FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #104 – “The Wall” (dir. Doug Liman) vs. “Buried” (dir. Rodrigo Cortés)

Poster for "The Wall" (2017 film)

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel return to the latter days of the Iraq War with a lean thriller from Amazon Studios and director Doug Liman, The Wall, and we revisit the 2010 Rodrigo Cortés thriller, Buried. It all looks a bit grim, and while there may be an ending in sight, we’ll figure out which flick handled that ending best (47:15).

May contain NSFW language.

Still from "Buried"

The Wall is in theaters this Friday, 5/12, and will be available on Amazon video later this year.

FilmWonk rating (The Wall): 7/10 (Daniel); 6/10 (Glenn)
FilmWonk rating (Buried): 6/10 (Daniel); 7.5/10 (Glenn)

Show notes:

  • [00:33] Review: The Wall/Buried
  • [24:02] Spoilers: The Wall/Buried
  • Music for this episode is the opening title theme from Buried, composed by Victor Reyes.
  • Check out Glenn’s 2010 review of Buried.
  • Clarification: We stated a figure of 500,000 deaths from the Iraq War, and this appears to be on the high end of estimates, based on a 2011 study in PLoS Medicine, which relied on census-style household surveys, and had an extremely high uncertainty interval (95%), meaning that the study’s casualty estimate was anywhere from 48,000-751,000. The Iraq Body Count project, which relies largely on media reports (and thus may be underestimating), puts the figure at closer to 120,000. The overall point notwithstanding, there does not appear to be a single, agreed-upon figure. See Wikipedia: Casualties of the Iraq War for more information.
  • As promised, according to RF Cafe, the density of dry sand is 100 lb/ft3. A standard coffin is approximately 7 feet long, and 2.333 feet wide at its widest point. If Paul was buried under 3 feet of sand, this amounts to approximately 49ft3 of sand above him, weighing just under 5,000 pounds (2,268 kg). With all respect to The Bride, Paul’s not punching his way out of this.

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

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FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #76 – “Self/less” (dir. Tarsem Singh)

Poster for "Self/less"

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel reflect on another mediocre genre thriller. It’s really been a rough week, for Ryan Reynolds and us alike (31:28).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 2 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for tonight’s episode is the track “No Limit (Sencit Remix)” by Wiz Khalifa, from the film’s trailer.

Listen above, or download: Self/less (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.

Rodrigo Cortés’ “Buried” – Masterfully uncomfortable

Poster for "Buried"

Buried is viscerally unnerving from the very first frame. After a lavishly-scored, Hitchcockesque title sequence, we begin the film in complete darkness, hearing the confused and muffled grunts of Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds), an American civilian contractor in Iraq who has been kidnapped and buried alive in a coffin. His hands are tied, his mouth is gagged (for some reason), and his only immediate light source is a Zippo lighter from his pocket (surely not the best item to be using with a limited air supply!).

The film’s premise seems to be a real-world expansion on a brief sequence in Kill Bill: Volume 2 – a character is buried alive, and we live the entire experience from his perspective. I’m not particularly claustrophobic, but even I was getting physically uncomfortable by the end of the film. However, it is to the film’s credit that I wasn’t feeling it even sooner. The film lasts 100 minutes, nearly all of which is spent in the coffin. But by way of a borrowed cell phone and some masterful sound design, Buried feels almost like an old-time radio play, crafting the illusion of a much larger world. For a locked-room thriller with an even more confined scope than Phone Booth, this film’s expansive feeling is an impressive achievement.

Speaking of achievements, 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.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING, RIGHT NOW, TO GET ME OUT OF HERE?!”, Paul screams into the phone at Dan Brenner (voice of Robert Paterson), head of the coalition military’s Hostage Working Group. Brenner is easily Paul’s closest ally, working tirelessly to find his captors before it’s too late, but he ends up working a surprising amount of hostage negotiator voodoo on Paul himself. Brenner has to try and calm Paul down and preserve his air supply, which includes trying to protect him as much as possible from the true horror of the situation. The tense dialogue between these two is some of the most effective in the film, and Paterson’s vocal performance certainly helps carry it. He casts Brenner as a caring but pragmatic ally – like the proverbial starfish-thrower, he’ll save as many hostages as he can, despite knowing that he won’t be able to save most of them.

Still from "Buried"

There was also a shining performance from veteran character actor Stephen Tobolowsky as the voice of Alan Davenport, the company’s head of personnel. His scene very nearly took me out of this film with its utter hopelessness, and yet the whole thing seemed depressingly plausible, owing a great deal to both the screenwriting and Tobolowsky’s eerily calm demeanor. The indifference of the outside world was a resounding theme throughout the film, and this scene made for a shocking bookend to that theme. Rather than being taken out of Paul’s plight, I was very nearly weeping for him.

With scenes like this in mind, the tone of the film is a bit hard to pinpoint. The direction is very reminiscent of Hitchcock – Cortés and cinematographer Eduard Grau were able to compose a remarkable variety of shots in such a cramped space and dismal lighting, occasionally cheating the outside of the coffin and moving the camera outward to further showcase Paul’s isolation. Many of the phone calls were punctuated with axial cuts (in which the camera jumps closer and closer to his face with each statement), along with sharp, jarring musical cues… Indeed, the direction and score kept the film’s feeling very light, even as Paul’s situation deteriorates. There is a sequence in the second half in which Paul has to deal with [an unexpected spoilerific difficulty – but trust me, you’ll know what I mean]. This scene and its resolution were utterly ridiculous, but very well designed and shot. If I were watching a more cartoonish thriller, this moment of levity would certainly not have bothered me, but it just seemed completely out of place in light of the more dour scenes that follow.

But perhaps a mixed tone is exactly what this film needed… In many ways, Buried came out at just the right time. Imagine this film seven years ago… At the onset of war amid an economic boom, shortly after the “Mission Accomplished” banner, we all heard about the lavish, six-figure civilian contractor jobs available for reconstruction in Iraq. Every war has its profiteers, and whether or not these contractors qualify, I could certainly see people both here and in Iraq regarding them with (at the bare minimum) complete indifference. You takes the job; you takes your chances, and that includes the possibility that criminals will kidnap and murder you. This mentality is rarely so black-and-white in the real world, but the film’s presentation of it feels authentic. Now that the war and economy have both wound down a bit, it’s much easier to see Paul as a sympathetic everyman, just trying to do right by his family. He knew this was a possibility, but he didn’t ask for it, and he certainly didn’t deserve it.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

2009 Glennies, Part 1: Best Supporting Actor

#5: Ryan Reynolds – Mike Connell, Adventureland

Ryan Reynolds in "Adventureland"

From my original review:
I 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…

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.

#4: Jackie Earle Haley – Walter Kovacs/Rorschach, Watchmen

Jackie Earle Haley in "Watchmen"

I am quite fascinated by geekdom and alternate history, but I must admit, I was not too excited by this film. Zack Snyder delivered a long, grueling, mixed bag of a film that seemed to split even the most die-hard fans of the graphic novel (and I do not count myself among them) right down the middle. But if there’s one thing it effectively conveyed, it’s that the only people who would voluntarily become superheroes are those with severe social or mental issues.

And so we meet Rorschach, the unrepentant, masked psychopath played to absolute perfection by Jackie Earle Haley. Like I said last year, there’s just something great about a well-played psychopath. Haley took what could have been a one-note, gruff-talking slasher and imbued him with some fascinating personality, giving the finest comic performance I’ve seen since Heath Ledger’s Joker.

#3: Denis Menochet – Perrier LaPadite, Inglourious Basterds

Denis Menochet in "Inglourious Basterds"

Denis Menochet only appears in one scene of this film, but it was a doozy (see Viola Davis from last year). He plays the French dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite, who is suspected by the SS of harboring a Jewish family. What ensues is a masterful interrogation scene between LaPadite and the SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). As with many other scenes in this film, the tension gradually increases as the scene goes on. LaPadite is a physically imposing man, but he has everything to lose, and Menochet lays all of his vulnerability bare as Landa closes in on the truth. Menochet deserves every bit as much credit as Waltz for how well this scene played, and it is certainly one of the most memorable in the film.

#2: Jim Broadbent – Prof. Horace Slughorn, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Jim Broadbent in "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"

David Yates brings another strong entry to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise, and Jim Broadbent is the finest example yet of the franchise’s reliably strong casting. Like so many of Rowling’s characters, Horace Slughorn is a well-written blend of familiar tropes – a grand old wizard, a collector of the ambitious and famous, a well-meaning man with a terrible secret – but also greater than the sum of his parts. Broadbent’s performance is absolutely delightful in many scenes, and downright somber in others. When his secret is inevitably revealed (as cinematic secrets must be), we are treated to a heartbreaking soliloquy in which Slughorn reminisces about Harry Potter’s dead mother, who was one of his favorite students. This scene features some of the best acting in the film by both Broadbent and Daniel Radcliffe, and is almost certainly the film’s emotional climax.

#1: Christoph Waltz – SS Col. Hans Landa, Inglourious Basterds

Christoph Waltz in "Inglourious Basterds"

From my original review:

The finest acting in the film is that of Christoph Waltz as SS Colonel Landa. He somehow manages to combine an outwardly cheerful demeanor with such simmering, underlying menace that each of his scenes will have you on the edge of your seat. [Quentin] Tarantino’s strength has always been in crafting lengthy scenes of gradually increasing tension amid seemingly innocuous dialogue, in which the question is not whether the scene will end badly; the question is “how badly” and “for whom?”. Waltz’s performance works masterfully within this framework; whether interrogating a dairy farmer under suspicion for harboring Jews, or conversing over Parisian strudel with a potential enemy, Waltz’ every facial tic gradually reveals his true intentions, as he leads the conversation exactly where he wants it to go. He is one of Tarantino’s most complex and well-crafted characters, and Waltz plays the part immaculately.

In addition to a fantastic performance of a complex character, Waltz seemlessly flitted back and forth between onscreen languages. We’ve seen plenty of cinematic polyglots before, but what separates Waltz from, say, Jennifer Garner, is that he sounds as much at home in one language as another. Without him, this film could not have been the same… Indeed, it might not have even been made. Tarantino has praised Waltz publicly for making this film possible, and he will quite deservedly be remembered for playing one of the finest villains of all time.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Martin Starr as Joel in Adventureland
  • Sam Worthington as Marcus Wright in Terminator Salvation
  • Michael Fassbender as Lt. Archie Hicox in Inglourious Basterds
  • Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar in Invictus

Click here to see the rest of the 2009 Glennies.

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.