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Sunday, December 26, 2010

'Buried' Review

A claustrophobic thriller staring Ryan Reynolds, 'Buried' takes an extreme approach in depicting a contemporary story. Its innovativeness leaves us as an audience with the entire film taking place in a coffin, with the camera only leaving Ryan Reynolds face for seconds at a time. 

Here's to looking at you, Ryan
Paul Conroy (Reynolds) wakes up in a coffin underground with no memory of how exactly he came to be there. After assessing the situation and calming down he locates a cell phone, a lighter, and a pencil- not exactly part of Bear Grylls survival guide, but beggars can't be choosers. He calls everyone he can think of to help him out but no one answers leading him into deeper despair. Eventually he gets a call from an Iraqi insurgent who wants money in exchange for his safety, 5 million dollars- a sum he does not possess nor have the capability to obtain. He is able to contact the State Department and media outlets and his presence is known throughout many government circles, exposure that will hopefully lead to his freedom. 
But as his air starts to run out he becomes more desperate, putting his trust in the hands of some questionable people. Paul's conflict is resolved at the end, but as we see what happens to him the film cuts to black and the film ends. 

I don't know why, predisposition maybe, but I have always been claustrophobic. Putting myself in Conroy's shoes here was a horrifying proposition for me but after a while I assured myself that it was just a movie and I was okay.

This movie should not have worked, how could an audience with the attention span of a goldfish be expected to watch 90 minutes of Ryan Reynolds? How could a movie set inside a box be exciting and have me on the edge of my seat? Well, it has to do with the direction of Rodrigo Cortes. He creates an atmosphere that mixes suspense with anticipation that results in a Grade A thriller and one hell of a nightmare. Cortes is a relative newcomer to the profession but has earned wide acclaim for his previous work and is definitely a director worth watching in the years to come.

From what I know of Ryan Reynolds, 'Waiting,' 'Van Wilder' I can't stand him. His disposition just annoys me and I just consider him such a goofy, unserious person unfit for roles such as this. He was tolerable in this film, certainly showing me an acting prowess that I didn't see in him before. Were there other actors I would have liked to see in this role other than Reynolds? Yes, absolutely. Preferably someone with a temper, like Mel Gibson in his prime, not a bona fide comedian known for being a slacker like Reynolds. I think about how much better this movie could have been with a humorless actor who I could take seriously. 

His milkshake brings all the boys to the yard...

A thriller comparable to the films of yesteryear, 'Buried' succeeds where most films fail. It is exciting and enthralling but it just isn't as believable as I would have liked. 'Buried' is an above-average flick that loses much of its air as it moves along due to an over indulgence in Ryan Reynolds. It's clearly not a studio movie, but it does the best it can with B movie budget and B movie acting.

Grade: B

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

'The Fighter' Review

Mark Wahlberg's passion project that he carried through the development process and physically prepared for for 4 years has finally arrived. And while it certainly is not the new age 'Rocky,' or on par with the likes of 'Raging Bull' it is a likeable underdog film characterised by strong central performances, masterful direction and an emotional, albeit predictable, story line.

The story begins with Micky Ward (Wahlberg) and Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) sitting together on a couch being interviewed by HBO films about Dicky's improbable comeback to the sport of boxing. Dicky used to be the pride of Lowell, Massachusetts (where the film is set) because, in his heyday, he managed to knock down Sugar Ray Leonard in a fight- a fact heavily contested throughout the film. But despite his successes Dicky's career ended after his crack addiction got the best of him, leaving him to spend most of his free time in a crack house while his mother (Mellisa Leo) turns a blind eye to it.

Micky gets the number of an attractive bartender (Amy Adams) but is too embarrassed to call her after his family mismanages his next fight, resulting in him taking a beating from an opponent 20 pounds heavier than him. The bartender, Charlene, takes offence to his actions and confronts him at his house and it is only after Micky spills his guts to her that she forgives him and allows him to take her out, kindling their relationship. As the two grow closer Micky begins to see things more clear, right now his family is dysfunctional and is pushing his career in the wrong direction and the best thing he can do for himself is to sever his working relationship with them and take on a new manager and trainer.

The initial shock from his family ultimately turns toward distress when Micky begins winning his fights. His new 'team' makes him swear to avoid his family, but he breaks his promise when he asks Dicky, who is now in prison after being arrested for impersonating a police officer and resisting arrest, for advice on an upcoming fight. Using the advice he is able to win thereby clinching an opportunity to fight for the welterweight belt. He reconciles with his family, after they apologise for their actions, and with the full support of all those who love him is able to win the welterweight championship of the world.

The story is inevitably cliched but the film sets itself apart from others by the performances of its leads. Christian Bale deserves every award he is illegible for, I don't care if it is the orange blimp at the Nickelodeon Kid's Choice Awards or the golden statue at the Oscars, the man deserves it. He puts himself through Hell for this role and absolutely owns every minute of his screen time. His character is also the funniest in the film, adding a dimension of humor to the film that I had not expected coming in.  Initially I saw him portraying a character who was way over the top, seemingly unrealistic but after the movie ended there was a video clip of the real Micky and Dickey and it was eerie how similar Christian Bale played this guy, almost pitch perfect.

Melissa Leo was the only other outstanding performance in the film as her character, a mother of 9, struggles to cope with her world falling apart and desperately trying to mend it. Mark Wahlberg and Amy Adams show off their acting chops in their respect roles as well but neither will be as memorable as Leo or Bale's character's.

Occupying the directors chair here is 3 time Wahlberg collaborator David O. Russell. He succeeds in getting the best out of his actors by demanding so much out of them and constantly expecting them to be perfect. If you recall the incident on the set of Three Kings with George Clooney where the two got in a fist fight over Russell's badgering of the crew( if you can get Clooney to take a swing at you, you must be a real dick..); or this little confrontation with Lily Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees:

(The clip features some offensive language, be forewarned)

However despite how much of an ass he might be he certainly can shoot a movie, and in The Fighter he shows off his skills giving us an enjoyable film, he had my palms sweating in the middle and (although I knew the ending going in) had me rooting hard for Mickey at the end. My favorite part of the film is the way the boxing matches were shot; HBO style- giving the film more of an authentic feeling than if David O. Russell shot it his own way. The authenticity of the film doesn't stop with the camera work either, it goes all the way to the fights themselves where Mark Wahlberg did all of his own 'stunts,' essentially becoming a boxer for this role. He takes punches, he throws punches, he risks damaging his multimillion dollar physique all for the sake of realism. And although I can't speak for how closely this story matches with the truth, I would bet money that not much was sugar coated or omitted.

A gritty, raw, emotional and fun film, The Fighter is a feel good film that is enjoyable through all the ups and downs.

Score: A-

Sunday, December 19, 2010

'Good Will Hunting' Review

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck both won an Oscar for their work on this screenplay, but everyone knows that. What is great about the film is the fact that it is written from the point of view of Bostonians, guys who grew up in the shit they wrote about, drawing influences from past people and events. But at the same time it is so powerfully written that it is hard to remember that epople live this way, live this struggle, and for every Will Hunting that makes it out, there are others who can't.

The story follows a gifted young adult, Will (Matt Damon), who works as a janitor at MIT and constantly solves, to the annoyance of the professor, extremely difficult math questions left undone. And as luck would have it one of the professors spots him working and attempts to change his attitude from ambivalent to scholarly by personally tutoring him in all things math- A proposition Will is not extremely excited about.

Before the tutoring gets very far, one afternoon while hanging out with his 'boys,' Will ends up beating the hell out of some seemingly random kids at a neighborhood basketball court, arrested, and forced to complete counselling or else be throw in jail. His counselor, played by Robin Williams, really affects a formerly stubborn Will at a personal level and gets him to see the world differently- essentially helping him to mature and 'grow up.' After completing his counselling sessions and receiving some tutoring (the two introducing Will to contrasting societal ideals) he is left to find a job, of which he as the pick of the litter. However what he ultimately decides to do lets the audience into Will's head for the first time and helps to fully develop his character and also acts to bring the story full circle.

About halfway into watching this movie I became worried- there was no conflict set up, no adversity for Will to overcome, and although it was clever and funny it didn't really have any dynamic quality to it leaving me wondering why this film had been so highly regarded. But then it became clear the main conflict wasn't between two people, as is most often the case, but within Will. His life has extraordinary potential and he is talented enough to succeed in society, but he has become so complacent and accustomed to his below-average lifestyle and blue collar work ethic that he does not want to give it up. He would be happier living how he wants as opposed to what is best for him. Will ultimately has a very shapable personality and tends to follow his friends lead, so if he is going to change his friends are going to be the ones to convince him.

"In 20 years, if you're still livin' here, comin' over to my house
to watch the Patriots games, still working construction, I'll
fuckin' kill you. That's not a threat; now, that's a fact.
I'll fuckin' kill you."

Matt Damon was terrific as the lead, showing flashes of his future brilliance although there were times where he seemed a bit raw as an actor. His mix of superiority and vulnerability meshed seamlessly creating one of the most diverse and unique character studies in recent memory. However for as well as Damon played his character, Robin Williams was better. Able to play off Will's insecurities, Robin Williams is the only character in the film who can see the real Will Hunting and therefore has the best opportunity to impress ideas and advice upon him. Williams played his character with the bravado he is known for, scaled down to a degree, but also embodying reason and wisdom, explaining the brief and fragile nature of life. Williams also received an Oscar for his work in the film, very deserving even if he was overshadowed a bit by the boys from Boston.

The other notable performers in the film were the Affleck brothers, Casey and Ben. And despite his string of less than stellar big budget flops and the negative connotations associated with his career, Ben Affleck is actually a very talented individual and it is clearly evident in this movie, despite what Family Guy thinks:

The director of this film, Gus Van Sant, is probably known more for his turn playing himself on HBO's Entourage than for his small budget films but this guy has serious talent and his filmography is no joke- Drugstore Cowboy, Finding Forrester and Milk. A very non-mainstream director known more for touching on difficult subjects, he does an excellent job making the script come alive and stamping his own personal touch on this movie. It is evident in this film that he was successfully able to get the best out of his actors, certainly helping Robin Williams exceed his acting potential as well as making bona-fide stars out of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.

Good Will Hunting is one of the best movies that I have had the pleasure to see and one that I will always have a spot for in my Top 5 lists. With a cast and crew of competent actors and filmmakers combined with a charming, witty, well-developed script, there is little doubt that this film ranks up there with the best of them. A pop-culture lovers dream, Good Will Hunting is a film that will certainly stick around with you.

Score: A+

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Why the Kids Don't Stand a Chance.

It is true, I am an impressionable youth and I do not have a chance of becoming successful in my life. The evidence? How about the 19 years I have spent on this planet, each day being fed with lies and bullshit that it has become damn near impossible for me to distinguish between what is true and what isn't.
There isn't a specific date from my youth (with 9/11 being the exception) where I can remember and chronicle everything that happened that day. My childhood was a blur of firsts, people, and events that no longer matter to me. My first steps? They don't matter, I have car payments now. I bought plane tickets just 3 weeks ago so I could get to my parents house for Christmas. I walk for exercise, I bike for exercise, but sometimes saving the environment takes a back seat to my 'saving time that turns insignificant anyway' attitude. We take for granted the things that made us who we are, and instead focus on the things that keep us happy. Like television. I sometimes wonder if there is a correlation between people who can tell you the names of all the actors on their favorite TV show, and the people who would struggle to come up with the name of their U.S. Representative. I know its not a realistic marker but that is beside the point. The point is that these days people want to know where their favorite movie stars eat lunch, and who they eat it with, and yet don't bother to concern themselves with their own lives.
If the kids are the future, I sure hope that a few of us have learned some things. The country and our teachers tell us what they want us to know, not what we should know. And that is a big problem because there is not much learning going on outside of class. Video games have shrunken that attention spans of the people who play them, leaving the mind unable to give 100% focus for more than 15-20 minutes at a time, which leaves much of the time spent in a classroom wasted. But while bad things can be said about video games and their impacts I do not think this is where the problem lies, it lies with the quality of education.
Im not here to preach about recession, the shrinking middle class, the war for oil, the tea bangers or the educational opportunities between the rich and poor. I am here to talk about the content that the children learn, how much of it originates in the class room but also how people extract things out of the different mixed media's that rule this country. And I can tell you exactly where it starts. 
The leaves are beginning to turn, the warm summer wind has been replaced by the harsher gusts of autumn and you are in second grade- staring out the window dreaming about recess and how, today, you are finally going to make it all the way across the monkey bars. Your teacher draws the attention of the class, picks up his chalk and writes Christopher Columbus on the board. And here it comes:
"Columbus discovered America. In fourteen hundred ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue."
You are only 7 (maybe 8) and already your entire view of the world is skewed. 
In reality, as I am sure any one of you could tell me, America was not discovered by Christopher Columbus and his band of marry men. There had already been people living, quite comfortably I might add, in this piece of land for thousands of years before Columbus got lost at sea. And I say lost because thats what he was. He thought he was in India, hence christening the people living there as 'Indians.' And, as I toe the dangerous line that gets me off topic, do you really think that these civilizations needed a short, balding, unemployable, cantankerous man to tell them that they existed? No, probably not. 
So why change the story? Well obviously it is more Euro-centric, a word i had to make up to illustrate my point, and it creates, Christopher Columbus: The First American Hero. A national icon that every generation of American school child ignorantly worships.
But if government sponsored school curriculum can lie to us in our most innocent youthful phase, how can we expect to hear the truth? Our heads are full of so many false notions that we do not even realize it. They say that one lie begets another and from there it is a very slippery slope. And the only way to avoid the lies is to find the truth in things, ignorance in not a bliss but a folly.
It is important to understand but many times that is difficult. I have heard that understanding the past is the key to the present and it is something I would fully agree with. You do not know where something is going until you see from whence it came. 
It always interests me to look back at the histories of companies or institutions and see a little bit about what the world was like before I was even a thought. For example, BP and its origins in Iran as a ruling body or that the FBI was created to find boxer Jack Johnson when he skipped bail and fled the country. But what I found to be most fascinating was the story of Santa Claus. The prototype for the Santa we know in America today originated in Turkey. He gave presents out all year long, wore a green and white suit, was thin, and had a partner named Black Pete who would kidnap the naughty children. What caused the change you ask? Coca-Cola did actually. Coke's colors are red and white and if Santa was to be the official spokesperson for Coke, especially in the winter months, he needed to dress the part and look kid friendly. And viola, the first spokesman was born.
I fear I may have dodged my point here, which may have, inadvertently, proven it. What is learned is not as important as its analysis, and especially in todays age it is important to question everything. Good questions get good answers but not all good answers hold the truth. Lies are a fundamental building block of society, and these original lies turn into misconceptions, and these misconceptions are shared. Eventually everyone believes that Columbus discovered America. But before one can break a misconception they have to understand its history- you have to know the 'why' before you can comprehend the 'why not.'
Do I have your attention?