Friday, October 22, 2010

"Paranormal Activity 2" (2010)

"Paranormal Activity 2" is that rare horror movie sequel that is scarier than the first. And even with a new director (Tod Williams) and set of writers, this sequel expands upon the original story in a way that makes sense and feels organic. The premise is generally the same, except this time the ante is ramped up because rather than just having a stationary camera in a bedroom to obsess over each night, the set is widened to an entire house we have to worry about.

After a supposed break-in into their expansive and lovely home, a family decides to take some precautions and install some hidden surveillance cameras within different rooms of the house. Unlike last time when even we didn't know what was invading the house, this time we know and are forced to watch as the family unwittingly discovers it on their own. The cameras aren't placed for supernatural hunting but instead placed for our convenience of looking in on the nerve-racking activity, a very clever move by the filmmakers. The family's first clue of something being not quite right was when the break-in left about just everything damaged yet nothing was stolen.

We're given several viewpoints throughout their home--crystal clear in the daytime and the blue-tinted nighttime perspective we're used to from the first installment--including the swimming pool with an automated pool cleaner teasing us every time, the kitchen, the living room, the front door with the stairwell and the baby's room. A toddler and a dog in the mix are an intelligent addition as they add to the awareness without being able to verbalize it. There is less fast-forwarding time through the overnight sequences and more watching their reactions to disturbances in the night while the others remain asleep.

The terror and action, where frighteningly paranormal things actually start occurring, ramps up faster than before even when it is over a longer period of time. And unlike the predecessor where the light of day was a safe haven, that isn't so much the case here as equally terrifying things begin happening during the day and night. The setups will have you shaking with anticipation and suspense as each moment of a loud sound against complete silence is like a bomb going off, bombs that we know are coming. The trick is just not ever knowing when. And when viewing those still camera feeds, your eyes dart left and right to every edge of the frame making sure you don't miss any subtle movement.

The only reason "Paranormal Activity 2" is getting knocked down from the original's perfect score is due to the inevitable loss of authenticity. We definitely know it's all an act now, but what's more impressive is how scared it still makes us. It's a new formula that works, one that tickles the audience with a dread of the unknown, keeping us on edge for something we cannot even see.

My review of "Paranormal Activity"

Sunday, October 17, 2010

"Never Let Me Go" (2010)

In an alternate reality, advances in science and medicine have allowed the human race to live well past one hundred years old. This does not come without some sacrifices, though. Special schools have been established where children live, grow up and learn in their own isolated society within the larger one. The children are told they must stay healthy, that they are gifted and they are Donors. They live only to donate to others: kidneys, hearts, livers, other vital parts. Somewhere between one and four of their donations, they are complete, and their short lives come to an end.

While having the elements of science fiction, "Never Let Me Go" places them in the bleak reality of life in 70s, 80s and 90s England. This is a drama with an aching sadness as every scene is dripping with an intense melancholic mood that haunts and lingers with every gorgeously photographed shot thanks to Adam Kimmel's cinematography. As it is with dystopias, this one has parallels to our own world but what makes this one sting so profoundly is how real it feels.

There is an ominous air to Halshaim, the school where lifelong friends Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) spend their childhood. Working as a British boarding school, the purpose of Halshaim is unclear at first, but slowly the mystery gets unveiled to not only us but the children, as well. They receive the harsh truth from a visiting guardian, Miss Lucy (the wonderful Sally Hawkins), who later gets removed from the school. The revelation that these children will never fully grow into adulthood is deeply unsettling knowing their lives will be over by the time they're in their 20s. Upon hearing this, however, the children also don't know any different; they're forced to accept their fate because it's all they are taught to understand.

The three friends grow up and move on to The Cottages, a new and more intimate living space where teenagers from other schools gather together. Between their time at Halshaim and here, a romance blossoms between Ruth and Tommy but much to Kathy's despair as she was originally interested in him. Ruth becomes the barrier to the true love between Kathy and Tommy, the love that had been there all along but was then interrupted by Ruth's selfishness. The trio's story goes on, parting ways and reuniting again, but their most important time together comes at this stage in their lives at The Cottages. Beyond this, they move again losing track of each other as Kathy, our narrator of the story, goes on to be a Carer for other Donors before she becomes one herself.

Adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 novel of the same name, director Mark Romanek ("One Hour Photo") and screenwriter Alex Garland set Ishiguro's tale to an almost painfully somber and quiet tone accompanied by Rachel Portman's heartbreaking score. This is not a hindrance, though, and actually is beneficial to the disturbing and upsetting material. It is soulfully meditative, an elegantly fragile film that muses over not only death but the passing of life that cannot be avoided. The circumstances of these poor human beings within this miniature society of Donors is crucially devastating, a reflection of our own fears of love lost and lives taken too soon.

If you've seen Carey Mulligan in "An Education," you already know she is one of the finest young actresses working today. Likewise, "The Social Network" proved Andrew Garfield to be a stunning young actor. Put them together here, and their scenes are exquisite and emotional powerhouses. Their mesmerizing qualities are only exemplified by Keira Knightley who usually has center stage but here is effective as a supplement to their passion, her character who later wants to make amends for tearing the couple apart.

There is an old rumor at Halshaim that if two Donors were to fall in love, they can have their donations postponed. Tommy and Kathy are naturally in love but proving such love would be proving their humanity. How human can someone be who is mass produced as a product? Mass produced for one purpose, the purpose to allow others to live longer. And yet, are their lives any different than the ones they're being used toward saving and prolonging? It's so sorrowful to watch these characters. Their subdued nature seems almost necessary to cope. How else could you go on conscious of your own passing, knowing when it would be and for what reason, other than to have faith in letting go?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

"Catfish" (2010)

The hook of "Catfish" is its surprise ending, one that you absolutely must not let anyone spoil for you before heading in to see this wildly intriguing and fascinating portrait of a betrayal of the contemporary Internet age. Similar to "The Social Network," this new style of documentary plays out like a Facebook cautionary tale but to a different extent in that a person could very well not be at all who they at first appear to be within the realm of web pages.

The filmmakers Nev Schulman, Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost were all supposedly subjected to intense interviewing at this year's Sundance premiere to make sure their documentary is true in its facts. Though skeptics there may be, I believe this tale to be truthful. These people are exactly who they portray themselves to be.

It all starts when Nev, from New York, strikes up a relationship with a young girl named Abby from rural, upstate Michigan who begins sending him her paintings of published photographs he's taken. This innocent relationship then expands to one with Abby's entire family on Facebook. Things get most interesting when an intimate relationship unfolds between Nev and Abby's older sister, Megan. If the shooting of this documentary started the way they claimed it did, through sheer curiosity of how this Facebook relationship would expand, then these filmmakers lucked out and found themselves one hell of a story to share. It also helps they know how to share it as this is well done storytelling through footage, Google maps, GPS navigation and, of course, Facebook.

To call "Catfish" a gimmick wouldn't be too far from accurate, but it's a gimmick that is a rewarding and affecting experience that can only be had once in viewing this film. Knowing too much before seeing it would ruin the experience entirely, and so, as many have already been stating, don't let anyone ruin it.

I will say this about it, however, in hopes of not giving too much away. The foreboding build of suspense in discovering who exactly Megan from Facebook is and meeting her in person with Nev and his filmmakers is excellently nerve-jangling. It's full of anticipation, humor and, ultimately, compassion. This is a movie that transforms as you watch it. Once that revelation hits--rather early on, I might add--it hits you in a way you couldn't imagine. It's expectedly discomforting but even more so unexpectedly thoughtful, poignant and even sad.

Friday, October 1, 2010

"The Social Network" (2010)

At the end of David Fincher's "The Social Network," a young lawyer who's been sitting in on the depositions with Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) says to him, "You're not an asshole, Mark. You're just trying so hard to be one." Played expertly by Jesse Eisenberg in his meatiest role yet, Zuckerberg is a weasel of a man, a neurotic genius who is acid-tongued, bitter and condescending. Eisenberg is used to playing the likable nerd. This time he plays a nerd all right, but this one is utterly unlikable and unable to connect with anyone. Consider the opening scene of the movie as Zuckerberg has a beer with his girlfriend, Erica (Rooney Mara soon to star in Fincher's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"). Their conversation seems normal at first but upon further listening, you realize how strangely he is interacting. It's darkly comedic but also deeply unsettling as is the rest of Eisenberg's performance. Zuckerberg verbally assaults Erica and is not so much talking with her than piling all of his rage-filled grievances onto her. She promptly dumps him and heads toward the door not before turning around and calling him, yes, an asshole.

And this is the young man who founded Facebook at Harvard back in 2003 and is now the youngest billionaire. He is a computer programming genius obsessed with being included, driven by his idealist vision and yet so blind-sided by it that he becomes a Citizen Kane for the Internet age, a man whose goals overwhelm his ability to remain engaged in the world around him. Mark Zuckerberg is the anti-hero of our time. Director David Fincher ("Zodiac," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin ("The West Wing") are a miracle of a pairing who have taken the story behind the founding of Facebook and turned it into a modern epic that is endlessly compelling. This is a rush of contemporary filmmaking that is brilliantly entertaining and even more brilliant in its resonant implications and unexpected emotional wallop.

Based on the book "The Accidental Billionaire" by Ben Mezrich, Sorkin takes what could have been a complex and muddled tale and shapes it into an easy to follow and fascinating fact-based structure full of searing and intelligent dialogue that rewards big for paying close attention. The narrative shifts back and forth in time between Zuckerberg's creation of the revolutionary website and the depositions surrounding the lawsuits that followed its success. Aiding in the storytelling is the impressive and sleek editing as well as the cinematography from Jeff Cronenweth which bathes every visual in a gorgeous sheen. A tantalizing and ominous musical score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross fits the mood.

Back in his dorm room after getting dumped by Erica, Zuckerberg sits down and writes a nasty blog post about her that gets us angry and disgusted. He doesn't stop there and creates a site called Facemash by hacking into the "facebooks" of Harvard dorms, gathering up the head shots of female students and placing them side by side to judge their looks. The site gets a resounding number of hits to the point where it crashes the campus server. The act is illegal and puts Zuckerberg on the map. He soon gets approached by a pair of rich twins, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer), who are on the prestigious rowing team and have an idea for a website called the Harvard Connection. After accepting their offer to help build the site, Zuckerberg privately talks it down claiming how juvenile their techniques are and goes on to create his own site, Facebook.

Of course there's no way he could do it on his own. He recruits the help of his only friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who lends all the money to start up the site and becomes CFO of the company. Praise is due for Andrew Garfield whose performance is the movie's moral compass and soul juxtaposed against Zuckerberg's own soulless proceedings. When he eventually is betrayed by his friend, Garfield shows a painful devastation in Eduardo that cannot be matched. Both Garfield and Eisenberg greatly deserve Oscar nominations for their phenomenal work.

The glitz of fame and fortune is presented to Zuckerberg and Eduardo through the cocky and charismatic co-founder of Napster, Sean Parker, who is played with conviction by Justin Timberlake. Parker takes them to flashy clubs, elegant dinners, house parties with underage drinking and drug use and becomes an idol to Zuckerberg as the one who pulls him into the big leagues. When Parker convinces a move to California, that's when Eduardo gets left behind by his ex-comrade.

The movie is a surprising thriller, a social observation on why Zuckerberg screwed over the people he did. In the same moment when he is called an asshole by the young lawyer, Zuckerberg slumps down before his laptop and goes to his ex-girlfriend Erica's Facebook page contemplating whether to request to be her friend. His blank stare as he repeatedly hits the refresh button sums up the cruel irony of "The Social Network." For something our culture relies so heavily on, something we ourselves have become obsessed with checking more than once or twice a day, the fact that its origin comes from an act of scorn by an angry nerd against those in his own social circle is quietly disturbing. This is a movie about the way we live today, a cautionary tale looking back at who invented this way of living. It is the ambivalence of our relationships and the ambivalence of Facebook itself. This is not only one of the year's best movies but very well may be the best movie of the year. It is easily the most important one you will see all year.