Oscar Shorts Eagle with It (Weekly Links)

Aniston, Sandler, going with it

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week, and etc.

The Eagle. “Dances with Wolves was then, and this is now.”

Just Go with It. “Loosey-goosey affection for letting actors stretch out and play.”

Gnomeo & Juliet. “Much lawn destruction ensues.”

The Taqwacores. “Doesn’t back away from complicated stuff.”

Oscar-nominated shorts. “They look like audition pieces for bigger things.”

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher about movies and true stories – from the mythology of Ronald Reagan to the fact-bending of The King’s Speech and The Social Network. Archived here; the movie bit kicks in at 14:58.

I give my talk in the Humanities Washington speakers program – “Alien Encounters: Sci-Fi Movies and the Cold War Culture of the 1950s” – on Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Sylvan Way Library in Bremerton. So if you’re anywhere near the Kitsap Peninsula, watch the skies. Info here.

At my other website, What a Feeling!, we’re doing music movies from the 1980s. Today: Stop Making Sense.

You Will Kind of Never Let Me (Weekly Links)

Garfield and Mulligan: Never Let Me Go, or a rehearsal for the next Psycho remake.

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

Secretariat. “Feel the hype.”

Never Let Me Go. “An arty take on a plot that might’ve come from a scrappy little sci-fi magazine.”

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. “Flabby exercise.”

It’s Kind of a Funny Story. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

It’s kind of a pee-wee league “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” this new indie about a depressed teen who spends a few days in a psychiatric unit in a New York hospital.

And, according to the title, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” too. Craig is a 16-year-old, played by the likable Keir Gilchrist, who feels overwhelmed one afternoon and sort of, kind of, wants to check himself in for treatment. He doesn’t quite realize that once checked into the unit, he’s stuck there for a few days. That casual sense of entitlement, of thinking he can waltz in without a game plan, is a somewhat unexamined piece of this movie.

Once inside, Craig meets a zany group of characters. These folks may be true to life, but they have about them the suspect air of movie people.

It works out that Craig meets up with a fetching young woman (Emma Roberts, from “Nancy Drew”) and a shaggy mentor (Zach Galifianakis). They have advice on how to get over the girl (Zoe Kravitz) he’s obsessed with. There are a couple of visits from Craig’s parents (Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan), and the telephone is a lifeline to the outside world. Despite his initial anxiety about news of his hospitalization getting around, he’s pleasantly surprised when his schoolmates actually think he’s cool because of his stay.

This film moves along nicely, has some passable laughs, and boasts a neat soundtrack (the original music is by Broken Social Scene). Yet something about it just feels too packaged.

It’s like watching a sitcom set in a mental ward. That concept is not impossible, perhaps, but it raises certain complexities that the film doesn’t much get into. This is a mild surprise coming from directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who previously did the searching “Half Nelson” and “Sugar.” If they wanted a holiday, this certainly qualifies.

There are some intriguing touches along the way, including the casting of Jeremy Davies (“Lost”) as a hospital attendant. Somehow he seems weirder as a normal person than he does when playing oddballs.

But if the movie has a singular feature it’s the performance of Zach Galifianakis, whose stand-up career has led him to breakout stardom in movies such as “The Hangover” and “Dinner for Schmucks.” It’s no revelation that this hedgehog of an actor hits the comic notes. But in his serious moments his shambling, disheartened demeanor feels authentic, and Galifianakis takes the time to act with his eyes. It’s a fine turn by someone easy to underrate.

Sleep Furiously. “We watch the wind blow through the trees.”

The Freebie. “Intentionally modest.”

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talked with Steve Scher about The Social Network and its status as a movie of the moment. Listen here.

And thanks to everybody at the Moses Lake Museum and Art Center for hosting my talk last night, and thanks to Humanities Washington for their Inquiring Minds program. A very good time it was; now I need to find a breakfast place around here.

The Social Network, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (The Cornfield #1)

First installment of a new weekly feature: a post about a movie (two movies, this time) that happens to be in front of me for some reason, any reason, no reason at all. Not necessarily tied to a new release in theaters or DVD, no particular “news hook,” nothing like that. Just notes from the cornfield – in the North by Northwest sense, or maybe the Twilight Zone sense.

Oh, to be a zeitgeist movie. To sum up a moment in history, to hit the crest of the cultural wave, to speak for an era. Make a movie like that and you’ll catch the excitement of How We Live Now; the question is whether the film will stand up decades later.

So, we have two of these here. One opened two days ago, the other in 1969. By chance, I saw both within a 48-hour-period. Both, as it happens, are about the way humans make connection, although the ’69 film is more successful at actually being about that.

In fact, The Social Network, despite its title and its occasional stabs at epoch-defining, is a legal thriller. It isn’t about Facebook, and anybody watching it without a prior knowledge of how Facebook works could be forgiven for remaining in the dark. In the movie’s terms (and as one dialogue exchange has it), Mark Zuckerberg invented a better chair, which becomes the basis for a tale of: lawsuits, a Faustian bargain, and the question of how inhuman the movie’s central character is. Those stabs at generational rallying cries are mostly spoken by the movie’s Mephistopheles, Napster founder Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake) – “This is our time!” and all that – and he’s saying them to seduce Zuckerberg.

As a legal thriller, The Social Network is smart and fun and sometimes exhilarating. From the brilliant opening sequence, in which Jesse Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg tries to argue his case with a girlfriend (Rooney Mara), the trademark ping-pong of Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue provides the jitterbugging pulse, caffeinated for a Red Bull sensibility. The script hedges its bets with Zuckerberg: he gets some of the best lines, especially in the legal scenes, but from the opening scene forward Sorkin takes pains to let other characters call him an asshole; indeed, this sets up the movie’s final exchange, a too-tidy, TV-scaled dressing-down. Why do we need to be told this? God forbid we should think the movie thinks Zuckerberg is a hero, just because he invented an ingenious and far-reaching Internet phenomenon?

In the movie, Zuckerberg gravitates toward Parker and away from co-founder Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, damp). Guess what: he’s right to do so. Parker’s ideas are better. The film moves away from Zuckerberg in its final third, setting up the bland, dewy-eyed Saverin as its, I don’t know, human-interest peg. I may be in the minority, but Zuckerberg (the film’s Zuckerberg, anyway) presents a great deal of human interest, actually, especially in Eisenberg’s deft performance. Sorkin’s script may distance itself from Zuckerberg, but Eisenberg’s performance is unapologetic.

David Fincher seems to like him pretty well, too – and how could he not identify with the character? Fincher’s metronome is right on target with this film, and he’s superb at finding ways of arranging bodies in rooms. I’m not sure why people are praising the movie so much for how great it looks – to my eye, the faces frequently take on a flat, video-greenish quality. An intentional touch for a picture about the Horrible Dangers of the Internet? Fair enough, but still. (And to be fair, The Social Network doesn’t contain that much old-fogeyism about the Horrible Dangers of the Internet; the overheated Catfish is much more simple-minded on that score.)

There’s one chance for Fincher to show off, a rowing sequence involving the Winklevoss twins (terrific double performance by Armie Hammer) in England, set to Trent Reznor re-doing “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” It’s just as mystifying as it sounds. The scene that follows is quite good, but the race itself – what the hell? A visual depiction of the competitive drive that fuels some of the lawsuiting? An excuse to wake the audience up after lots of dialogue? Continue reading

Let Me Network (Weekly Links)

Timberlake and Eisenberg, posting status

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

The Social Network. “Smart, swift momentum.”

Buried. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

And I thought the recent Israeli film “Lebanon”—which took place inside a tank in wartime–set a standard for movies set in small, claustrophobic spaces.

Forget that. “Buried,” a crazy and sort of astounding new film, takes place entirely inside a coffin, which appears to be under a few feet of earth.

A man wakes up in the coffin, in the dark, with no memory of how he got there. A cigarette lighter and a cell phone are nearby. The movie would consist of a black screen without those tools, of course. The cell phone also gives the man a voice, as he frantically tries to establish contact with somebody outside. But it’s also there so someone can contact him—with a demand.

The buried man is played by Ryan Reynolds, the actor best known for comedy (“Definitely Maybe,” for instance) and the occasional action picture. Reynolds is a tall dude, so the trapped man’s dilemma has the added benefit of happening to someone who can barely move around in this confined space.

As you can probably guess, “Buried” is an acting tour de force, a one-man show in which we can barely see the man. Reynolds rises to the challenge, savagely conveying various levels of desperation and layering in moments of much-needed humor.

Except for the voices on the other end of the phone, that’s it. There are no flashbacks, no cutaways to the outside world—no relief. In other words, if you’re claustrophobic, you might want to go see something a little airier, like “The Descent” or “Panic Room” or something. This movie will drive you nuts.

Which means Spanish filmmaker Rodrigo Cortes has done his job. Like Alfred Hitchcock in “Lifeboat” or “Rear Window,” he’s set himself a restriction and found a way to make it come to life. (Even the cool opening credits have a vintage Hitchcockian flavor.) Give Cortes and writer Chris Sparling credit for following this situation all the way to its logical end. While some moments may require a suspension of disbelief—you’d better accept the idea that a cell phone could get reception under the ground, or the movie won’t click—”Buried” is true to its own set-up.

I have avoided providing any explanations for the buried man’s situation, because these are best discovered while watching the movie. But the issues aren’t quite as a simple as they seem, given the dilemma at hand. With 90 minutes of oxygen and no apparent way out, survival is the goal—but not the entire point of this interesting exercise.

Let Me In. “Softly falling snow.”

Waiting for “Superman.”“At least as troubling as global warming.”

Freakonomics. “A little too cutely.”

Cell 211. “Monzon loses his early grip on plausibility.”

An interview with Waiting for “Superman” director Davis Guggenheim. (Link dead; interview below)

By Robert Horton

His father was an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker, and Davis Guggenheim hasn’t fallen far from the family tree. His film “An Inconvenient Truth” won the documentary Oscar a few years ago, and he’s also worked in narrative films and TV.

His newest project, “Waiting for ‘Superman,'” aims high again. A searching look at the U.S. public school system, the film surveys new ideas in education while following the stories of five kids waiting for a lottery that might get them into better schools.

Guggenheim visited the area last week, and I interviewed him in a hotel room. Though fighting off the effects of a cold, he seemed as concerned about his subject as ever.

Q: When you win an Oscar, is there pressure on what you do next?

Davis Guggenheim: I had a friend who won a Pulitzer Prize, and she said, “Celebrate for a couple of days, then hide it. Put it away, pretend you didn’t win it.” A lot of times awards are confusing, and they can be distractions. My choice was to work a lot, and strike the iron while it’s hot.

Q: The education system is a sprawling subject.

DG: This was the hardest thing I’ve done, by a huge factor. You’re essentially telling two stories. One was the story of the kids and their families trying to find a grade school and ending up in the lottery. The other was the system that the adults had built. Education is full of all these traps and wormholes and things that don’t make sense. That was the hardest part about it, was clearing the path so that I could understand. The idea was to get people who aren’t engaged on the subject—who just give it up as too complicated—to say OK, I’m open to learning more about it.

Q: How would you describe the ideal response of someone who’s just watched the movie?

DG: The thought process through the movie is: Oh, the crisis is much bigger than I imagined. It affects me, my own future—the price of my home, the safety of my neighborhood, the economy. But now there are really exciting ideas of reform happening, that are piercing through this sense of “It can’t be done.” It can be done, if we have the will. So when the lights come up, I hope you say, “I want to get involved. I can take the first step.”

We had a similar thing, the stages you pass through, with “An Inconvenient Truth.” [The stages for the viewer were] Global warming is real. We’re causing it. Time is running out. But it can be done. Those kind of steps.

Q: The movie has suspense because these kids are waiting for a lottery to decide their schooling. But at the same time, you can’t feel good about it, because why should education come down to a lottery?

DG: We as viewers kind of love that structure. You know, “The Bachelor”: there’s three beautiful girls, and only two roses. But you’re right, in our film, there’s some shock that it should be that way. This isn’t a game show, this is America, this is real. These are real kids, and every one of them deserves a great spot at a great school.

Q: You feel bad that these kids should even have to go through this suspense, where some of them are going to end up “losers.”

DG: It’s barbaric, and it’s un-American. But weirdly, you could make the argument that these are the lucky ones. Just to have a chance at a lottery. There are districts and neighborhoods that don’t even have an option. At least these are school districts that are on a path to have more choices. It’s heartbreaking. We wanted all these kids to win.

Q: Is there anything you had to leave out of the movie that you regret not having?

DG: I’d love to be able to talk about what makes a great teacher. Because I think that’s the essence of it. But I also couldn’t make a five-hour movie.

Q: What’s the feedback on the film so far?

DG: There’s a small group that is very defensive, a group that feels the movie is anti-teacher. But the vast majority embrace it, including the majority of teachers, too. Good union district teachers are the victims of this system as well. People want great schools. I think the movie is kind of a catalyst for getting people to come together and realize that now is the time to act. The movie can be a gathering point and an activation point.

Q: Has the system changed at all since you stopped filming?

DG: There’s this sense of possibility that wasn’t there ten years ago. The status quo is really threatened. [Education reformers such as Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada] have disproven a set of beliefs that have kept things from changing. A set of beliefs like, “Those kids can’t learn.” “Those neighborhoods are too poor.” “You can educate some kids, but not all kids.” These schools have shattered that.

Q: Documentary filmmakers live with a subject for years at a time. Does that ever drive you nuts?

DG: This one was hard. This one drove me crazy for different reasons. There were times when I just felt like it couldn’t be done. Times when I felt like, “Do I really have to talk about the unions and the Democratic Party?” These are uncomfortable for me, because I’m a Democrat and I believe in unions. Whereas when you’re doing “An Inconvenient Truth,” it’s easy to be mad at ExxonMobil. But no, I love that I can spend a couple of years and learn about it. I’m lucky that way. To dive in deep and immerse yourself, and meet people. That’s a gift.

And on Wednesday I talked on KUOW’s “Weekday” with Steve Scher about characters whose cultural impact become the opposite of what was intended; Wall Street‘s Gordon Gekko and Scarface‘s Tony Montana among them. Listen here; the movie bit kicks in at the 15-minute mark.

Movie Diary 9/27/2010

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (Paul Mazursky, 1969). The Port Townsend Film Festival happened last weekend, and the special guest was Dyan Cannon; her tribute evening (yrs. truly acting as moderator) began with a screening of this movie. Gee, it holds up well. More about it later, perhaps. Cannon was an excellent guest, articulate and warm, and anyone hosting her for dinner should know that she really likes roasted eggplant.

Number One (Dyan Cannon, 1977). As an impromptu part of the PTFF, Cannon brought her Oscar-nominated short film (40 minutes long) to screen. It’s a pretty remarkable film about childhood – nobody could/would make it today because of its frankness – and its empathy for the kid-mindset (and the way adults have amnesia about childhood) is complete. If it had subtitles and had been made by a young French director instead of a Hollywood bombshell, it would probably have led to a substantial directing career. (Trivia: this was photographed by Frederick Elmes the same year he did Eraserhead.)

Obselidia (Diane Bell, 2010). And this was the winner of the festival’s Best Narrative Feature prize, an odd and mostly charming little thing about a man compiling an encyclopedia of the obsolete, and the woman who pursues him. The indie-quirk is kept to a tolerable ratio.

Cell 211 (Daniel Monzon, 2009). Gets into a few unlikely plot developments after its first hour, but this prison-riot picture keeps the screws turned reasonably well. (full review 10/1)

The Sting (George Roy Hill, 1973). It was on TV during a lull, and I really hadn’t seen it since it came out. Some things are better left to fond adolescent memory. Scott Joplin rules.

The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010). A film that takes the zeitgeist by the very neck and writes the story of our time large across the epoch….nah, it’s just an entertaining movie. (full review 10/1)