And just when you thought these crazy kids wouldn't get together!
Actually, it's two separate films that are now in limited release and sure to open up a little bigger over the next few weeks. One is Rodrigo Cortes' (to put it lightly) claustrophobic war-time thriller-sorta-horror movie Buried, and the other is Woody Allen's 39209412939th film You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. A fairly odd couple of movies to see, but they made for an entertaining (if not extraordinary) night of viewing at the Angelika theater in downtown Manhattan.
Being buried in a box under ground is nobody's idea of a good time, that should be a given, especially when one is actually alive and put there by someone else with a nefarious plan (one saw such a scenario play out in Quentin Tarantino's two-part episode/movie on CSI, Grave Danger, and to a smaller extent in Kill Bill Vol. 2). It gives a damn-big obstacle for someone in a film to suddenly be trapped in one, but what about for the entire running time? It's an experiment that would've tickled Alfred Hitchcock pink, and what it turns out to be is what the movie advertisements might call (though at the moment giving this quote to Catfish weirdly enough): "The Best Hitchcock Film Hitchcock Never Made."
They would make that claim, and I would want to say that about Buried when it's at its best. It never reaches quite that high of an absurd-to-begin-with accolade, but it does provide a viewer with a sense of dread throughout. And you'll know that it has a "message" to it, at least in some part, just by my describing the story in this next sentence: A truck driver working for a company in Iraq (not Blackwater, something less security-oriented) finds himself inside of a coffin buried under the sand after terrorists attacked the group he was in, and with only a cell phone and zippo lighter he has to find a way out from his captors. Yes, it's set in Iraq (perhaps unwisely in 2006 it's set, as there weren't as many blackberries that recorded video, and youtube wasn't as huge as it is now). Yes, it's about the dangers of being kidnapped and held for ransom in that foreign land, which happens more often than you think. And yes, there are some moments when you realize that the message is very loud and clear.
Truth be told, I enjoyed that part of it, at least in this context. This isn't a horror movie like Saw - that is, until for only one crucial moment, which one wants to try and forget about - where the villain is all high and mighty and there are all of these stupid/contrived traps in existential sheep's clothing. It's one setting and one character, and there is a crucial moment where Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) is put on the phone with his employer, and is basically set up in a recorded conversation. What happens here I won't say except that it's a brilliant bit of misdirection on the filmmaker's part on what the audience is expecting at that moment, and it only gets darker from there. There should be some hope for this guy; as Paul repeatedly tells his captors and the kidnapping expert he's on the phone with in Iraq that he's not a soldier, has no guns, has been working only as a truck driver, is innocent, wants to go home. There are greater implications for him merely being there, but as far as characters in these thrillers go, we want to be on his side all the way.
I shouldn't go on too much further without mentioning how outstanding Ryan Reynolds is here. For years he's made his mark as a comedy actor, usually in comedies (Van Wilder, Just Friends) that are not the greatest caliber of comedy, and sometimes in dramas and indie-experiments (The Nines) that get praise but are seen by few. For an actor who is about to break even BIGGER with playing Hal Jordan in next year's Green Lantern comic-book movie, this is really the one that will get him "street-cred" as one might say among fans of honest-to-goodness bravura acting. He has no choice, Reynolds has to command the screen here, and he does with a character who has no choice but to survive for as long as he can. It doesn't help that Paul has anxiety issues and has medication for it. Also that his wife and children's home location is known to the terrorists. Not to mention a woman he knows is also held captive. The pressure is on, not least of which being trapped inside of a fucking coffin, with the occasional odd snake coming around, lights flickering out, and breath being short. Oh, and bombs going off aren't good structurally speaking for the integrity of the aforementioned coffin. At any rate, Reynolds is on top of it every step of the way, making Paul conflicted, desperate, likable, and relatable.
In fact I might credit Reynolds just as much if not more on some level emotionally for keeping me hooked in with the film. It's hard to pull off an act like Buried, since it is all in one location. Like Hitchcock's Rope the director, Rodrigo Cortes, and his director of photography Eduard Grau, there is a kind of contract made between the filmmakers and the audience, that 'this is what we're going to do, you can either do your best to stick with us, or hop off the train.' It's a stylistic gamble to have it inside of the coffin and not leave, albeit once or twice the director makes minor flights of fancy (for example showing the video on Paul's phone of the woman he knows being held hostage, and a couple of shots that fly high within the space of the wood crate). But, again, the ingenuity of the camera angles, the claustrophobia that is captured with tension and (somehow) belief, and Reynolds caught right in the center of it, make it something special. It's more than a gimmick: it's the precise and best way to tell a story like this, and I hope to watch it again if only to see certain shots and try to figure how they did this or that shot, or how the lit it in such a way with the minimal work they had.
Buried lies in such a fine area between being an experimental art film and Hollywood suspense, and I liked it that way. Once or twice it does get close to being heavy-handed, and the Saw moment I mentioned earlier is annoying (I don't want to spoil it, but when you see it you'll know). But it's successful at what it tries to do, which is make an audience squirm. In that sense it'll do what it does better than most horror films coming out in the next month, even if it's not technically a horror-genre film.
YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER
To me, a Woody Allen movie is an event film. How large or small the event may depend on how the film is received going on, what kind of buzz it might have, the actors, the change in locale (i.e. Match Point in England for first time), or just how good the movie is ultimately. For a filmmaker who hasn't not had a film released every year since 1981 (if not, as in 1991 or 2007, then two films the following year), some of the events may even be lessor than others, and so Allen's catalog of work is like a big house loaded with great, good, and not-so-good films. This one, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, is a good one. My wife compared it to something like Scoop- also one of Allen's England-set films- as ultra-light, inconsequential fare, but I don't know if it's quite that minor. Among the light-minor works where characters have only some consequence, it's one of the better ones.
It's a tale of a family, and their loves and loses. The patriarch, Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), has split from his wife, Helena (Gemma Jones) of many many years and is soon hooking up with an "actress", Charmaine (Lucy Punch), while Helena reassembles the pieces of her life by, well, communicating with a fortune teller who feeds her a lot of baloney she eats up like pudding. The child of the family, Sally (Naomi Watts), is an aspiring art dealer married to a (surprise) misanthropic doctor-turned-novelist Roy (Josh Brolin) who spends more time looking out his window to the naturally gorgeous girl across the street (Frieda Pinto, obviously naturally gorgeous), and has trouble with his latest book getting off the ground. Sally meanwhile might, maybe have a thing for her boss art gallery-dealer (Antonio Banderas).
What to expect from this? What one would expect from a lot of Woody Allen movies with characters entangled in neuroses, romance, and the ups and downs of life and naturally the impending force of death (in this case it's even in the title of the film, and referenced as such as Helena is told she will meet a "stranger"). In a way it's kind of like Husbands and Wives lite; the separation of the main couple leads off into their own "wacky" romantic tales, though Helena's much more normal ultimately than Alfie's, and about the other relationships and their trials and tribulations. It is at times a very funny movie, mostly when it focuses on the obvious tainted-from-the-start bond between Alfie and Charmaine (say her name right!) and Hopkins, in his funniest dead-pan performance since I can't remember when, trying to keep up with her new beau's spending ways (I ain't saying she's a gold-digger but, well, you know the words).
There's some interest in what happens between Roy and Dia (Pinto, who can never have too many closeups), and there is one very good moment between Watts and Banderas in his car after a night at the opera that has so much sexual tension without either person doing anything. And of course there's the if not religious than spiritual-cum-supernatural context of Helena and how her life becomes dictated by whatever her fortune teller tells her. But ultimately, despite a very bittersweet ending for all involved (and, one might argue, unresolved in a sense for a few of the characters), and Allen's screenplay giving a lot of good actors some good characters and scenes the chew on, it ultimately doesn't amount to anything too deep. Maybe Allen likes it that way; a story where characters try too hard and go against their best judgment, and don't win out in the end, while we laugh throughout (or, again, for the most part, some of it is dramatic hence the Husbands and Wives comparison). But I also didn't connect with the characters the way I have in films where Allen tackles the creative and the upper-middle class getting by in all things existential in nature and importance.
But do see the film if you can come across it; it's the kind of "event" film that works best as a date night, where you can take the little lady and show her what it's like when Brolin does (yes) the typical 'Woody Allen' character. He nails it better than most other actors playing the Woody role (I'm looking at you Kenneth Branaugh), and it's fun to see other actors get in on what makes their or other characters tic.