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Column Fri Sep 24 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Buried, Jack Goes Boating, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, Never Let Me Go, Catfish & Enter the Void

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

As much as I'm not really eager to do so, I really feel like I need to view Oliver Stone's follow-up to his 1987 indictment of corporate mergers gone wrong and the buying and selling of lives as well as companies to really get a sense of everything that's going on in it. The film is actually about five or six different films all rolling into one intoxicating mess, and at least a couple of the stories are worth telling and watching. In light of the U.S. economy, the bank crisis, government bailouts, and the stock market tumbles of the last couple of year, my only question is, Why has it taken Stone so long to bring Gordon Gekko (still played by Michael Douglas, who won an Oscar for the part more than 20 years ago) out of mothballs.

This version of Gekko has him out of jail for several years, a successful author and lecturer about where the economy is headed (the film begins just before the big crash), and he's pretty much predicted everything that happens. But Gekko isn't really in the movie that much. Instead, the bulk of the film focuses on Jake Moore (a silver-tongued Shia LaBeouf), a successful broker for a prestigious firm (run by Frank Langella). Jake just happens to be engaged to Gekko's estranged daughter Winnie (An Education's Carey Mulligan. When competing broker Bretton James (Josh Brolin) starts a rumor on the Street that essentially wrecks Langella's firm and forces him to sell it for pennies on the dollar, Jake makes it his mission to seek revenge on James, but rather than piss James off, he offers Jake a job. Meanwhile, Jake is also trying to make peace between Winnie and Gordon, he says because he thinks it will help Winnie, but it's clear that a big part of him wants to pick the old man's financial brain.

Some of the supporting cast fills in some of the other issues of the the last couple of years. Susan Sarandon plays Jake's annoying real estate agent mother, whose properties aren't selling, so she needs big loans from her son so the bank won't take her houses. Austin Pendleton plays a scientist working on a green energy program that Jake is passionate about and is trying to get his clients to invest in. Working for James, he soon discovers that the big firms often advised their clients to invest in worthless alternative energy efforts so their oil clients would reap the benefits when such an energy source fails to deliver. Like I said, there's a lot of fascinating information here, but some of it gets lost in a poorly organized series of events. I especially liked the recreating Stone does of the panic that set in when the markets took a nose dive, and the truly scary closed-door meetings that led to the largest bailout in our nation's history.

One of Stone's many strong suits has always been instilling a healthy paranoia in his audience, but I can't think of a time when his talents have been so timely or so necessary. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a return to form for Stone about 50 percent of the time. The rest of the time, we get...something that is slightly off, even obvious, which for Stone is deadly. There's a stupid motorcycle race between LaBeouf and Brolin, there's Jake's aforementioned mother, and perhaps the most detrimental element of the film is that every single human being in the audience is going to see a plot twist coming from 8,000 miles away because one of the characters (oh, I don't know, maybe the one with the slicked-back hair and greasy smile) is a master manipulator, and if you tell him you have $100 million coming your way, he might try to, you know, steal it. And it's not like Jake is portrayed as some overly gullible or idealistic guy; there's a healthy cynicism about him. But for some reason, his suspicion isn't peaked in the presence of a man that actually went to jail for insider trading.

Douglas has still got it, and seeing this revival of the '80s icon, coupled with his winning performance in Solitary Man earlier this year (and I can't wait to see what he brings to Steven Soderbergh's 2011 actioner Haywire), we're seeing a banner year for a guy that still has it, who still makes us like him in all his twisted villainy. There's a sequence at the end of this Wall Street that seems horribly tacked on and completely out of character for Gekko, Stone, and these movies. But there's another scene shortly before the ending where Jake confronts Gordon for the last time, and in it, we get Douglas at his finest and most shockingly good. Okay, maybe not so shocking, but damn is he a cool-hearted bastard. In the end, I think there's enough going on in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps to recommend it. The handful of dismal moments are largely overshadowed by some supremely strong performances, and when the film says "Panic," you'll ask, "How much?" Screenings of this film should be accompanied by anti-anxiety meds, and that's a good thing.

Buried

There are just some films you see in a given year that offer up a perplexing dilemma. You love it so much that you don't want to say anything about it, just so people who go to see it will know as little about it as possible. There's a film opening this week, Catfish, that a lot of people are saying that about, but I feel just as strongly about saying as little as possible about director Rodrigo Cortes' Buried, the one-man acting tour de force from Ryan Reynolds. I will review it as I review any film, but I urge you to wait until you've seen this film to read any more about it. It's simply too perfect to walk in knowing everything there is to know and still think you can fairly evaluate it. I know dozens of people who refuse to see this film because they have issues with claustrophobia. Cowards! I don't have such issues, and I still felt like I was going to throw up from anxiety and tension at various points during my first viewing. And when you step outside after watching Buried, air will taste sweeter than it did the day before.

Everything you've heard about Buried is true. This is the story in which every frame of the film features a man trapped inside a makeshift coffin with a few items that he manages to use to help keep him alive a little longer. He has various light sources, a limited air supply, and, most importantly, a cell phone with a dying battery. The film opens in total darkness for the first two minutes or so, with only the sound of Reynolds's character, Paul Conroy, waking up and panicking as he becomes aware of his surroundings and situation. It might be the scariest two minutes of the year. What was so fascinating to me about this sequence is staring at a white screen in the dark, a screen that has roughly the same dimensions as a coffin, and imagining Reynolds trapped inside. I kept expected to see a full-body image of him lying horizontally on the screen.

Buried is a film that, if nothing else, will tax your imagination as you wonder what it must feel like to be that cramped, or what it would smell like, or what it would be like to turn your body completely around inside such a small space, or who you would call with your last few minutes of phone privileges. More importantly, the movie forces you to consider how long it would take you to crack under this kind of pressure. Although the box he is in is buried in a dessert somewhere in Iraq (he's a contracted truck driver; his convoy was attacked), he is not a soldier or someone trained to withstand the mental anguish of torture or sensory deprivation. Writer Chris Sparling's script has been on the legendary Black List (a list of great, but allegedly unfilmable screenplays) for years, but Cortes has found a way around the obvious issues of filming inside a single, cramped location. He allows us to sometimes see Conroy from a vantage points that are simply impossible in real life, and manages to see this poor man from a limitless number of angles. But for the most part, things feel tight and miserable.

I can't say enough about just how riveting Ryan Reynolds' performance is. There's one moment early in the film, where he simply freaks out and starts thrashing in the coffins, almost as if he's having an epileptic fit, but it's really just an effort to move around as much as possible to instill the illusion in his brain that there's some amount of room in which to maneuver. We also realize quickly that Paul might not be the nicest guy out there. A couple of his early calls are abrasive and imply that he has a short temper that began before his current circumstances. This is where Reynolds' trademark smarmy attitude and even a bit of dark humor come into play more effectively. I think I'd be disappointed, maybe even shocked, if Reynolds doesn't receive some form of nomination come awards season. He's not simply talking to himself here, the way so few people actually do when they're alone, and that's what makes what he accomplishes in Buried so extraordinary. There comes a moment when Paul essentially gives up and tries to mentally brace himself for death. It's devastating event, and Reynolds beautifully sells that terrifying flash of staring the end right in the eyes.

Despite what you might think, there is an actual story being told here. Through a series of phone calls, we find out how Paul arrived in his situation and how quickly the effort to rescue him is progressing. Director Cortes doesn't waste a second of his or Paul's precious time, and there's always a new twist to keep things moving forward. At a couple points, the kidnappers require something of Paul; at other points, his employer wants something as well, and for a moment we're not sure who we're more angry with. The ultimate question being asked in Buried is who really put Paul in that box and, if he dies, who truly killed him. The answers may infuriate you as much as they do Paul. But the film grabs you by the throat, makes it hard to breathe, and may induce panic attacks, if you're lucky. Here's another prime example of original, independent horror rising to the occasion. Now comes the time when you must support it. Buried is one is beyond worthy of your support.

To read my exclusive interview with Buried star Ryan Reynolds and director Rodrigo Cortes, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Jack Goes Boating

Small and simple but about larger, more treacherous matters, the directorial debut from actor Philip Seymour Hoffman is actually kind of perfect. Hoffman has found a way of making the very real emotions of both a newborn relationship and another one in rapid decline cross paths in this volatile emotional minefield. We understand that Jack (Hoffman) hasn't had much of a history with women--meeting or dating them--and looks to his best (possibly only) friend Clyde's (John Ortiz) marriage to Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega) as his touchstone for how relationships should work. When Daphne sets Jack up on a date with co-worker Connie (Amy Ryan), Jack begins to see the worlds' possibilities and his own. When Connie makes an off-hand comment about enjoying boating, Jack becomes determined to learn to swim to prepare for their eventual boat ride. And no, it doesn't matter that it's the dead of winter and it would be months before boating would even be possible.

Bob Glaudini's screenplay (based on his play) appears on the surface to be a simple story of two couples a very different extremes, but each character is so richly realized through both the writing and the performances that I feel like I knew these people and how they would respond to every circumstance. What is so fascinating about Connie and Jack together is that they are clearly cut from the same uncomfortable, ill-fitting cloth, but as they do their dance as they consider various steps in their relationship, we are unable to look away. They negotiate every step, a fact never more obvious than their first attempt at sex. Connie's needs and cautionary behavior are so specific that only the most understanding man could meet them, and apparently that man is Jack. Jack retreats into what he knows, which includes his love of reggae music and his limo-driving job. Jack wants to learn to cook for Connie, and as Clyde helps to find him a chef to teach him certain meals, this simple act opens up a still fresh wound between Clyde and Lucy.

It's a genuine treat to watch Jack improve himself and want to be a better person for Connie, and it's rare to actually see this process be the focus of a movie, but Hoffman's dialed-back performance makes us care so much about Jack. He doesn't play him as dysfunctional or slow or pathetic. Jack is simply a guy who has never really had his shot and is now getting one. Because she's pretty, Connie has probably had a few more clumsy attempts at dating, but it's clear from Ryan's brassy yet fragile take on her character that her history with men has been abysmal. Equally gripping is the failing marriage of Clyde and Lucy. Clyde has practically driven himself insane holding back his anger and pain at Lucy's betraying him years earlier, and Lucy seems to resent Clyde for not being man enough to get angry. She resents his sensitivity in many ways, and in one particular sequence, she absolutely flattens him with her words.

One of the elements that I loved about Hoffman's direction of Jack Goes Boating is how he tends to begin a scene in the middle. He's not interested in prologue. He doesn't care how two people ended up in the middle of the street talking; suddenly, there they are. He doesn't need to see how people got into a room; they're just there because they need to be. It doesn't feel like Hoffman is being economical with his editing. More, it seems as if he's interesting in getting to the meat of the emotional connection with these series of slightly jarring transitions that leave us feeling about as off-kilter as the characters do with each other. It's a wonderful device that I'm not even sure is a device. But it works.

Jack Goes Boating offers up four characters that we don't often see on the big screen, people who either know no concept of hiding their true feelings about anything, or those who have been doing it so long, their love has turned to poison. In a strange way, the crumbling marriage presented here provides Jack and Connie the courage to move forward in their relationship. They've looked through the fire and decided that they won't turn into that. Of course, I'm sure many couples enter the same unspoken agreement every day, but there's something about these two that gave me hope. I really loved meeting these characters and witnessing this transitional period in their lives during this movie. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Jack Goes Boating star/director Philip Seymour Hoffman and co-star John Ortiz, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole

I was in no way surprised to find that director Zack Snyder's (Dawn of the Dead, 300, Watchmen) first foray into the animated world would be a film comparatively loaded with death, children (well, baby owls) in peril, and a underlying message that war is bad...unless someone fucks with you, and then it's fine to kick as much ass as possible. Adapting the first three novels in the "Guardians of Ga'Hoole" series by Kathryn Lasky, Snyder and his writers, John Orloff and Emil Stern, have actually assembled a gorgeous and action-packed film that attempts something that is rarely done in studio-driven animation--he tries to make the animals in Legend of the Guardians look, move, and act like the animals they are supposed to. The computer-generated owls that make up the bulk of the cast actually look like owls. They don't have cute smiley faces or any other human features. Some of the owls wear helmets or other armature on their talons, but all of the accessories appear to be things that could be slipped on easily by a creature with no fingers. Granted, these are small details, but I noticed them, and I wasn't even aware that this was an element of the film.

In a big picture sense, I also really enjoyed that the lead character Soren (voiced by Jim Sturgess) is a young owl who loves tales of mythology and stories about heroes, in particular, the lengend of a group of owls known as the Guardians of Ga'Hoole. When he and his brother are kidnapped by a villainous group of owls know as the Pure Ones, Soren manages to escape while his brother is tempted by the queen of the Pure Ones, Nyra (Helen Mirren; who wouldn't be tempted?) and stays behind to do her bidding, which includes kidnapping more young owls. Meanwhile Soren manages to find the Guardians and is taken into their fold, which includes fight training, flight instruction, and general schooling. The Guardians don't believe Soren's stories about the Pure Ones initially, but soon the peaceful clan is called into action, and an epic battle ensures, as only Zack Snyder could stage it, slo-mo and all.

With a commendable action story and great vocal talents, ranging from Hugo Weaving, David Wenham, Sam Neill, Anthony LaPaglia, Abbie Cornish, and Miriam Margolyes, the film does a fantastic job combining stunning visuals with mostly interesting characters. My personal favorite (and I'm guessing most will feel the same way) is the tattered and scarred soldier owl Ezylryb, voiced by the gravel-throated Geoffrey Rush. I not only liked Rush's delivery, but also what he's saying. Soren has heard tale of this leader of the last great owl war, but he envisioned someone quite different. Exylryb delivers the "war is hell" message, but he also acknowledges that sometime a people must fight for what is right. It's a strange message to include in a film designed for older kids, but it also fits right in with the story being told. This is essentially a portrait of war--there are clear-cut heroes, villains, and victims caught in between; and to see this all play out with a cast of CG owls is kind of cool.

My biggest complaint with the film is Sturgess' performance, which is a little to "golly-gee" for me, but in a cast made of of mostly badass Australians, you have to forgive one of the few Brits for overdoing things. Plus, Mirrens nastily seductive owl queen, which reminded me a great deal of the White Queen in the Narnia stories, more than makes up for Sturgess. I found myself repeatedly surprised how few punches Snyder and his team pulled with Legend of the Guardians; the film features a chilling sense of dread and danger. You know how people went ballistic when the toys in Toy Story 3 almost got incinerated? This film has about a half-dozen moments like that. And most kids familiar with the books will probably appreciate the hardcore approach even more than I did. I may not see it again in theaters, but I was on board and digging Legend of the Guardians, which features some great 3D to make the action pop just that much more.

To read my exclusive interview with Legend of the Guardians director Zack Snyder, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Never Let Me Go

I can't think of a recent science fiction film that felt less like sci fi and more like a quaint love story set largely in the British countryside. But music video director extraordinaire Mark (One Hour Photo) Romanek's latest work, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, shifts effortlessly from haunting to tragic to mysterious with such precision that the film is constantly making you question everything you see and hear. The simple fact is that the most shocking things contained in Never Let Me Go are presented with little fanfare, and the consequences of bigger questions about what defines humanity and the soul are given much more weight than you might expect or be used to. In the world established in this film, we are not looking at events as they took place. Instead, we are presented with events as they might have taken place if one very crucial medical discovery had been made in the 1950s: a cure for most known diseases--a fact that makes the average human life expectancy somewhere around 100 years old.

But Never Let Me Go isn't a film about the moral and ethical implications of such a discovery. Those issues have already been dealt with by the scientific community that barely makes an appearance in the film. This is not that kind of sci-fi story. Instead, we begin the film at a rural school filled with uniformed children and a rather strict teaching staff, led by headmistress Charlotte Rampling. When the film opens, the children seem to be learning what all kids do at that age, including instructions on manners, sports, and art. But certain subject appear to be missing, and the medical facility at the school seems far more advanced than the typical nurses office. Also the children are all wearing electronic wristbands, and are warned that if they leave the grounds, they will surely die. A new teacher (Happy Go Lucky's Sally Hawkins) joins the staff early on, but her conscience gets the best of her, and she confesses to the children what their true purpose in life is. It's a terrible moment, but we soon realize would have happened eventually under more controlled circumstances.

At the center of this story are three of the children, the more statuesque Ruth, her friend Kathy, and an awkward lad Tommy. Kathy has a crush on Tommy, which makes Ruth feel the need to steal him away. As they grow older, Ruth and Tommy (played by Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield) are still a couple and have gone from the school to a type of commune populated by young people that come from other schools like theirs. Kathy (An Education's Carey Mulligan) is also around. And while the now-grown children are allowed to enter society, most don't as they simply (and happily, it seems) wait out to serve their purpose in society. Kathy decides to take a job as a "carer," whose purpose I will not reveal here. Although I'm sure the secrets of Never Let Me Go are out there, I'm going to opt not to discuss them directly. They aren't difficult to figure out and they aren't kept secret for long, but it's not my place to ruin it for you if you choose to walk in blind as I did.

The performances in Never Let Me Go are so strong you almost don't notice it. I saw this film right after I saw The Social Network, also starring Garfield, who is the heart and soul of both films. Garfield is so dead-on great in both movies that you almost miss it because he makes it look easy. Tommy is a kid with a temper, who overcompensates by attempting to act as docile as he can so he doesn't seem anything less than perfect. Knightley's Ruth is the most pained and conflicted of the three, and while she smiles her way through most situations, there are often tears in her eyes and doubt in her voice in nearly every scene. But Mulligan is the true stunner in the movie as she seems like the one with the most determination to be as normal as she's able and then maybe even a little more beyond that, if she can get away with it. She questions her identity more than any of her peers, and we get a sense that she excels in her duties as a carer so she can get close to as many people like her as possible to see if anyone else feels the same way.

The fact that these three represent a world that can never go back to the way things were is devastating. There's a weirdly comforting language to these lives. Words like "carer" and "completion" and, most chilling, "donation" make what's happening in the world seem more just and easy to stomach. But Never Let Me Go isn't overtly about what defines life or humanity, and by keeping events and emotions at such an even keel, Romanek is, of course, demanding that we pay that much more attention to both. Mulligan is out guide and narrator through this story, and even her Kathy seems to understand perfectly what her lot in life is, and it's this accepting that makes us weep for her. Never Let Me Go is powerful, crushing material, and you should give it your total and immediate attention. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Catfish

Ah, now here's a film that is actually better the less you know about it. If you haven't already, don't even watch the trailer. If you have watched it, fine, but don't try and find out any more. If you're a true asshole and have dug around searching for the film's big twist, the joke's on you, because what makes Catfish so fascinating isn't its well-publicized twist (which actually isn't that tough to guess). What makes this exceptional documentary (and, yes, it's a real documentary!) so compelling is what happens after the twist and how filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman and the subject, Ariel's brother Nev, a professional photographer living in New York City, react to where their lives take them during their slightly mind-bending journey.

The set up is simple, but like all great docs of this nature, rather than try and steer the narrative to suit their needs, the filmmakers follow the action where it takes them, which is always more interesting. Nev's specialty is photographing dancers, and one day he receives a package that includes a painting based on one of his photos that appeared in a national magazine. The accompanying letter and signature on the painting are from an eight-year-old girl who lives with her family in upstate Michigan. As a way of thanking the girl for the painting, Nev sends her another photo of dancers, which she promptly does a painted rendering of and sends it to him. Thus begins a relationship that forms primarily online, but extends and grows through letters, phone calls, and texts with the girl, her mother, and her gorgeous 19-year-old sister Megan, a dancer, singer, and general hottie. Not surprisingly Nev forms a bond with Megan that grows deep and gets fairly intimate. Although the filmmakers initial interest in filming any of this had to do with documenting the works of the talented young painter, the romance angle of this story diverts them substantially.

But while on assignment in Colorado, the three men stumble upon something when Megan sends Nev a lovely song she says she wrote and recorded for him, and that's as much as I'm telling you (and that's as much as the trailer reveals). Yes, the filmmakers and Nev journey to Michigan to meet this incredible family, but nothing quite prepared them (or me) for what the find at the family farm or their in-town home. More than anything, Catfish is a film for our times. Online relationships of every kind should be suspect, and many people have horror stories about times when they've been duped by people pretending to be someone they are not. I'm not talking about online predators or con artists; I'm just talking about people posting false/old pictures of themselves or lying about their age or their physical description or talents and interests. But that's not really what Catfish is about either. This movie takes a hard look at motivation, and provides a fantastic character profile of folks who meet online and fall for each other because they simply need to.

I'm being a little misleading myself because I don't want to give away Catfish's best moments. But trust me when I say this is a great film that kept me guessing for the first hour or so, and then had me voracious for details once the curtain was pulled back. This is a film that is touching in its strange voyeurism. Some might say it's exploitative, but I don't think so. Nev threatens to drop out of the film once he starts to have his doubts. The movie is also loaded with three or four moments of true tension, the kind that only walking up to a door and not knowing what's on the other side can provide. You have to see this one to believe it, and so you shall.

Enter the Void

I was mesmerized by the long-awaited new work by Argentine-born director Gasper Noe (Irreversible); there's no other word for it. It's a trippy, eerie work that doesn't feel like anything he's done before, but still features the depraved characters and seedy locations that seem to populate his works. And your liking it will probably depend on whether you can handle the visual style of the film, which is done entirely from the point of view of a young man and occasional drug dealer named Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), living in Tokyo with his stripper sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta). And when I say "point of view," I literally mean, the entire film is seen through his eyes on two different plains. At first, it's exactly as you've seen POV shots done before. We rarely see the actor's face (unless he looks in a mirror), and hands come out from beside the camera whenever the character reaches for something.

But when Oscar is killed by police early in the film (not a spoiler), we continue to see the world through his ghostly eyes as he floating from location to location in search of his sister, whom he has sworn to protect and look after. But he not only sees what she is doing from the moment of his death on; he's able to watch the entire course of their relationship, from childhood that ended when their parents died violently before the kids' eyes in a car crash to their being separated. Oscar also sees other parts of his life, including the previously unknown events that led to his untimely death. Oscar doesn't comment on what he's seeing, yet we know exactly what he's thinking, who he loves and who he wants to get revenge upon, whether he's able to or not.

Once Enter the Void enters the spiritual plain, the visual style changes drastically in a manner I found hypnotic, but I could totally understand someone simply not being able to handle two hours of it. At times, the camera feels like a ghost floating above buildings and through walls; other times, what we're looking at bares a strange resemblance to the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. And just when your hypnosis comes dangerously close to putting you to sleep, director Noe throws in a different angle of the truly grotesque and powerfully loud car crash. I had a Driver's Ed teacher who did the same thing with two metal trash can lids to simulate the sound of a wreck. I think the jury is still out on whether Paz de la Huerta is actually an actress or not, but I promise you she looks great naked, and there's something kind of sweet and desperate about the relationship between the siblings after their parents die. The entire idea of the film--a dead brother looking over his self-destructive sister, hoping to save her--is lovely and comes across as appropriately melancholy, and I think it drives the movie to some fairly remarkable places. Combined with Noe's fascination with sex, drugs, and society's underbelly, and Enter the Void is a hell of an experience, drugs optional. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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