Directed by: Michael Cuesta
Written by: Stephen M. Ryder, Michael Cuesta, & Gerald Cuesta
Starring: Paul Dano, Brian Cox, Bruce Altman, and Billy Kay

Watching L.I.E. reminds you of what the American Independent Cinema first set out to do; it’s of full moral ambiguity within a premise that would never in a million years be green-lit by a Hollywood studio.  Looking at recent indie fluff like Juno or any of its brightly colored siblings makes the often edgy facade of independent movies seem like they’re losing touch, never mind the quality.

L.I.E. stars Paul Dano in what is still his most daring role.  His excellent performances in Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood almost seem safe next to his role as Howie, a gay, misguided 15-year-old who becomes romantically entangled with a much, much older man.  If Dano is daring, than Brian Cox is fearless on an almost unparalleled level as that older man.

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Hard Candy
Directed by: David Slade
Written by: Brian Nelson (screenplay)
Starring: Ellen Page, Patrick Wilson, Sandra Oh, and Odessa Rae

Frankenstein’s Monster has taken many forms since its inception in Mary Shelley’s novel.  A monument to its creator’s sins, the original incantation runs amok strangling and killing villagers; he is never spoken of by the doctor, and that is the source of his madness. Hard Candy reminded me of Frankenstein at its core, but it wears its film influences a little lighter.

Connoisseurs of horror will immediately draw parallels to the gruesome if meditative late 90s Japanese horror film Audition, but many will go straight for a teen version of Saw.  Hard Candy is all of these, and at the same time stakes a territory of its own. 

Ellen Page takes on one of the riskiest roles a budding teen actress can take in this industry: an interesting one.  She plays Hayley Stark, a seemingly flirtatious young girl who chats with an older man named Jeff (Patrick Wilson) on the internet and arranges a meet-up. The initial scenes focus on their Meet Cute, but here it would be more aptly titled a Meet Creepy. 

After going back to their apartment and consuming screwdrivers and exchanging further banter, the horror thrills start to set in.  Audition was a caustic, meditative look at subtle sexism’s festering beneath the surface of Japanese culture.  Hard Candy would be its rampaging, American id.  Though no single scene in this film is more violent than the climax of Audition, the tension is ratcheted up constantly, extending the Japanese film’s third act to fill nearly an entire film.

Because it’s so long, we see through the now-thinly veiled layers of psychosis in Hayley.  Page expertly keeps audience members guessing, and her performance rotates between justifiable anger and sheer madness.  We as viewers want to sympathize with her at first, and it is in that constant back-and-forth loyalty that director David Slade finds his momentum.  Choosing allegiances in a film has rarely been so difficult, and ultimately, pointless.  That is the point.

Hayley claims to be taking vengeance for all the girls Jeff has harmed.  With a palette of enhanced colors (especially the reds), she wanders this pedophile filmmaker’s house exposing his every secret with glee.  These are the best scenes because they are effective at turning the tables without going too far, which Hard Candy inevitably does.

I suppose you could read this movie as a comment on the torture porn boom, one where those filmmakers are pedophiles and screenwriter Brian Nelson is the avenging angel.  In most of these movies, Hayley would be the victim.  The movie doesn’t play that trick tongue-in-cheek, and as a result starts to overstay its welcome even clocking in under 2 hours.

You’d think a man would learn his lesson after being castrated, but alas, she must go take a shower and allow him time to realize what’s actually happened to him, escape and continue the movie for more now-pointless rounds of torture.

That faux castration scene is played to such precision that the pointlessness is even further emphasized.  Slade structures the scene like the rest of the film, sequences unfolding in real time broken up by time lapses, but his control here is more measured.  He keeps the scene moving by doing several creative pans that don’t go to the other side of the room, but to a completely different angle.  You’ll start by surveying Jeff’s bound body from the side, and a pan will take you over Hayley’s shoulder to see his front.

The varying perspectives in these shots bring up another point that needs to be made: there are no varying perspectives in the characters.  Slade’s directing is completely competent, even semi-nuanced given the story, but the screenplay doesn’t dig deep enough.  This is a revenge parable whose motives don’t make us sympathize enough with Hayley to justify her brutal means.  She symbolizes something, and that is meant to be enough, but it isn’t.

Those faults aside, Hard Candy is an overall success because the actors transport us into a flawed world.  Wilson plays Jeff as a man with no options that garners sympathy because of what is happening to him and not who he is.  Though not a lot of blood is spilled (none, really), the film can come off as too much.  That is the work of a skilled director who was ultimately just doing his job.

Page and Wilson weren’t just doing this for the paycheck, because roles like these are risky.  Page, as we all know, went on to critical fame to play Juno, another teen with word vomit who is pursued by an older man.  She handles that one a little more tongue-in-cheek.

Grade: B-

Ten New Movie Icons

As you learn more and more about the movies in America, a few faces stand synonymous with the silver screen.  Darth Vader, James Bond, Dorothy Gale, Dirty Harry- there are countless others I could name, but that’s not the point of this post.  What are the new screen icons, the characters that will join the ranks of those immortal celluloid figures 50 years down the road?  Here are my choices for 10 movie characters who burned their towering images into the silver screen.

1. Gollum- I choose this endearing figure from the Lord of the Rings trilogy not only because of the beguiling performance of Andy Serkis, but because Gollum also marks a transition in filmmaking.  If this is the digital age, it’s only because Serkis and Peter Jackson proved you could do it without sacrificing emotional intensity or credibility.  When Gollum talks to himself as his alter ego Smeagle, you believe in the new power of special effects.

2. The Bride- The blood-splattered angel of Quentin Tarantino’s gory genre exploitations is portrayed by Uma Thurman with both the suave of a genuine action star and the grit of a truly great actress.  The yellow jumpsuit-wearing, samurai sword-wielding incarnation will remain in movie watchers’ minds for years to come.

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Up in the Air
Directed by: Jason Reitman
Written by: Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner (screenplay) Walter Kirn (novel)
Starring: George Clooney, Anna Kendrick, Vera Farmiga and Jason Beitman

There is something about Jason Reitman’s ability both as screenwriter and director that enables him to do the most audacious tasks. Whether it’s clearing the smoke on the dubious debate between government and tobacco industries, bringing life to a taboo tale of a pregnant teen or travelling the gap between corporate America and the American, Reitman is always on board.

Ryan Bingham (Clooney) is in a business that thrives off of America’s deteriorating businesses. The old school corporate executioner travels all over the US, city to city, visiting companies with lists of middle managers and other white collars who are to be fired due to the economy. When bosses are too cowardly to break the bad news, it is Bingham’s job to sweep in and let them down as softly and suavely as his persona, which is why he does his job so well. In addition, he gives them a load of garbage about all the new opportunities and resources available to them. It only makes sense that he gives motivational speeches about the same sorts of subjects at business seminars and conventions. He does it well, and he loves doing it. Living a life of a nomad business man is exactly what he wants, so that he can detach himself from family, materialism and miserable grounded lifestyle led by the people which he fires.

Bingham is flying high until his company looks toward a young ivy-league hotshot (Kendrick) who proposed the company begin using an online model to cut out the travelling budget, putting Bingham’s job and lifestyle out of business. The new challenges he now faces are similar to the great challenges America is facing. Streamlining and digitizing isn’t just for corporations anymore, it’s for people, and it’s making us change the way we look at business and our lives. There is a constant back and forth between the traditional and the new.  It is an interweaved story of relevance and at the forefront is a fantastic character who must understand why he’s wandering through the world and what he needs to start bringing with him. Continue reading