Kicking the Tweets

Following (1998)

Meddle Gear

I just realized something: Christopher Nolan peaked in 1998. I've not been a fan of his for awhile, as I find The Dark Knight and Inception to be over-produced summer blockbusters that display none of the brains of movies like Memento and The Prestige (for the record, complicated films aren't necessarily smart ones). But having just watched Following, the writer/director's first feature, I can confidently say that he hasn't come close to replicating the joyous suspense in anything he's made since becoming famous.

Shot in black-and-white and filmed in London, Following concerns a struggling writer who sometimes goes by the name "Bill" (Jeremy Theobald). We meet him in a police interrogation room, where he recounts the last few weeks of his life to a cop (John Nolan). He admits to following people, ostensibly as behavioral research for his novel. What begins as a time-killing exercise evolves into a game with its own set of rules; eventually, one of his marks catches him in the act while dining at a cafe. The man, a dapper Hugh-Grant-type named Cobb (Alex Haw) approaches Bill's table and invites himself to sit.

You wouldn't know it to look at him, but Cobb is a burglar. He carries a duffel bag full of CDs and keepsakes, and his pockets are lined with surgeon's gloves and women's panties. Out of embarrassment and intrigue, Bill accompanies Bob to a flat in the middle of the afternoon; they enter using a key that the owners have stupidly left on top of the door frame. Inside, Cobb shares his philosophy of thievery. It's a beautiful spiel that reveals him to be not just a common criminal but a truly devious meddler who wants his victims to know how deeply they've been violated.

Soon, Bill and Cobb are robbing places together, pawning goods and pocketing loads of cash. On Cobb's advice, Bill cleans himself up with a shave, haircut, and smart suit of his own. His newfound confidence helps him hit on an aloof woman (Lucy Russell) at an underground pub. Bill is nothing like her small-time-mob-boss boyfriend, and that excites her. They begin seeing each other, and the tightrope of Bill's relationship and new career gets narrower and narrower.

To give anything else away would be unfair. As you might expect from Nolan, some characters aren't who they appear to be, and a lot of secrets are hinted at in Following's non-linear presentation. But the movie had me from the first frame to the last with its unusual performances, natural dialogue, and writing so observant it borders on non-fiction.

Unlike later attempts at creating modern noir (the puzzlingly over-praised Brick, jumps to mind), Following doesn't fall into the trap of genre trappings. Nolan realizes that noir is an attitude and not a mode of dress or affected, 1940s speech pattern. By writing his characters as kooky but real, we focus on our desire to know more about them instead of paying attention to the graves they're digging for one another. In particular, Haw plays Cobb as such a suave, compelling freak show that I couldn't take my eyes off of him--which is exactly what Nolan wants for both Bill and the audience.

I don't know if shooting in black-and-white was an artistic decision or a financial one. Whatever the case, Following is a beautiful picture. Nolan's characters fetishize the details of every item they touch and every room they walk into; in this way, the daylight robberies serve two purposes: to contrast the thieves' ghastly activities with the mood created by warm light streaming through shade-less windows, and to allow us to enjoy things we shouldn't be looking at, right along with the characters. Later in the film, as Bill's situation snowballs beyond anyone's ability to help, the details become less definable, as darks and heavy grays take over the screen. In a way, our difficulty in discerning everything that's going on mirrors the protagonist's struggle to learn the truth of his situation.

It's sad to think of what Christopher Nolan accomplished on a nothing budget with a modest crew, compared to what he's cranking out now with all the money in the world and an army of the industry's best hired-hands. The key, I think, is that he's lost the intimacy that movies like Following, Memento, and, to an extent, The Prestige offered. He's much better at realizing and wrangling a handful of characters in tighter narrative spaces than overseeing two-plus-hour action films that are meant to be only as challenging as the dumbest guy in the auditorium will allow. This isn't to say that I hate Nolan's modern output, I simply see through the spectacle and understand that one original performance doesn't make a whole movie great--nor do trippy dream-talk and some transforming CGI buildings.

I would love to see Nolan return to short-form, big-idea filmmaking. He clearly has (or had) a knack for making an epic out of three characters talking, and with that kind of wit and imagination there's no limit to what he might do if either confined to a smaller budget or somehow magically forced to relive what it felt like to be hungry and eager to prove himself. Following is a starving artist's swing for the fences, whereas Inception is the buffet in a fat-cat's skybox.


Final Destination 5 (2011)

Rinse, Repeat.

The first hour of Final Destination 5 is noteworthy only for the spectacularly weird and cool opening credits sequence, in which all of the series' best instruments of destruction fly out of the screen. They shatter plate-glass walls to the sounds of an eerie but catchy techno score, and the whole thing is presented in choppy, almost washed-out montages--as if simultaneously one-upping and improving upon the beginning of the early Friday the 13th films.

Similar to that series, whose fourth installment was called "The Final Chapter", the Final Destination films presumably ended with The Final Destination. Instead of tacking on a "New Beginning" sub-title to the follow-up, the producers have simply slapped a "5" on the poster and moved on to butchering another group of hapless American Eagle models.

I won't get too far into the movie's mechanics because if you've seen the original, you've seen parts three, four, and five already--even if you don't know it (the second one is a true sequel, story-wise, and doesn't feel like a cash-in; though I'm sure it is). All you need to know is that the Big Disaster in this one happens on a bridge. A guy named Sam (Nicholas D'Agosto) has a premonition that the bridge his company bus is crossing will collapse, killing most of his co-workers and then himself. He comes to just before the accident and manages to save his friends' lives.

Within days, though, the survivors start dying off mysteriously, in the order in which they would have died in the collapse. Typically, this is something that the characters have to figure out for themselves in these movies, but Tony Todd, playing a mysterious undertaker, speeds matters up by just coming out with the information--along with the helpful nugget that the kids can spare each of their own lives if someone dies in their place. I've been waiting to see this idea explored for five years, so it was a nice surprise to see the last half-hour devoted to something other than fake suspense and bad CG gore.

I'd like to take a moment to congratulate Tony Todd on being one of the five luckiest people in show-business. Like Survivor host Jeff Probst, his only responsibilities in the Final Destination series involve tweaking the same ominous speech and stepping out from behind things with a steely, bad-ass look in his eyes. Bravo, Sir. Bravo.

So, yes, that last thirty minutes: Sam's best friend, Peter (Miles Fisher), interrupts a romantic evening between Sam and his girlfriend, Molly (Emma Bell). He's shaking and sweaty, and really nervous because, it turns out, he's decided to swap Molly's life for his own. This leads to an almost-satisfying game of hide-and-seek in the kitchen of a French restaurant, where Fisher tries really hard to perfect his Angry Tom Cruise impression. As happens in these movies, the spectre of Death hovers nearby, using both nature and coincidence to set lethal traps for the characters. What's interesting here is that we're never sure if Death will get its way through the gun heating up on the stove or through the actions of the desperate, homicidal kids throwing themselves around the cutlery.

I won't spoil what happens because writer Eric Heisserer nearly pulls off an amazing feat: turning a stale formula on its head with a really cute idea (Hint: He leaves Final Destination 5 open for a sequel, but not for Final Destination 6). The big problem is that this movie is packed with "almosts", most of whose problems come down to pacing. Director Steven Quale lacks any sense of timing and an eye for suspense. He ruins Heisserer's Twisted, Gruesome Death setups before they've even happened, which takes a special kind of cluelessness.

For example, one of the doomed characters is a gymnast. As she warms up for a beam performance, we see the twin overhead AC fans shake violently, causing one of the screws in the vent to come loose; the screw lands on the beam, and the girl skips and twirls around it repeatedly, obliviously; there's also a frayed electrical cord on the floor, which is dangerously close to some dripping water. We bounce back and forth between these perils for minutes--yes, minutes--before she's finally killed off using a bit of misdirection that might have been nifty had everything else not been so drawn out.

Throughout Final Destination 5, we're inundated with scenes of Death covering its bases (and why wouldn't it, with its lousy track record?). That sounds cool on paper, but in the theatre it feels like padding. The filmmakers spend such a disproportionate amount of time on cruelly disposing of the characters that every broken limb and splattered noggin is a reminder of how little time was devoted to building an interesting script. A better movie might have foregone all of the coincidental deaths and staged a Battle Royale-style kill-a-thon in which every character acted as an agent of Death. But the series' mythology is so stale that even this film's perfect, creepy ending scene is ruined by five gratuitous minutes of fake blood and peril.

Despite the cool twist, there's nothing to recommend here unless you just get off on watching characters die in ways you're too simple to imagine.

Okay, there's a minor saving grace: Dave Koechner plays a middle-manager at the paper company whose bus falls off the bridge. He's so pompously goofy that he might as well be in another movie. But don't hop in the car just yet, kids. I'm sure all of his scenes will be cut together in a YouTube clip before this baby hits home video.

I appreciate Heisserer's attempt to change things up, but he just doesn't go far enough. His lack of confidence and originality (combined with Quale's errant belief that CG effects are a toolbox instead of a tool) amounts to little more than a slick, sick highlight reel with a decent surprise accidentally spliced in.


Crazy Stupid Love (2011)

Love Kills

Crazy, Stupid, Love. should have come out in the fall. This complex dramedy features at least one Oscar-worthy performance and a screenplay that's twelve times smarter than the one being sold in the trailers. But because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seems to believe that there are only three months in the movie-watching year--and because Hollywood seems incapable of challenging this notion--I fear this terrific little film will be overlooked in favor of more obvious contenders.

That first problem leads to a second one, also illustrated here: When faced with special projects that don't fit neatly into the five molds marketing departments use to package movies, most studios freeze. There's no indication in the promotional materials that Crazy, Stupid, Love. is anything more than date-night junk food for settled, suburban white people. The poster features a take-off on The Graduate's famous seduction still, along with generic frames of the lead actors smiling or looking appropriately pensive in a perfectly horizontal line of boxes at the bottom--all meant to draw fans of Young Hollywood, Middle-aged-But-Hot-Hollywood, and Kevin Bacon.

But if you've avoided this film because you think it's about Steve Carrell playing his fourth big-screen variation on his Michael Scott character from The Office while getting love tips from a studly, young lothario so that he can win back his ex-wife--well, you're right...and totally wrong. Co-writers/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa play around with the high-concept premise for awhile, before opening up these characters' worlds to reveal a whole cast of secondary players whose storylines comprise roughly half the movie. Like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Crazy, Stupid, Love. takes a small word with huge implications ("family" in that movie, "love" in this one) and explores it through several different kinds of relationships; rarely taking the easy or expected path in doing so.

I'm being deliberately oblique here because at least half of this film's magic comes from the joy of discovery. I will say that Ryan Gosling, as dapper womanizer Jacob, continues his streak of what should be break-out roles. He's so charming, sincere, and funny that it's easy to forget the guy's a scumbag; Gosling, in effect seduces the audience using the same tactics his character employs at the bar he frequents. Fortunately, he's not called upon to have a teary-eyed softening at the end of the picture; a girl named Hannah (Emma Stone) finds his heart and then steals it, but Jacob is still kind of a super-cool jerk when the credits roll.

I would also like to come out as a huge fan of Analeigh Tipton, who plays Jessica, the babysitter for Carrell and Julianne Moore's Cal and Emily Weaver. She has a crush on Cal, and uses the couple's impending divorce as an opportunity to let her feelings show. But again, the creators toy with our expectations: Jessica is not a confident sexpot; she's an awkward high school girl who cares deeply about the Weavers and wrestles with her feelings for a guy who's not just old enough to be her dad, but who is also one of her dad's best friends. Watching Tipton on-screen last night, I got that feeling directors and producers used to describe--of discovering a star, of being in on the ground floor of a bright and promising career (you don't hear people talk about that much anymore, which is sad).

(Almost as impressive is Jonah Bobo as the Weavers' son, Robbie, who reminded me of Patrick Fugit's character in Almost Famous: a lovelorn spectator in a world of mixed-up adults.)

I could go on about the rest of the cast, but I don't need to. It's weird to say, but when you cast certain actors in a film, the default expectation is "Excellent", and that's true here. Even Carrell is great, but I'm pretty sure this is the last of these kinds of films I'm going to let him get away with. There's definitely a lot of late-career Michael Scott in Cal Weaver, which, in some ways, helps make Crazy, Stupid, Love. a mash-up of American Beauty and Date Night. I would love to see Carrell do something different as a performer, instead of signing up to play a tweaked iteration of an archetype he's already perfected.

Perhaps my biggest surprise is that this movie was made by the same people who gave us last year's awful I Love You Phillip Morris. The broad strokes that made it unbearable are evident in Crazy, Stupid, Love., but Ficarra and Requa look to have matured several decades in their understanding of human relationships and tragi-comic filmmaking. Their latest picture isn't perfect (the sub-plot involving Marisa Tomei as Cal's first bar conquest is both wholly unnecessary and upsets the rhythm of a Keyser Soze-level climax-twist; trimming this vestigial tail would have knocked the run-time down to a more manageable level and lessened the blow of the film's Lord of the Rings-style multiple endings ), but it has heart, brains, and insight that Phillip Morris absolutely did not.

Maybe Warner Brothers felt they had a great, mold-breaking film for adults on their hands, but were afraid a fall release would prevent them from recouping the truckloads of money they'd invested on star-power. I can see how putting this kind of movie in theatres at this time of year is a brilliant strategy: There are lots of people who want to go to the movies during the summer, but who don't give a shit about CGI robots or drunk pirates. But by packaging Crazy, Stupid, Love. as alternative summer escapism, the studio has, I think sold one of the year's gems far short--I just hope I'm wrong on this one, and that the movie finds both the audience and acclaim it deserves.

I laughed hard and cried almost as hard at this movie. If that's not the kind of art that warrants recognition from a body of supposedly serious film lovers, I don't know what is.


Thriller: A Cruel Picture (1974)

Mute Court

As rape/revenge movies go, Thriller: A Cruel Picture is pretty fantastic.

Sorry, I've always wanted to lead off a review with poster-ready hyperbole. The endorsement stands, though, as Thriller (more popularly known as They Call Her One Eye), is a surprisingly inventive and satisfying drama. Whereas most exploitation films are just boundaries-pushing calling cards, writer/director Bo Arne Vibenius uses hard-core sex and violence as window dressing for a challenging story about humiliation and humanity.

Christina Lindberg stars as Frigga, a Swedish farm girl who was rendered mute as a child following a sexual assault in the woods. Her parents send her to weekly therapy sessions in the hopes of one day restoring her speech. One afternoon, she misses the bus into town and hitches a ride with a slick stranger named Tony (Heinz Hopf). They drive into town and he convinces Frigga to have dinner with him instead of making her appointment.

Following an expensive meal, the two stop by Tony's place for a drink. He drugs her wine and pays a doctor-for-hire to inject her with high-grade heroin. Days later, Frigga wakes up to find that she's been inducted into a sex-slave ring. The charming Tony has morphed into a monstrous pimp who's forged a hateful runaway letter to Frigga's parents to cover up her disappearance. He threatens to cut off her supply of smack if she doesn't do whatever (and whomever) he says.

Frigga tries to fight back, but is overpowered and pumped full of more drugs. She viciously claws the face of her first client, prompting Tony to lay down the law by removing her left eye with a scalpel. Sporting an eye patch and a blank expression, she begins her new career as a six-days-a-week prostitute, submitting to the perverse demands of men and women alike. Frigga has Sundays free to do as she pleases, though the lure of drugs keeps her on as tight a leash as an electronic ankle bracelet.

A fellow captive named Sally (Solveig Andersson) tells Frigga about a clinic that helps people get off drugs; she's been offering her clients off-the-menu sexual favors and saving up extra cash in order to escape one day. Frigga takes this idea and puts it to better use: On Sundays, she takes her spare cash to a weapons expert, a driving instructor, a martial arts dojo, and a military academy. After several months, she embarks on a murder spree, visiting as many of her clients as she can find and then setting her sites on Tony and the upper echelon of his organization.

It's sad to say, but by today's torture-porn standards, the sex and violence in Thriller is practically PG-13. When Frigga blows holes in people with her sawed-off shotgun, squibs erupt beneath shirts like an invisible hand crushing tomatoes, but Vibenius doesn't fetishize gore. Instead, he creates beautifully twisted slow-motion ballets with the help of cinematographer Andreas Bellis and composer Ralph Lundsten. It's a bit distracting at first, as the movement slows so significantly as to make all of the characters look ridiculous while running away or falling to the floor. But the pace and eerie, pounding music elicit a feeling that is, I imagine, similar to what many trauma victims describe: horrific moments take their sweet time in registering as seconds tick by like hours.

The culmination of this amazing effect is Frigga's encounter with two policemen. Though not technically villains, Frigga sees them as obstacles on her quest for justice and beats the hell out of them with a series of beautiful chops and kicks to the face. This fight takes place in a dark warehouse; with Frigga's all-black outfit and the cops' dark uniforms, the scene relies purely on hints of light, shadow and movement to fill us in on the gruesome details. Twice, we see magnificent slow-mo blood geysers shooting out of the officers' mouths, and the arcs are so perfect that it's incredible to think they weren't digitally enhanced.

Thriller's artistry is great, but Lindberg makes the picture unforgettable. Though her face rarely registers anything but concentration and occasional contempt, her body language speaks to the bottled up rage and sadness that can only be exorcised through terrible actions. Frigga becomes a sort of Zen Terminator throughout the movie, and as she pushes further into her plan of damning atrocities, Lindberg appears to grow younger and younger--to the point where, at times, I had to remind myself that I wasn't watching a twelve-year-old girl blowing holes in people. I don't know if it was deliberate, but the effect adds an unexpected layer to the revenge plot; it's as if the scarred inner child has literally broken through the prostitute's hardened shell to join forces with the Devil.

It's easy to see why Quentin Tarantino loves this movie so much. He cites it as not only one of the roughest pictures he's ever seen, but also as an inspiration for Kill Bill. In his own way, Vibenius made a Tarantino film before Tarantino did: Thriller's heavy themes are filtered through a mash-up of violence, warped sexuality and humor that, while often disgusting, are made palatable by fascinating characters and a filmmaking style that makes art out of schlock.


30 Minutes or Less (2011)

It's All in the Delivery

Note: This advanced-screening review originally ran on July 8th.

The trailer for Ruben Fleischer's 30 Minutes or Less is terrible. There's nothing about it to suggest that the movie is anything more than another misstep in this summer's laugh-free, R-rated comedy slog. Sure, it promises more action than Bridesmaids or Bad Teacher, but the jokes are as desperate as a three-year-old shouting "Penis!" at the dinner table. I attended an advanced screening last night, and today I have a message for the Columbia Pictures marketing department: You've got exactly five weeks to get your act together. I don't care how hard it is to re-cut that trailer without giving everything away or butting heads with the censors, but you're in danger of under-selling one of the best comedies in recent years.

The film stars Jesse Eisenberg as Nick, a directionless pizza-delivery boy whose only friend is Chet (Aziz Ansari), a substitute teacher who sees his new job at a Grand Rapids middle school as the pinnacle of slacker success. They've been best friends since childhood, just like Dwayne (Danny McBride) and Travis (Nick Swardson), a pair of dumb thugs who live across town. Dwayne's lottery-winning, Marine Corps-vet dad (Fred Ward) is sitting on a million-dollar fortune, and his idiot son hatches a murder plot that indirectly involves taking Nick hostage and strapping a bomb to his chest.

Most of 30 Minutes or Less takes place during the ten hours Nick has ticking down on his Red Digital Readout. Over the course of this crazy day, he will rope Chet into helping him rob a bank, profess his love for Chet's sister, Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria), steal a car, get into several high-speed chases, and take on a recently paroled gangster named Chango (Michael Peña)--who's also after a cut of Dwayne's family fortune.

To give any more away would be to spoil one of the tightest, most plot- and character-heavy 86-minute movies I've ever seen. There's so much going on here, often at a very frenetic pace, that one could easily mistake this as a two-and-a-half-hour action epic. Which isn't to say that it drags. First-time screenwriter Michael Diliberti masters the roller-coaster rhythms of the classic buddy-action-comedies that his characters love to reference--in addition to seasoning the material with some genuinely frightening and intense moments. I marveled at the delicacy with which Diliberti and Fleischer seamlessly made their ridiculously pompous criminals into menacing figures; they capture the tragi-comic danger of the frustrated-idiot archetype as definitively as Quentin Tarantino or the Coen Brothers.

In addition to a marvelous script, 30 Minutes or Less boasts a surprisingly effective cast. I can't tell if Eisenberg is channeling a less-ambitious version of his Social Network persona, or if I just missed something in Adventureland and Zombieland; whatever the case, his Nick is note-perfect in his disillusioned self-absorption; over the course of the movie, it matures into selflessness--if not a desire to actually do something with his life. Ansari makes a great comic sidekick; a manic ball of paranoid energy, he never lets Nick forget that he's wearing a bomb of questionable stability. Though he teeters on the edge of being Screaming Guy, his chemistry with Eisenberg is undeniable; the actors balance each other out, and make for a classic comedy duo.

Note: When people use the word "classic" to describe a movie or an aspect of a movie, it's typically lazy shorthand meaning, "this is a direct rip-off of something you've already seen and probably cherish". My intent in using it here is to denote a pairing that I hope will be remembered as being as great as Murphy and Nolte or Gibson and Glover; but which is its own, unique thing.

As criminals who aspire to ruthlessness but often succumb to guilt and stupidity, McBride and Swardson have never been better. Again, I believe most of this goes back to the writing. McBride plays yet another variation on his egomaniacal asshole character, but Dwayne doesn't live to smoke pot or make jokes about getting laid. He's got ambitions in life, but is only willing to take a homicidal shortcut to achieve them. Swardson's Travis is just an odd dude; with a bloated face that looks like it's ever-melting into a tattered collar and a dead-house-centipede moustache, the actor is the embodiment of humiliation. He's Dwayne's lapdog, but also his wimpy conscience; fortunately, there's no grand, defiant moment at the end of the film to drag the story into cliche. Travis is a bitch, through and through, and is mostly happy just to be walked by his master.

I'd be remiss in not giving a shout-out to Peña, who, of all the characters in the film, best represents what Diliberti and Fleischer are trying to do here. Chango comes onto the scene looking like a tattooed brick wall, an indomitable force that can't be reasoned with; but when he opens his mouth, we get a slightly fey, mumbling style of speech that belies everything we think we know about him; on the third side of this coin is the mind behind the voice and the body, which is focused and heartless. All of these aspects come out in 30 Minutes or Less, keeping the audience on its toes whenever Chango pulls up in his lowrider.

Ultimately, what sets this film apart from the season's other allegedly edgy R-rated comedies is a willingness to explore its premise to the fullest. Bridesmaids claimed to be about strong female bonds, but wound up being an over-long sketch-fest that had less insight than the worst episode of Gilmore Girls. Bad Teacher was so very naughty in its Daisy-Dukes car wash scene, but it existed in a purpose vaccuum--saying nothing about the state of our educational system, human relationships, or even American comedy (except, maybe, that peoples' bar for raunch has been lowered to an "Oh no she di'n'!" level of cheapness).

30 Minutes or Less touches on themes of friendship, betrayal, forgiveness, family, the down economy, and the folly of pop-culture as a substitute for education--all in the guise of a freewheeling pseudo-heist comedy. The film is so sharp and well-observed that maybe it's impossible to cram its essence into a thirty-second TV commercial or two-minute theatrical trailer. As it stands, the movie looks like every other late-summer stab at easy laughs. But you should definitely see this when it hits theatres next month; not only to revel in the discovery of a very funny, very talented new screenwriter, but also to support smart comedies. This is a special film, unlike ninety-nine percent of the market-flooding summer garbage, which should be trimmed to thirty minutes and then given away for free.

Note: At a post-screening Q&A with stars Eisenberg and Ansari, moderated by Steve Prokopy ("Capone" of Ain't it Cool News), I was again reminded of how few people actually know how to participate in a proper movie discussion. For starters, kids, don't ask any question you may have seen posed to a celebrity during the Access Hollywood leg of a press junket. Though you may think you're giving Eisenberg food for thought by inquiring as to how heavy the bomb vest was, or if he an Ansari could think of any bad jobs they might have had before becoming famous, you might as well be asking what their favorite color is, or what they had for lunch.

Also, most people are aware of the real-life tragedy that may or may not have inspired 30 Minutes or Less. If you honestly want to bring a lighthearted, post-screening discussion to a grinding halt and elicit groans amidst the awkward silence, at least do so at an event where the director or screenwriter are present. Two people made passive-aggressive jabs at Eisenberg and Ansari, and it's a credit to Prokopy that he was able to save the conversation by demanding that the next question not be "about real-life death".

Today's lesson: Pick your battles, and realize that your hard-hitting questions are just hipster douche-baggery in disguise.