Thursday, October 29, 2009

An Education

Hands down the best movie of the year so far.

A paragon of lean, efficient storytelling with a huge heart and plenty of hard-earned wisdom at its center, "An Education" follows the relationship of 16 year-old British schoolgirl Jenny with sly charmer David, a man twenty years older played by the always-fantastic Peter Saarsgard.

You would think the age difference would be obstacle enough to create a meaty drama, but David's hiding a secret. There is more to him than first appears, and not in a good way.

Jenny's parents are deeply invested in Jenny's studies. They have serious plans for her to attend Oxford and make an accomplished life for herself. She is on pace to achieve this when David enters her life. One of the many delightful surprises of "An Education" is how Jenny's parents do not respond with cliched fear and disgust at David's presence in Jenny's life.

Rather, they are as charmed by him as Jenny is. When he eventually proposes marriage, they think it's a wonderful development. Even if it means Jenny must forsake Oxford.

Half the beauty of this is that the decision -- David or Oxford -- is thrown back on Jenny. With her parents taken in by David, Jenny is morally on her own. Which is exactly where every main character should be. (There's a reason Obi-Wan Kenobi got killed by Darth Vader at the 2/3rds mark of Star Wars.)

I haven't spoiled the surprises of the movie, but I'm about to. Stop reading if you haven't seen it.

Relatively early on, David -- who is totally in love with our Jenny -- reveals his secret to her. He is a con man by trade. He specializes in defrauding the elderly of precious artworks whose value they do not suspect. It's not a pretty line of work and David isn't proud of it, but he does defend it with a stirring speech containing a Darwinian logic and culminating with the brilliant line:

"We're not all clever like you. So we have to be clever in other ways."


The twist is that this is not the twist.

We think we know what the score is. David's a con man but he sincerely loves Jenny, and she loves him back, warts and all. As long as they can keep David's secret from Jenny's besotted parents, they will be fine.

And then we find out David's already married.

Gotcha.

So many stories would have worked the reveals the other way around. First we might find out he's married, but he's on the verge of divorce or whatever, and then, later in the movie, we find out he's a con man and all his promises are lies. That would be fine. It would be conventional. It would make sense.

But it works much better the way "An Education" does it.

Here, David's criminal activity is revealed as a minor transgression next to the wanton heart-breaking he continually inflicts on innocent girls with his complete inability to restrain himself from falling in love with someone new every six months. This is a personal crime, and as an audience it touches us far more deeply than anything involving mere property.

In "An Education," the reveals are properly structured because the film-makers have a subtle eye for what really matters in life; for what is really permissable, and what is not.

I haven't even mentioned the magnificent character of Miss Stubbs, Jenny's teacher and the only person in the movie who cares for Jenny exclusively for Jenny's own sake.


Miss Stubbs is played by Olivia Williams, who has a nose for getting herself in classics, having appeared also in "Rushmore" and "The Sixth Sense."

Here's a personal confession: late in the movie, Jenny asks Miss Stubbs perhaps the most poignant, vulnerable question one human can ask another: "Will you help me?"

Miss Stubbs' response had this reviewer watery-eyed and sniffling. And this reviewer does not sniffle easily!

(Okay, maybe he does.)

The underlying story comes from the memoir of sharp-tongued British interviewer Lynn Barber (aka Jenny), but the screenplay was written by Nick Hornby, the British novelist whose book "About a Boy" was adapted by Peter Hedges in 2002, resulting in the best Hollywood comedy of the decade. This movie is another feather in the cap for everyone involved.

Some movies justify the entire year in which they debut. "An Education" did that for me.

SCORE:

How Accomplished: 93/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 94/100

Monday, October 26, 2009

Paranormal Activity

In 1999, a low-budget horror flick made by guerilla filmmakers caused a splash at film festivals, got picked up by a Hollywood distributor, became a word of mouth sensation and earned everyone lots and lots of money.

We all enjoyed "The Blair Witch Project."

Ten years later we are enjoying its reincarnation, "Paranormal Activity," a movie that copies "Blair Witch" in tone, style and structure -- almost down to individual plot beats. But somehow the movie establishes an identity all its own and manages to scare audiences just as effectively as its spiritual predecessor.

PA tracks the story of Katie and Micah, two live-in lovers who have a ghost problem. A real bad ghost problem.

The ghost in question -- which, we soon learn, is technically (gasp!) a demon -- has a thing for Katie. It's had a thing for Katie since she was a child.

And this is brilliant. It's the conceptual breakthrough that makes PA work. Since the demon is centered on Katie instead of being a standard house-haunter, there is no utility in leaving the damn house, which has been a logic problem for haunted house movies since the dawn of time.

The demon evidently has trouble breaking through the dimensional barrier (my term) separating its plane from ours, but if it could only do so it would grab Katie and take her home with him. Since it cannot, it is restricted to doing scary things like opening and closing doors and thumping the occasional wall in a threatening manner.

Enter Micah and his video camera.

Fascinated by his girlfriend's guardian devil, Micah starts videotaping every aspect of life in the couple's San Diego home. According to a visiting ghost consultant, this is unwise behavior that may provoke the demon to redouble his efforts to breach the plane separating our worlds.

Which is a great lesson horror films teach us: always do what the spooky occult master suggests. Curiously, one should apply the exact opposite lesson in real life.

In any event, our movie remains firmly rooted in the house, which suits both its budget as well as the fundamental Aristotelian unity of place. In fact, much of the action takes place in the bedroom (va-voom!), as the demon likes to make his presence felt in the depths of the night.


There is of course an element of cliche to this, but there's also an element of good sense. Sleep is an inherently vulnerable state, and the idea of someone... or some-THING... in the room with you while you sleep is inherently terrifying.

It was Theodore Roosevelt who said "three o'clock in the morning courage is the best kind to have." But I don't have it. Katie and Micah don't have it. I bet you don't have it. I bet even Theodore Roosevelt didn't have it.

So lots of effectively frightening things happen during the night. And despite Katie's repeated entreaties, Micah refuses to stop filming them.

It is established early on -- by Katie -- that Micah is an immature man-child who enjoys electronic gadgets and a false sense of his own invincibility. This gets both Micah and Katie in extreme trouble throughout PA. It also creates a suspenseful dynamic -- we're bringing this on ourselves! -- that serves the movie well. Even if, as an audience member, you don't like Micah, you do need him. Trust me.

Which brings us to the much-discussed ending. Supposedly the ending in the theatrical version comes directly from Steven Spielberg, whose Dreamworks shepherded the movie into theaters. It's a decent ending that provides a nice jolt, but it's not as psychologically upsetting as the ending of Blair Witch. (Remember that standing-in-the-corner bit? Yikes.)


PA was reportedly shot for fifteen thousand dollars over the course of seven days by software designer Oren Peli. I wonder how he chose to tell his boss "I quit!" when the first big check rolled in. Did he make a dramatic scene of it? Or was he just gone one day, like "Good Will Hunting."

PA is a good reminder that movies are, at their heart, neat ideas for stories. Nothing more nor less. As such, it was gratifying to see PA beat "Saw 6" in its first weekend of wide release. Once upon a time, "Saw" was itself a neat idea for a movie. Now it's an idiotic franchise with all the creativity drained out of it by the corporate automatons who run Hollywood studios.

The very fact that PA was so low-budget -- and crafted in the utter absence of the studio development process -- became its greatest asset. While the acting isn't of the highest caliber, the casting is spot on. Katie Featherston is particularly effective because she seems so real. She's good-looking in a real-life kind of way, not a Hollywood or fashion model kind of way. I think movies would be a lot better if they were populated with actors less physically perfect. And that's not idealist-Neil talking, that's scheming-for-any-possible-advantage-in-audience-sympathy-Neil talking.

He's a bastard, that one.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 77/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 79/100

Friday, October 9, 2009

Zombieland

A movie doesn't have to be a comedy to have a sense of humor.

Case in point: "Zombieland," a fast, fun and witty take on the zombie apocalypse.

Our main character is an unlikely survivor in his late teens played by Jesse Eisenberg. Eisenberg is a loner but not the cool kind. He is the unpopular kind of loner who stays in his apartment eating takeout pizza and playing World of Warcraft.

He operates by a system of rules that have kept him alive when the vast majority of humankind has perished. His rules are commonsensical and funny, like "Beware of bathrooms" and "Don't be stingy with bullets."

He is all alone till he runs across Mad Max wannabe Woody Harrelson, whose secret to survival is moxie. Woody fights zombies with a fearless joy and avoids any but the most cursory attachment to the living. He agrees to give Eisenberg a ride, however, and our movie is underway.

Said movie is a road trip, from the east coast of the US to the west. Along the way Eisenberg and Woody pick up (in a roundabout way) a pair of sisters played by hottie bad-ass Emma Stone and Little Miss Sunshine herself, Abigail Breslin. The sisters are savvier and more ruthless than they first appear, and a curious (and funny) rivalry develops between the genders.

Eventually, to no one's surprise, our four characters develop a cozy family-like relationship. What is surprising is how damn well this plays out. The chemistry is terrific, perhaps because each character is so well-defined and such a stark contrast with the others. Woody's character in particular is sensationally vivid. Not a single line of his dialogue could be mistaken for anyone else's.

What helps this achievement in character is focus. The four characters I've mentioned are the only non-zombie characters in the entire movie -- except for a brief flashback of Eisenberg's and a movie star cameo that has received much attention.

Here's the spoiler:

The movie star is Bill Murray, played by Bill Murray. Our foursome takes refuge in his Beverly Hills mansion and discovers the man himself is home -- and miraculously not a zombie. This is a hugely crowd-pleasing sequence, since everyone loves Bill Murray, but I thought it detracted from the overall sense of reality, bizarre as that is to admit in a comic zombie road movie.

Nevertheless, Murray enters and leaves the picture, and our characters continue their quest for the amusement park that Little Miss Sunshine has always wanted to enjoy. The climax is thrilling, surprising and even moving. (But most of all, fun!) I liked every choice the film-makers made.

And who are those film-makers? They are director Ruben Fleischer and screenwriting team Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick. What few credits they have to this point are obscure ones. Anyone could be forgiven for not knowing who these guys are.

But we know who they are now. They're the guys who made "Zombieland."

SCORE

How Accomplished: 87/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 89/100

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Invention of Lying

Argh!

I'm a huge fan of British comedian Ricky Gervais. I love "The Office," I love "Extras," I love his stand-up, I love his podcasts and I even love his blog.

I'm a card-carrying member of the chubby funster's fan club.


But like Gervais' first foray into the movie world -- last year's "Ghost Town" -- his new one, "The Invention of Lying," is a crashing failure.

This makes Gervais oh for two on the big screen.

Which underscores an important point. Being funny does not mean you will make funny movies. If it did, then Ricky Gervais' movies would be utterly hilarious.

This is hard for people to accept and it frequently gets Hollywood into trouble, since it's only human to want to entrust writing duties to someone who is "good in a room," as Hollywood likes to say.

But go ahead and take a look through history. Shakespeare was a beautiful poet who stole his plots. Dickens was a master stylist who wrote the same story over and over (most novelists do.) Steven Spielberg has cherry-picked the best scripts from many different writers to sustain his glittering career (most directors do.)

The evidence is incontrovertible. A professional writer with a good track record will bring a level of clarity, tightness and polish to a movie script that you cannot count on from your typical amateur. What a professional cannot do is summon a superior story. That comes down to luck.

And luck, maddeningly, is not with Ricky Gervais in "The Invention of Lying," despite the fact that the film is blessed with a sensationally clever premise conceived by newbie co-writer Matthew Robinson.

To wit: In a world where no one has ever thought to tell a lie, one unremarkable man stumbles across the idea of deception which -- because no one will disbelieve a word he says, no matter how fantastic -- gives him almost limitless power.

Can you think of a better idea for a comedy?

I can't.

So why doesn't it work?

Heck, I dunno -- I'm still mad that it doesn't. But since I have to do better than that, I'd say there's too much attention paid to theme and not enough to the exciting possibilities for dramatic fun that flow from the premise.

In fact, so much attention is paid to theme that there are two of them. The first deals with the fact that Gervais' love interest, Jennifer Garner, can't fall in love with him no matter how successful he is or how much she enjoys his company, because he simply isn't good-looking enough for her. In addition to this being a bad misread of female psychology, it has nothing to do with the other theme, which is about religion. Gervais' character inadvertently recreates belief in God when he mouths some platitudes about heaven, news of which quickly spreads around the world.

You can make a go at either of these themes but not both. It kills the story's focus.

Compounding this problem, the movie spends very little time exploring the ramifications of its peculiarities. There are big unexplored corners in "Lying." Here's one: surely people still utter statements that are false or inaccurate by mistake in this world. Surely there are still people with mental illness. So when Gervais claims he invented the bicycle, why wouldn't people assume he was delirious or unhinged? And why wouldn't they feel the same way when he claimed a personal relationship with God?

This may seem needlessly analytical, but if you create a fictional world with rules that are different from our own, you have to sell it. "Groundhog Day" did. That landmark comedy proceeded in sections, methodically exploring the various aspects of living the same day over and over: the good, the bad and the ugly. And what's left over when you've exhausted all the above.

"The Invention of Lying" skips quickly over this sequence as if it were a chore. But it's not a chore. It's the movie.

The biggest names in comedy appear in bit parts throughout "Lying," including the red-hot Tina Fey and Jason Bateman. Presumably they all wanted an opportunity to work with Gervais. The man is seriously respected in the entertainment community.

And he should be. He gave us "The Office." Next year HBO is running a half-hour series that will be an animated version of his insanely funny podcasts with Stephen Merchant and the man whose head is shaped like a f***ing orange, Karl Pilkington.


That ought to be fantastic.

Let's keep our minds trained on that...

SCORE

How Accomplished: 42/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 42/100

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Pandorum

I feel so conflicted.

There's a lot that works in "Pandorum." Starting with the premise: an officer on a vast spaceship wakes from a state of suspended animation to find himself completely alone. No one else is awake on the darkened, dilapidated ship -- except for some flesh-eating monsters that may or may not be the other members of the crew.

Wow.

Who doesn't want to see that movie?

But there's stuff that doesn't work.

None of it manifests itself until about the forty-five minute mark, so it's heartbreaking to see the movie, which generates so much good will in those first forty-five minutes, slowly but inexorably unravel into threads.

Let's start with the first good forty-five minutes:

Ben Foster's Corporal Bower comes out of hypersleep. He doesn't remember who or where he is.

Temporary amnesia is a symptom of extended hypersleep and a fabulous dramatic device. After a bit of searching, he wakes up the only other frozen crewmember he can find: our boy Dennis Quaid.

Quaid plays Lieutenant Payton, and he can't remember much either. Together the two officers try to escape the locked compartment they are in. This involves sending Bower through the air ducts while Quaid directs him by radio.

After much creeping around in the spooky ship, Bower encounters this fetching mystery woman:


She doesn't want anything to do with Bower. She just wants to keep moving because, as it turns out, there are monsters all over the ship. The monsters are disappointingly derivative of the subterranean creatures in Neil Marshall's excellent "Descent," but hey, they're monsters. On a spaceship. I'm still pretty happy.

Then Bower runs into Cung Le, a mixed martial arts fighter who plays Manh, another lone mystery person running around the ship. Manh doesn't speak any English so he isn't able to shed much light on what's going on.



If things are starting to feel complicated, we are just getting started.

Because the ship's reactor is soon to explode, there's the matter of Bower's missing wife, and I haven't even mentioned pandorum itself, which is not the name of the ship we are on (that's the Elysium), but a psychological phenomenon which afflicts travelers in deep space.

All this explains why "Pandorum" eventually turns south.

A good story should get more complicated till about the halfway mark, at which point it should get less complicated till, at the climax, every question has been resolved but the final one: will the protagonist defeat the antagonist or not?

"Pandorum" continues to get complicated right to the end, where it reaches a rolling climax -- lots of struggles in lots of different areas of the ship -- because it doesn't really know what, as a story, it is about.

So why would the German Film Fund spend forty million dollars on a story that doesn't know what it's about? (I'm exaggerating: the Germans didn't foot the entire forty million dollar budget, just a substantial portion of it.)

The answer is: it's hard for a story to know what it's about. In some ways, it's the HARDEST challenge a screenwriter faces. Complexity and contrivance are easy. Just keep adding cool ideas, then find a tortured way for those ideas to connect.

Simplicity, on the other hand, means taking perfectly good ideas and throwing them away because they don't fit.

Hard.

So...

...while I hate to say this about a movie that tracks people crawling around a derelict spaceship...

..."Pandorum" is a near-miss.

Damn it all!

SCORE:

How Accomplished: 46/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 54/100