Film criticism by Ian Kay.

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“127 Hours” (2010); dir. Danny Boyle

James Franco delivers an excellent performance in Danny Boyle’s engaging, fictionalized account of Aron Ralston’s heroic real life battle for survival. In 2003, the thrill-seeking loner Ralston, while hiking in a remote canyon in Utah, gets his arm immovably smashed beneath a fallen boulder, where he remains trapped for 127 hours. Alone and without a cell phone (would he have gotten reception even if he had had one?), Ralston struggles to free his arm, which, over several days, decomposes before his very eyes.

We see Ralston’s fall, his struggle to free his arm and then his attempts to cut the arm off; we watch as he calculates his water intake and his ingenuity with what few tools he remembered to bring with him (he forgot his Swiss army knife, of all things!). Throughout, he takes a sort of video diary with a mini camera. He first divulges his plans for escape and self-mockingly jokes about his failure to tell anyone where he had gone. More affecting are what might have been his last words to his family and ex-girlfriend, who he has every reason to believe he will never see again. Hope comes and goes, opportunities and ideas present themselves until finally, in the most gruesome development, he frees himself. (I’m not giving away the ending here; it is no secret that Ralston lived.)

Franco’s charm and the sheer impressiveness of Ralston’s feat carry the film. Director Boyle, with too much cuteness and “style”, prevents the movie from being something more than entertaining (though it is very entertaining). In a tale of a man’s miserable struggle for survival, the last thing we should feel is the gloss and artiness of the director. Smooth time-lapse shots and intermittent bursts of radio music interrupt rather than enhance the tension of the event at hand. We do not feel the dryness of the day or the bitter cold of the night. We get the idea from Franco’s shivering and from his parched lips, but these suggestions of hardship are eclipsed too quickly by the next edit or memory. Boyle also plays with Ralston’s apparent descent into hallucination, providing good humor but with diminishing returns; should we still be chuckling so many times on day four of starvation and harsh exposure? Nevertheless, I cannot deny that I was gripped for most of the film. It is nearly impossible to lose interest during the recounting of such a remarkable story.

Franco’s portrayal of an immature man-child reflecting on the mistakes of his life is effective and provides quite possibly the only way to make the story accessible to mass audiences. Boyle could have gone with a grittier, real time approach, but perhaps this would have disallowed the crowd pleasing moments he seems to enjoy so much. Franco brings us back around to the human side: it is a lone man’s fight, with nature and his own sanity. It is not so much the glamorous adventure that Boyle seems to want to sell us.

I was put off by the incongruous ending, smothered with exalting music and a blur of questionable, bright images. A fade to black after he is finally discovered would have been quite sufficient. It is even stranger now, looking back on it; Franco playing Ralston is pushed to the background in favor of editing tricks and music and images of the real Ralston.

Despite all of my criticisms, I still enjoyed the film and would likely recommend it, mainly for Franco and a handful of excellent scenes. I suppose I feel a touch of disappointment at what seems like a missed opportunity at a mind-blower. Real life stories like this do not come around very often. I think that Boyle didn’t have to do as much to the story as he does; but of course that is his way. Sometimes it works and other times it does not quite fit.

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“You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” (2010), dir. Woody Allen

Adultery. Painfully annoying mothers-in-law. Older men with much younger women. It’s the new Woody Allen movie! Woody’s latest, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, is a claustrophobic, mildly funny and highly tense dramedy about dissatisfaction and the absurdity of humanity. Or, more precisely, it is about a group of people, too smart for their own good, making bad decisions.

Roy – played enthusiastically and awkwardly by Josh Brolin – is a novelist with writer’s block. He has one successful book, and worries he may not have another one in him. His wife, Sally (Naomi Watts) works in an art gallery, and one day wants to run her own. It is plain from the start that Sally is frustrated with Roy’s floundering, though she expresses support when he needs it. The wedge that pries them apart is two-headed: Sally’s mother, recently divorced, and Dia, a beautiful young woman who moves in to a neighboring apartment.

Gemma Jones plays Sally’ mother, Helena, with a hypnotic air of confusion, intertwined with a strong element of fear. She has been left by her husband so late in life… what will she do? Will she ever find love again? Even in her own despair, she believes her daughter can do better than Roy. She cannot seem to decide whether being alone is worse than being with the wrong man. But surely things need to change.  Helena is the most demonstrative of the characters, displaying open paranoia and grasping at the advice of a psychic for guidance.

Anthony Hopkins plays Helena’s ex-husband, Alfie, the one who runs off with a twenty-something former prostitute. Hopkins develops layers to his character, something he hasn’t done in some time. We see the familiar pompous intellectual who is control of every situation. But then we see the age fearing, pathetic old man running around with a younger crowd that he not only doesn’t control, but also doesn’t understand in the least. He literally gets beaten up for it.

As usual in Woody’s movies, the wife Sally loses patience with her struggling writer husband and develops a crush on her boss. Roy leaves Sally for Dia, who was engaged but breaks it off.  Yet the most interesting parts of the film don’t involve the relationship between Roy and Sally. There is a subplot which could quite possibly have been a much larger part of the film. Roy has a friend who is also a novelist, and has written a wonderful new book. The thing is, nobody but Roy has read the manuscript, and his friend dies in a car accident. Roy then submits his friend’s work as his own. I won’t spoil that part of the movie by revealing how it ends up, but this subplot brings a spark of thrill to an otherwise fairly dense little film.

The other breath of life comes from Alfie’s story. The prostitute Charmaine is portrayed by Lucy Punch with a happily surprising amount of introspection. Subtle facial expressions and tones of voice fleck her otherwise formulaic bimbo. There is an emotional confrontation in the last scene between Alfie and Charmaine that is the best in the film. For a few minutes, neither character is a caricature; both reveal the person they had, until then, been hiding.

Gemma Jones’s Helena could be considered in some ways the central character of the movie. She is the one that connects them all, and she is also very different than the rest. In her depression she has discovered a belief; a hope that a view of the future is possible, that communication with the dead is an option. In other words, that there is a power that can end fear. Everyone else tries to grasp at an earthly ideal, the perfect man, the perfect woman, professional success, youth. Helena shakes all of this aside and is, in some ways, the happiest of all at the close of the film. Perhaps Woody is making a comment on religion, or perhaps he is simply laughing at how we all struggle for the unobtainable.  Whatever it is, the film has a heavy sense of foreboding underlying all of the quick banter. The characters feel it and so do we.

“The Social Network” (2010), dir. David Fincher

Who of you, reading this review, does not have a Facebook account? I’d bet fewer than one out of three readers can say that they have not (yet) joined the largest social website in the world. Such is the impact and the pertinence of the story told in The Social Network. This film does not leave in us the vibrating tension and excitement of Inception, or the delight of Toy Story 3, yet I found myself discussing it  – happily – for many hours afterward.

What is immediately obvious while watching this densely woven morality tale is that great pains were given to be fair in presenting each party’s perspective. Essentially, the conflict is between Mark Zuckerberg (the CEO of Facebook), his jilted best friend (and CFO) Eduardo Saverin , and a pair of rich Harvard undergrads (Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss) who claim that the original idea for a Facebook-like network was theirs, not Zuckerberg’s. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The West Wing) had no one “true” story to present; rather, he had three very different takes on the events on Harvard’s campus in the early 2000’s. He chose to combine them in a blend of “whats ifs” and “quite possibly’s” without ever really pointing any fingers at any of the students. We come away with sympathy and doubt for each of the major parties involved in the lawsuits. Give Sorkin credit; shades of gray can often leave us cold, but to give us black and white would have been a travesty. Sorkin gives us instead a dark gray filled with engaging turns and much to ponder.

There is another major player portrayed in the film, Sean Parker, of Napster notoriety. He is the prime villain, as Sorkin and Fincher see it, a slick, fast talking home wrecker who tears Zuckerberg away from Saverin and then very nearly derails the company with an arrest for possession of cocaine. It is Hollywood, after all, and some sort of  identifiable antagonist had to be carved out of the mess. By casting Justin Timberlake, a successful recording musician, as Parker, we get a touch of irony with an appropriate level of smoothness, though with a healthier dose of handsomeness than the real Parker. Doubtless whatever methods he used in real life to sway the Facebook kids had more to do with impressive business jargon and less, as the movie tells us, “trout and marlin” metaphors, charming smiles and Victoria’s Secret models.

Zuckerberg gets Oscar-worthy treatment from Jesse Eisenberg, who resembles Michael Cera but thankfully is in possession of a far broader range of acting tools. The filmmakers want us to see Zuckerberg as a bit of a lost soul, someone who has astounding abilities but really just wants friends. Eisenberg is delicate as he handles the “misunderstood genius” role, never playing us for pity nor turning us off with alienating oddities. We see pain and jealousy flicker over his face in between streams of computer-speak and feigned arrogance, so we know he is as in-touch and human as the rest of us, albeit separated by brilliance and paranoia.  His fear of being a nerd, an outcast, hovers just beneath the energizing confidence he displays when programming. Throughout the film, he runs to his computer when things get tough. He escapes to where he is king.

Though the key events are based on fact and the personal accounts are from actual people involved, a classic Hollywood morality tale provides the outline for the story arc. Fame and money won’t buy you happiness (and you’ll lose all your friends along the way).  The closing moments of the film highlight the theme. Despite his victory, despite his billions of dollars, Zuckerberg is more concerned about “friend-ing” an old friend whom he had alienated.

Beneath the reverberation of a scintillating modern legend, cliched elements pervade: a good idea expands so quickly that the boys find themselves out of their element, status gets in the way of friendship, and a slick Californian (Parker) hoodwinks the naive friends out of quite a lot of money. We’ve seen this many times before. Events happen faster than our protagonist can keep up with, and in the end, does he really get what he wants? There is also some hammy acting from the supporting cast, from girlfriends to other computer whizzes, and it strikes a contrast to the subtle pull of “reality” from Eisenberg. Even the twins, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, come off as only a step above 80’s “college flick” bullies, the acting pulled out of the fire by Sorkin’s humorous dialogue.

What is fascinating to me is that Fincher and Sorkin somehow manage to avoid vilifying the Winklevosses. At first glance, we see that they are tall, blond, Olympic caliber rowers, rich and arrogant, and they are positioned against the protagonist. The perfect bad guys. Yet… what did they do wrong? They are certainly spoiled rotten, but they never cross the line: at one point they talk about how easy it would be to go find Zuckerberg and beat him up (“I’m 6’5″, 220 and there are two of me!”), yet they never do it. In fact, their only threat is lawsuit, and for that they have a reasonable point. Their arrogance and family money prevent us from pitying them, but I did feel bad for a moment when they lose a crew race the same day they discover that Facebook had gone international.

What we have in The Social Network is a pulsing portrayal of a significant development in the way that we communicate with each other. It is a solid piece of work from the brilliant David Fincher, capturing the feel of how things may well have gone down. It misses greatness because of some weak outer edges and a tendency towards caricature, but is still highly recommended and will surely garner a handful (or more) of Oscar nominations.

“The Town” , dir. Ben Affleck (2010)

Well who would’ve guessed it? Ben Affleck is a good director! Gone Baby Gone was promising; The Town delivers. What else is remarkable is Affleck’s performance – it’s his best in, well, maybe ever. I don’t know what that says about Affleck. Perhaps he can only put his heart into a performance when his heart is in the story, and like Good Will Hunting, he had a large role in creating this story.

Some critics have mentioned similarities to Heat and The Departed, and I agree on both accounts. Not that this film touches those two masterpieces; but some of the better sequences do seem to mirror those of Mann’s and Scorsese’s. And The Town has some of the very best, tense actions sequences in recent memory. Douglas MacRay (Affleck) and James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner)  run a group of armored car robbers and bank thieves. They’re all poor townies from Charlestown, MA (as are most bank robbers in the world, if we are to believe the filmmakers). They are smart, effective, and backed by an Irish mob boss, played revoltingly well by Pete Postlethwaite.  Their exceptional talent and resourcefulness , the likes of which you won’t likely find in real life Charlestown crews, is the most enticing part of the film; it is the juice that fuels the pace, and the factor that foreshadows the ending.

There is one particular heist, when the gang is dressed in nun outfits, that includes an extended chase through the narrow streets of the North End. It is not only expertly choreographed and tight as a wire, but it is concluded with a brilliant dab of humor that is completely unforeseen and utterly, laugh-out-loud funny. In fact, I give Affleck quite a bit of credit for several times injecting quality humor into what is essentially a crime thriller. It not only lightens the mood from time to time, but it also establishes the humanity of the characters. These aren’t just heartless thugs.

Yet what gives the film a leg up is a sure-handed identity. Whether or not you’ve ever been to Charlestown, MA, you’ll feel like you’ve just been there after seeing the film. That goes beyond location shooting and accurate accents.  There is a pervading feeling of desperation and pride in the characters that mirrors what we’ve been told about the criminally infested town. Affleck himself disappears in this aura, and for a rare two hours, we forget that he is Ben Affleck (rather than constantly and painfully reminded, like his last seven or eight films).  Like any good movie about a specific location, the Town itself is a palpable character in the story, like a dark, looming magnet always drawing the struggling characters back to their origins.

Renner is believable and scary, but in a very different way than his role as the lunatic bomb squad captain in Hurt Locker. There is something in Renner’s eyes that convinces you that he is capable of violence. Here, he also puts on an excellent townie bad-boy act, with what I think might be a little extra dark makeup around the eyes to give the impression of either drug use or minor malnutrition.

While The Town is one of the better films so far this year, I do have to say that I wish the ending was better than it is. No spoilers here, but I felt the film would have been better served with a slightly grittier ending. It seems too smooth and falls into place a little too nicely, and “nicely” isn’t a word that fits the Charlestown of this movie.

Bela Legosi and Dwight Frye in ‘Dracula’ (1931), dir. Tod Browning

For mass audiences, acceptance of special effects and acting styles are generally confined to particular decades. The only reaction the puppet bats in Tod Browning’s Dracula would get from a modern teen crowd would be laughs. The same goes for the histrionics of the cast.

Yet the mood of the movie, the dull creepiness that pervades the shots of Castle Dracula and the simple yet forceful presence of Bela Legosi transcends the shortcomings of the era. Legosi emanates evil, despite the amateurish eye-lighting and the mistimed closeups. A masterful performance such as his can make a movie worth watching on its own – but Legosi is not the lone bright spot.

The dynamic Dwight Frye (probably best known as Frankenstein’s assistant ‘Fritz’) as the lunatic Renfield brings an invaluable spark of life to an otherwise down-toned story. His wild eyes and crazy – yet controlled – voice give validity to Dracula’s power. The power of suggestion is one of Dracula’s strengths, but it is also the linchpin of early horror pictures. Without computer graphics or advanced techniques, a monster could wreak only so much havoc on screen to elicit an audience response. Instead, what evil has done or could do is emphasized, letting the imagination do its worst. We never see Renfield actually bitten – we see Dracula descend upon him. We never hear Dracula’s voice speaking in Renfield’s mind, or see his visions. But we first see Renfield as a normal business man, and then we see him crazed and creepy, laughing hysterically or quivering at Dracula’s command.  This is what Dracula can do. In a very real sense, Frye’s performance is the foundation for Legosi’s. Without it, Dracula’s threat would exist almost entirely in exposition.

This version of Dracula laid the groundwork for a lot of horror’s development, but it also stands strong on its own. It is surprisingly entertaining and worth a look if you get the chance. It is currently available in “Watch Instantly” on Netflix.

Another word or two on ‘The Expendables’

A recent discussion with a fellow movie lover got me thinking more about my opinion of Stallone’s new action flick, The Expendables.  No, I’m not recanting my opinion that the film is mildly fun but also mildly disappointing.  Instead, it recently occurred to me what the real problem is with the movie. And as far as spending ‘too much time’ arguing about a summer action throwaway, my desire to write more on the matter has more to do with fleshing out of my own opinion, rather than adding any importance to a film almost nobody will be talking about 6 months from now.

On the surface, The Expendables is no more shallow than many of the 80’s classic action films, like Rambo, Die Hard or Commando. The plot is thin as a reed, but so were many of the type I just listed. And acting? Yeah right. No, the thing that defines the 80’s pictures is character. John Rambo. John McLaine. Arnold as the Terminator. Easily recognizable characters with names we remember, personal characteristics that brand them as superheroes, and style that lead fans to either love them or hate them (or to love one brand more than the other). Stallone’s grumbling voice is infamous, but the red bandana, the bursting out of the water to surprise the enemy, sealing a bullet wound with gunpowder; these all defined Rambo and embedded him in our imaginations. Bruce Willis as McLaine, running barefoot on glass and screaming ‘Yipee kay-ay, mother-fucker!’ is a line repeated probably a couple of million times by now. And McLaine’s refusal to give in, his drive to save his wife, his discussions with the doughnut-eating cop outside the building – we knew who McLaine was.

The Expendables has none of that. I can’t recall any of their names. And what is Stallone’s character all about? He doesn’t seem to be particularly good at anything, he doesn’t have much of a defined stlye of fighting, or joking, or… well, anything. He is dry as a bone. Of course, I’ve heard the shouts of “It’s supposed to be stupid,” It’s supposed to be a cheesy throwback”, or it “is the film that they intended to make”… simple and fun. Well, if that’s the case, then so be it. Unfortunately, if your target is low, you don’t deserve much credit, even for succeeding.  Stallone and company tried to let their past importance carry the film; their fame as actors substituting for character within the characters of The Expendables. And I will tell you, their past personas are the only thing that keeps the movie afloat at all.

So was it a fun film? Kinda. Was it a really fun film? No. Did they succeed in matching the excitement of the old 80’s movies? Not even close. They get a brief nod of the head from me, but no pat on the back, let alone a cheer. Not bad, guys. Not bad. But not so good either.

Dispensing with “The Expendables” (2010), dir. Sylvester Stallone

This is a movie with plenty of good action that would make a fun rental but is a mildly disappointing visit to the theater. At one point in the movie, Stallone’s character has a discussion with Mickey Rourke’s character about a woman from Rourke’s past. Stallone gets it into his head at that moment to return to an island controlled by a dangerous military junta to rescue a woman from his own life.  The scene is only about six or seven minutes long, but it decides the direction of the rest of the movie. My guess is that it took Stallone about as much time and forethought to put together the story for The Expendables.

I suppose the movie would have been truly, horrifically bad if none of the many action stars that appear had been absent. But even with them, the movie drags a bit for the first forty-five minutes, and then explodes into nonsense.  Of course, it wasn’t the rumor of a clever plot that interested me. I, like many others, was attracted to the movie because of the involvement of so many of the action stars I have enjoyed in the past. But after Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis make their cameos, the cast feels relatively thin on charisma. Mickey Rourke brings a little depth, but his is a side character who is probably on screen for about twenty minutes total. Stallone and Statham are the stars, and they do a good job with what they have, but neither is able to raise the screenplay out of “B” territory.

Now don’t get me wrong, there were a good handful of laughs, and some very cool fight choreography. The fights with Statham and his knives and Jet Li kicking at people’s legs finally hit on what most of us wanted to see: our favorite badasses kicking ass.

Some classic “action movie mysteries” arise in The Expendables. For instance: Why are they called the Expendables? It’s never really addressed. Why is it necessary to kill all of the soldiers on the island? There is little to make us believe any of the soldiers are evil. Eric Roberts and his crew certainly are, but after the general and his soldiers turn on Roberts, why do the Expendables have to keep killing them? Where do the other guys go when Stallone and Statham are doing their own thing? It’s always a good laugh to have those characters who seemingly wait around at the “home base” with guns in their hands, waiting for the stars to return. All of these questions are remnants of the 80’s actioners, which threw this kind of logic to the wind. It’s a fun throwback, but still makes the viewer say, “Hmmm”.