FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #147 – “The Hummingbird Project” (dir. Kim Nguyen), “Triple Frontier” (dir. J.C. Chandor)

On this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel return from a familial hiatus to check out The Hummingbird Project, a film about laying a more reliable fiber optic line for faster data transmission to game the stock market, so the irony wasn’t lost on us when Daniel had connectivity issues and was only able to watch the first 20 minutes. But you know Jesse Eisenberg will be involved, even if you’re a bit more prepared in advance for his tragic, greedy, tech-infused salesman to also be a diabolical dick. And then we check out an ensemble military heist film from the team behind The Hurt Locker along with director J.C. Chandor, Triple Frontier, an action film with some surprising moral and character depth that feels a bit too big for Netflix (01:00:50).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (The Hummingbird Project): 7 out of 10 (Glenn)
FilmWonk rating (Triple Frontier): 7.5/10 (Glenn), 6/10 (Daniel)

Show notes:

  • [00:34] Review: The Hummingbird Project
  • [06:26] Spoilers: The Hummingbird Project
  • [28:38] Review: Triple Frontier
  • [41:46] Spoilers: Triple Frontier
  • Music for this episode is the tracks “Masters of War” by Bob Dylan, from the soundtrack for Bumblebee, and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Metallica, from the soundtrack to Triple Frontier.
  • To see the location of the Tres Fronteras on a map, check out this pinpoint of Isla Chineria, just on the Peruvian side of the border.
  • The scene we remembered from The Hurt Locker actually featured Jeremy Renner wandering all over the grocery store, first on the frozen aisle, and ending on the cereal aisle, which seems to be the source of the callback in Triple Frontier.

Listen above, or download: The Hummingbird Project, Triple Frontier (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

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SIFF Roundup: “Healing”, “Night Moves” (#SIFF2014)

Poster for
Healing
Directed by Craig Monahan, written by Monahan and Alison Nisselle

As an American, I found two unfamiliar things at work in Healing. The first is the character of prison guard Matt Perry, played by Hugo Weaving. This is the first non-elven character I’ve seen Weaving play that could be called “nice,” and the first of any kind with his native Aussie accent. The second is an unfamiliar narrative – that of the “nice prison film”. The film takes place at an Aussie minimum security prison that’s also a working outback farm (although it’s unclear what, if anything, is grown or raised there). Not only is it low-security, but it’s apparently designed to prepare inmates for release and reintroduction into society. We learn that inmates must have had a spotless behavioral record for four years at harsher facilities to qualify, and that any missteps can get them sent right back. The Brown Mile, if you will.

But this film isn’t interested in the harsh realities of the Aussie prison system, such as they might be. Instead, it features a variety of inmates whose crimes range all the way up to manslaughter and murder, and the committed guards and social workers who are clearly interested in helping them adjust to their impending freedom. I haven’t even reached the on-the-nose metaphor of raptor rehabilitation that’s at the center of this film, and already, it seems like an incredibly rosy picture of prison life. But then, the only comparison I can make is to other prison films (and MSNBC exposés), which (at least in the US) seem committed to delivering an entertaining and lurid level of menace and violence. This picture of prison life as a torturous crucible which only prepares criminals for further criminality is the only version that seems credible, even if the only data I have to back it up is the occasional well-publicized abuse. Healing made me realize one inescapable truth – prison movies tend to be depressing. And there’s certainly room in cinema for an upbeat prison story, even if, as Red might say, prison is no fairy-tale world.

The film centers around Viktor Khadem (Don Hany), an Iranian man in prison for a murder 16 years prior. When Perry leads Viktor’s work detail out to the fenceline, they come across an injured wedge-tailed eagle that has become entangled in the barbed wire – apparently a common occurrence. When the local bird sanctuary is unable to help, Perry puts the inmates to work building a makeshift aviary, and assigns each of them a wounded bird to look after. Naturally, Viktor is assigned the eagle, whom he names Yasmine. Indeed, each of the inmates ends up being assigned a bird that is a remarkable match for their personality – the stoic and solitary Viktor gets the eagle, a more skittish inmate receives a shy owl, and so forth.

Still from

This all sounds very neat and tidy, and that’s because it is. I had to fight my cynicism at every step of the way initially, before it became clear that the film was aware that not all of these inmates can be “fixed” so neatly. One inmate is targeted for mistreatment by his fellow inmates because he was convicted of the accidental (drug-induced) killing of his own child – at least, we hear that’s what’s happening to him, even if we never see much of it onscreen. Another of the inmates, Warren (Anthony Hayes), is clearly running a jailhouse criminal enterprise of some sort. And he’s really the least believable part of the film. The guards are clearly aware of his malfeasance and do very little to stop it, leaving the character seemingly only present to provoke unwarranted conflict. Given how easily the character is dispensed with in the third act, he could easily have been cut from the film entirely. The resulting film would be just as progressive and slight, but wouldn’t spend nearly as much time on a narrative dead-end.

Hany’s performance is stellar as Viktor proceeds to rehabilitate Yasmine – a powerful raptor seemingly named after his late wife, who died while he was in prison. He also delivers some serviceable emotional moments as he attempts to salvage his relationship with his son, although these scenes feel a bit rushed relative to their intended weight. Weaving makes for a stern, but forgiving authority figure, dealing with similar issues of loss and regret to many of the inmates, even if his issues remain vague and take a backseat to those in his charge. Xavier Samuel and Mark Leonard Winter add some interesting depth to the supporting inmates, even if we know rather little about them. Every bit of praise I have for this film comes with strings attached, and when it comes down to it, this film does feel a bit like a progressive after-school special. It’s extremely slight, but it’s also just…very nice. The outback scenery and raptors look gorgeous, and the film dabbles in a few headier issues than its simple and optimistic premise would require.

At the end of the day, gaze upon the cloying image in the poster above, and accept that what you see is exactly what you get with this film. If you can bring yourself to be inspired by it, you’ll do fine.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10


Poster for
Night Moves
Directed by Kelly Reichardt, written by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond

Night Moves – a film centering around an environmental extremist plot to blow up an Oregon dam – is a marvelous and understated thriller, so in the interests of preserving suspense, this review will be light on plot details. The film centers around a couple (who may or may not be romantically involved?), Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning), who team up with an ex-Marine, Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) to assist with their explosive plot. Much of the suspense revolves Reichardt’s meticulous depiction of the actual process – how they plan to physically build a bomb and transport it to the site without getting caught. Gone are the days of Fight Club obfuscating bomb recipes in order to protect the public – this film could easily function as a how-to guide for crafting a compact fertilizer bomb, even if it makes it clear that the substances required are controlled for bulk purchase.

In fact, it is this detail that leads to one of the film’s finest scenes, in which Dena is sent into a farm and feed store, under the auspices of an unassuming local farm girl, to purchase what should rightfully be regarded as a suspicious quantity of ammonium nitrate. Dakota Fanning is unquestionably the MVP of this trio, portraying Dena as an idealistic rich girl who seems quite capable of the extreme actions she’s pursuing, but is ultimately just reveling in the process without really considering the consequences. And as the full scope and implications of the plan become clear during the course of the film, Fanning plays Dena’s gradual breakdown in a remarkably understated manner. Never overplaying it, but never underestimating the psychological toll that such a plan would take upon a person. Eisenberg and Sarsgaard are also strong, but we certainly end up knowing the least about them overall. The audience is forced to infer much of their character from their actions and reactions over the course of the film – always showing, but never telling.

Still - Dakota Fanning in

In his memoir, retired FBI profiler John Douglas once related a conversation he had about his work (classifying serial killers). He was asked if, knowing all that he knew about offenders and law enforcement, could he get away with murder? His answer, after a brief pause to consider all of the implications, was no. His “post-offense behavior” would certainly give him away. This is a tense film, and its tension continues even as the third act obfuscates any sense of where the plot might be headed. Some viewers might consider this third of the film to be a bit meandering, and while there were certainly moments where I felt this way, the film’s thought-provoking ending certainly justified its ambiguous diversions. It’s impossible to know exactly how you’ll behave following an act of criminality that is unprecedented in your life. And really, that’s what makes this final act interesting. The characters no longer have a plan. They’re just reacting to what they’ve become.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #47 – “The Double” (dir. Richard Ayoade) (SIFF)

Poster for "The Double"

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel bring the first of many live dispatches from the 40th annual Seattle International Film Festival, starting with Richard Ayoade‘s new film, The Double, starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, and Wallace Shawn. (15:10).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 5.5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • It’s festival time! That means we’ll be seeing a lot of films and our SIFF dispatches will be recorded and posted quickly – which unfortunately means the audio quality will be just a bit less polished than usual.

Listen above, or download: The Double (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

2010 Glennies, Part 3: Best Actor

#5: Russell Brand – Aldous Snow, Get Him to the Greek

I was worried when I heard that 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall would be getting a spinoff featuring supporting rockstar Aldous Snow. Brand’s performance was certainly a highlight of one of my favorite films of that year, but it was a very broad, drugged-out lothario of a character. Could the rockstar (and Brand) carry his own film?

Somehow, the answer was yes. Nicholas Stoller’s comedy is a significant departure in both tone and content from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Brand’s performance gives some surprising depth to the rockstar Aldous Snow. The film is a broad and scatological comedy with the dark undertone of Snow’s various addictions. It’s also a wild sex romp that relies heavily on Snow’s on-again, off-again one-true-love. The film’s appeal is in its sincerity, and Brand completely commits to this character, warts and all.

#4: Jeff Bridges – Rooster Cogburn, True Grit

I don’t have a lot to say about True Grit, except that it’s a brilliantly written genre exercise. It is a legitimate western as surely as the works of Ford or Leone, and Jeff Bridges’ take on the one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn feels right at home. His dialogue is slurred to the point of incomprehensibility, and his appearance is utterly unglamorous. This character is a slobbering, drunken mess, and I mean that as a compliment. I can safely say I’ll never forget this performance, and Bridges deserves every bit of the credit he’s getting for it.

#3: Ryan Reynolds – Paul Conroy, Buried

From my review: “This may be the most electrifying performance yet from Ryan Reynolds. Like Tom Hanks in Cast Away before him, Reynolds has crafted a masterful one-man show, and he never lets up on the stakes. Paul is dying alone, and Reynolds deftly conveys his ratcheting hopelessness and frustration.”

It’s Ryan Reynolds kidnapped and buried in a coffin for 90 minutes. That’s the entire film. But the above description may make Buried sound a good deal more serious than it actually plays for much of its runtime. This film is lurid and hopeless, to be sure, but it is also a pulp masterpiece. Its tone and editing style is reminiscent of Hitchcock, and Reynolds plays just the right blend of realistic terror and anger while preventing the character from becoming overly bleak. One scene, in which Paul solicits help (via cell phone) from one of his wife’s loathsome friends, ends with such a pitch-perfect delivery of its final line that my entire theater erupted in laughter. This is a film whose tone lives and dies by the performance of its lead actor, and Reynolds completely pulls it off.

On a related note…

#2: James Franco – Aron Ralston, 127 Hours

Aron Ralston leads a charmed life. He’s a brilliant stuntman – completely in control, but clearly a little unbalanced. Franco had to take this reckless and cocksure character on a physically and emotionally heart-wrenching journey, without any other actors to share the burden for most of the film’s runtime. 127 Hours has a similar premise to Buried – a man gets trapped under a rock for 90 minutes – but it is a very different film in both tone and characterization. Unlike Reynolds’ character above, Ralston doesn’t have access to a cell phone, so he spends the majority of the film talking aloud to himself, or saying nothing at all. The film utilizes various storytelling devices (including one involving a handheld camera that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling), and Franco’s performance played into all of them nicely.

I’m not sure if it’s even possible to spoil this film, since its title, premise, and the fact that it’s based on a true story should be enough to tell you how it ends. But suffice to say, this film takes a brutal and unflinching look at one of the most difficult physical tests ever imposed on a human being, and somehow comes out of it with a heartwarming message about how much life is worth living. It does all of this while wrapped in an unconventional character study, and never once lets Ralston off the hook for getting himself into the situation in the first place. Insofar as this is an exercise in filming the unfilmable, Franco’s performance seems equally improbable. It carries this film, and I know of no other actor who could have pulled this off.

#1: Jesse Eisenberg – Mark Zuckerberg, The Social Network

I know Mark Zuckerberg. I don’t know the man, but I recognize the character. Each viewer will likely take away a different interpretation of this performance, depending on their feelings on the real-life Zuckerberg, but this performance stands alone in a film that’s virtually impossible to separate from its real-life context. As a reflection of my time and generation, I found Eisenberg’s captivating and enigmatic portrayal to be utterly unmatched this year. For a character who seems almost defined by a lack of chemistry with the people in his life (reminiscent of Dr. House, perhaps), he also plays brilliantly alongside Andrew Garfield in the film’s most crucial relationship.

This Zuckerberg is hard to read, but conveys a great deal through his glowering stare, or the slightest twitch of a smile. This Zuckerberg is insightful, determined, perhaps even ingenious. And on some level, he knows the effect his actions have had. This Zuckerberg may or may not bear any resemblance to the real one, but Eisenberg’s performance and Sorkin’s script make him the most fascinating and well-realized characters of this year.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Ben Stiller as Roger Greenberg in Greenberg
  • Mark Wahlberg as Micky Ward in The Fighter
  • Michael Cera as Nick Twisp/François Dillinger in Youth in Revolt (Honorable, honorable mention: as Scott Pilgrim in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World)
  • Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island
  • Michael Nyqvist as Mikael Blomqvist in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Click here to see the rest of the 2010 Glennies.

Ruben Fleischer’s “Zombieland” – Better than it has any right to be

Poster for "Zombieland".

Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland is about four people milling about in a world overrun by zombies. And…that’s about it. My expectations were low for this film. Back in June, when I wrote up the trailer, I referred to it as “the latest entry in an already clogged genre”, and attempted to explain the zombie phenomenon as an societal indulgence of psychopathic fantasies of mass slaughter. And in that grain, it did not disappoint.

These zombies are no slow-moving, Romeroan allegory for a society steeped in consumption and conformity. They’re beasts. They chase down and slaughter humans in grotesque, blood-spattering, gratuitous, slow-motion glory, in an apparent attempt to combine all the cinematic advantages of both fast and slow zombies. And Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) is the rough-and-tumble zombie-killin’ cowboy who’s happy to put them down. To say that at least one scene ends with him literally standing atop a pile of dead zombies hardly merits a spoiler warning.

In fact, I’m not sure if I could spoil the plot of this movie if I tried. Ruben Fleischer has accomplished something truly remarkable here – he’s created a world that is not only completely devoid of plot, but could not logically include one. America is empty, save for a few aimless, meandering zombies and even fewer aimless, meandering humans. No one has a long-term plan or even a short-term objective, save for the usual rumors – the eastern survivors hear there’s a zombie-free zone out west; the western survivors hear there’s a zombie-free zone back east. As Tallahassee puts it when speaking to his new protégé, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), “You’re like a penguin at the North Pole who hears it’s nice at the South Pole this time of year.”

If that’s all this movie had been – an aimless, nihilistic slaughter fantasy – it would’ve been a huge disappointment. And yet, this film contains some truly remarkable character work. The survivors meet under the most random of circumstances, and band together (eventually) because they don’t know what else to do. After a brief Mexican standoff, Columbus catches a ride with Tallahassee, and the two are eventually joined by Wichita (Emma Stone) and her sister, Little Rock (Abigail Breslin).

At first, there is very little sentimentality amongst these four. They refer to each other by their respective cities of origin, so as not to become too attached. They make blithe reference to the demise of each other’s loved ones. They have some pretty serious trust issues.

And yet, amid this loss of identity and hope, they gradually remember what it’s like to be human. For a long second act in which we see almost no zombies, these four actually start to open up to each other. This piecemeal family-amid-disaster could easily descend into maudlin territory, but the film manages to humanize these characters without losing any of the fun and cynicism of the first act. When the inevitable “romantic” subplot occurs between Eisenberg and Stone, it consists of the latter asking the former to join her so she doesn’t have to drink alone, shortly before announcing that she “could hit that”.

zombieland

Harrelson and Breslin perform admirably in their roles, despite not getting much time to shine in the film’s 88 minutes, and Emma Stone’s performance is adequate, although her character’s motivations become increasingly muddled as the film goes on. But the strongest performance in the film is easily Jesse Eisenberg.

I’ve been a fan of Eisenberg’s since Adventureland, and he continues to demonstrate his prowess as an actor, doing a better job at playing Shia LaBeouf roles than LaBeouf himself. Columbus really is the emotional center of this film, and it is a testament to Eisenberg’s performance that I can refer to any of the characters as such. Columbus has stayed alive by following a self-imposed list of rules – some practical (“Wear seatbelts”), cautionary (“Beware of bathrooms”), or even philosophical (“Don’t be a hero”). They’re eventually supplemented by an entry from Tallahassee – “Enjoy the little things.”

If I had to extract a message from the film, it would be that last rule. It is exemplified by one of the best scenes in the film, in which the characters wreck up a kitschy souvenir shop at an Indian casino just for the hell of it. The amusement park climax of this film is more or less completely forgettable, and yet there are so many brilliant little scenes between these characters that I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with them. As a horror flick, creature thriller, or road-trip tale, the film does very little to distinguish itself, and as a zombie film, it’s actually rather boring (and devoid of zombies!). But as a comedy and character piece, it is quite an accomplishment.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

My entirely over-long review of Greg Mottola’s “Adventureland”

adventureland
Kristen Stewart, budding teenage heartthrob, fresh off her role in the critically acclaimed epic vampire romance Twilight, returns to the screen alongside comedic greats and Judd Apatow alums Ryan Reynolds, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig in Adventureland, a hilarious and carefree new comedy from the writer/director of Superbad.

…or not.

Adventureland was filmed in October of 2007 and sat on the shelf for a year and a half while Miramax figured out how best to release it. I can only speculate as to why they held onto it for so long. Eventually, it seems, a combination of residual favor from Greg Mottola’s previous film and Kristen Stewart’s increased profile following her turn as teenage vampire-lover Bella Swan in 2008’s creepy stare-fest, Twilight, was enough to get the film a release.

This film defied my expectations on every level. I went in expecting a comedy akin to Superbad – and the film’s marketing certainly encouraged this image of the film. Instead, I was presented with a mature, poignant drama that presented a brilliant portrait of the twentysomething post-college experience. It is the story of James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), a recent graduate who was all set to head for Europe on a post-college jaunt when his parents painfully admit that due to money problems, they will not be able to pay for his trip. Without warning, James is presented with the insurmountable task of finding a job with his liberal arts degree.

This aspect of the story was rather apropos for me – the poli sci major currently working in IT. But even the various absurdities of a helpdesk employee seem tame in comparison to an exciting career in crooked carnival gaming.

“You can do better, son,” says James’ father when he announces that Adventureland is the only place he can find employment. And yet, James can’t do better. He’s quickly realizing that his parents can’t help him, and that he has to take whatever job – and whatever life – he can find. It is this desperation and sudden, reluctant thrust into grownup life that the film captures so well.

Throughout the film, there’s a persistent feeling that these kids aren’t ready for their situation. They live with their parents. They’re old enough to drink legally, and yet they sneak around hiding liquor. They sit in their parents’ cars and make out in their driveways. They gossip, spread rumors, and weave a tangled and overlapping web of ambiguous relationships. They engage in whimsical, self-destructive behavior at the drop of a hat. These kids are not alright. They’re college graduates acting like high school students.

And yet, not a single moment in this film rings false. The story is a parable of modern life, and a ruthless exploration of modern relationships. The film’s treatment of romance, evoking sympathy for all manner of relationship fouls, reminds me greatly of last year’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall. And in much the same way as that film, you just have to stare resignedly at the characters and shake your head in bewilderment.

You know you shouldn’t do that, you’ll say. You know you’re just doing it because you’re in love and heartbroken and stupid. You know you’ll feel worse afterward. And you know you’re going to do it anyway.

The principal romance in this film was between James (Jesse Eisenberg) and Emily (Kristen Stewart). In a rare reversal of the usual pratfall of casting young characters, the then-17-year-old Stewart plays a seemingly 21-year-old college graduate.

kristenstewartAs much as it pains me following my experience with the abominable Twilight film, the moment has finally come when I must admit… Kristen Stewart is a damn fine actress. I can only speak to my reaction, but during every moment of Emily’s screen time, I was on the edge of my seat with anticipation. Stewart, in an incredibly nuanced and visual performance, managed to convey such a compelling sense of desperation and longing in every scene (both with and without Eisenberg) that I spent the entire film simultaneously rooting for and pitying her.

“You can’t just avoid all the people you’ve screwed up with!” is the conciliatory message of this romance, as delivered by James in the final romantic speech at the end of the film. This scene was obligatory, as it is in most romantic dramas, and yet (without giving too many details) Mottola’s take on this scene manages to ring truly unique. Jesse Eisenberg’s acting definitely deserves some of the credit for how well this scene (and the romance) plays, but it is Stewart that truly shines in this film.

ryanreynoldsI must also give praise to Ryan Reynolds. Here is an actor whose work is consistently entertaining, but offers the same one-note, sociopathic, likeable douchebag performance in every film he’s in. You’ve probably met someone like this character in real life. Someone who evokes two simultaneous reactions – amusement and unsettlement. Someone who might be good for a laugh or two, but would probably toss you aside the moment he no longer needed you for something.

Reynolds returns in this film as that character, aged 10 years, saddled with a dead-end job and an unhappy marriage. And yet he manages to convey the truly pitiable nature of such a character. His antics and doubletalk no longer seem charming here. His underhanded and lecherous conduct comes off as sad, creepy, and immature for a man of his age. Reynolds does a fine job of portraying all the ugliness and truth of this character without any of the signature likeability that he brings to his other roles.

Adventureland is a poignant film with a lot to say about our generation. And I say this as a current twenty-something who is more than happy to coopt and internalize the lessons of this film. And yet, the story is actually Greg Mottola’s semi-autobiographical take on his experience after college in 1987. Does this indicate that the film’s message is at least somewhat timeless? Or that Mottola has merely spun a tale of modern twenty-somethings and added a bit of weird hair, outdated music, and a lack of cellular communication for ambiance? Impossible to say. But the result is well worth seeing.