistic tempo that a lot of Sorkin stuff has.  In short, this is everything that’s good about Sorkin without the negatives. 

            This dialogue is spoken quite ably by Jesse Eisenberg, who seems to slowly be growing out of the awkward teenager role that he’s been delivering to us for a while through movies like The Squid and the Whale and Adventureland.  He’s certainly still an awkward young man here, but a much moodier one with a lot more going on in his head, and incidentally he really does look a lot like the real Zuckerberg.  Andrew Garfield, a rising star who’s been pegged as the next to play Spider-Man, is also given a showcase here as Zuckerberg’s long suffering partner and future plaintiff.  But the actor who, shockingly, steals the show here is actually Justin Timberlake of all people.  I’m not ready to call Timberlake a great actor, or even a good one for that matter, but I think this is an inspired casting decision.  Timberlake plays a guy who needs to feel like a superstar within his domain (in this case within the world of computer people) and you have to believe that he would impress Zuckerberg.  He also needs to seem like a bit of a rebel and like the kind of person who could party every day.  Timberlake is certainly all of those things at this stage of his career, and here he’s able to make the audience just as fascinated by the character as Zuckerberg is.

            Of course the man who truly gave legitimacy to this project is David Fincher, who for the first time in his career is working completely outside of the confines of genre.  Fincher, who rose to prominence making stylish thrillers like Se7en and Fight Club, has grown to become one of the most respected directors in Hollywood.  His 2007 film Zodiac has proven to be a turning point which, while still focusing on a serial killer, was decidedly more grounded in reality than some of his previous projects and which also pushed some of his stylistic flourishes into the background.  2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button seemed like a bit of a return of the older more showy Fincher, but The Social Network shows him picking up stylistically right where Zodiac left off.  There are Fincher tricks here to be sure, but they’re even more subtle here than they were in Zodiac.  This dialed back style fits both of these movies better than Fincher’s older style, which is better suited to the heightened reality of a film like Fight Club.

            Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth shoots the film with a glossy, almost music video like sheen, that’s perfect for depicting the hip modern trappings of the story.   On the audio front, the film has been scored by none other than Trent Reznor, the man behind the popular Industrial Rock band Nine Inch Nails.  I’ve been a NIN fan for a while, but I tend to be rather bored with Reznor’s ambient instrumental work, which can seem rather purposeless when released as a series of albums.  The same musical approach seems to have been taken here, but now there seems to be a real purpose to them.  Reznor’s music has always explored the dark side of electronica in much the way the film explores the dark side of all the modern conveniences offered by sites like Facebook.

            The Social Network is an almost perfectly made film, one that makes almost every right choice, and it examines a fascinating story, but somehow I left the film feeling like there was something missing.  I think that missing element might just be the rest of Mark Zuckerberg’s life.  Of course this is necessitated by the fact that, obviously, we haven’t seen this second act of this American life.  Still, I couldn’t help but feel that what we’re seeing here is only half an epic.  Of course to say that the film is too short and that I wanted even more is a hell of a backhanded compliment, but it’s still an issue, one that also affected another Fincher film depicting a true story with no satisfying end: Zodiac.  Still, this is filmmaking at its finest and to miss an effort like this would be a huge mistake.

***1/2 out of Four

Get Low(8/16/2010)

            It’s so easy to forget how awesome Robert Duvall is as an actor sometimes that every once in a while he’ll come out of nowhere and blow you away.  Part of the problem is that Duvall’s work can often be subdued to the point where you don’t fully appreciate it for how good it is.  Let’s face it, we’re usually the most bowled over by performances with strong emotions and possibly a bit of yelling, not the performances where you need to really look into the actor’s eyes and try to see what the character is thinking.  Another part of the problem is that since his 1970s haydey he seems to have frequently done some of his best work in movies that are merely good rather than great.  Get Low, a film from cinematographer turned first time director Aaron Schneider, is not a great film but its also a little bit better than a lot of those “merely good” films that Duvall has been doing all that great work in.

            In spite of the title, this movie has nothing to do with Lil’ Jon.  The film is set in rural Tennessee during the midst of the Great Depression and centers on an isolated farmer named Felix Bush (Robert Duvall).  Bush has been living like a hermit on his three hundred acre farm in the woods, making contact only scare away the town children that sneak onto the land in order to vandalize the crazy old man’s house.  Needless to say, the entire town is kind of scared of him.  But one day he learns about the death of an old friend and this puts him into a contemplative state.  The next day Bush rides into town for the first time in a long while and asks the town preacher to give him a living funeral.  The preacher isn’t interested but the local funeral director, Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), sees dollar signs in his head and contacts Bush.  Bush doesn’t merely want a modest service, he wants to invite everyone in the area to show up and tell a story about him, seemingly because he wants to set the record straight about all of the rumors that have been spreading.  Knowing he’s on to something, Quinn decides the novelty of this could create a sensationally large gathering and begins to promote the event.  Much Americana ensues.

            The Felix Bush character is really interesting in that you’re never quite sure what to think about him until the end.  He starts out seeming like a violent nut, someone who’s being exploited by Frank Quinn for his eccentricity, but as the film goes on he reveals a method to his madness.  Bush begins to feel like a misunderstood soul and in the closing moments of the film he begins to feel like someone even more interesting than that.  This is augmented by an excellent performance by Robert Duvall.  Duvall has always been good about playing, blue collar characters who aren’t stupid and have a certain wisdom under their rough exterior, but not in a cheesy way.  Bill Murray is also really in his element playing an opportunistic character, played straight, but with an undercurrent of dry wit.  Sissy Spacek is also really solid here in a small but memorable part that has greater importance late in the film.  For that matter, there are a lot of good character actors doing cool things here.  Lucas Black has a nice little part here, so do Gerald McRaney and Bill Cobbs. 

            The movie goes at a slow, but not noticeably slow, pace and allows the audience to dwell on the scenery and on the character interactions.  It takes some time to figure out what makes Felix Bush tick, which can be a little frustrating, but by the film’s climactic speech you really come to understand and empathize with him.  This is not a movie that blows you away, and it’s not a wildly bold or original work either, but it works really well in its low-key way and makes for 100 minutes well spent.

*** out of Four