Buried lives up to its name on a few levels, but the most unfortunate one might have to do with its marketing. If I weren't on the lookout for Buried, I would never have known it was playing in town. On the weekend before Halloween where Clint Eastwood's Hereafter gives the supernatural a veneer of Academy bait and Paranormal Activity 2 tries to cash in on the moderately effective original (that was barely original) to pull down the big box office -- while next week sees Saw add a 3rd dimension to the reasons it sucks -- the little, indie gem that is Buried will be just that.
And that's sad because Buried is the real McCoy. A simple premise, with an even simpler execution that's easily the best suspense film I've seen all year, bolstered by Ryan Reynolds (Van Wilder, who knew?) intense and harrowing performance. Dead though he may be, Hitchcock's dried up maw must be cracking a grin. Or maybe it's just cracking. Being an erstwhile air-breather means never having to re-hydrate with corporate water.
That may sound like a weird dual jab at a dead master filmmaker and Gatorade, but the cold-bloodedness of corporate deniability is a theme in Buried and the film draws parallels from that immorality to the evils perpetrated by the citizens of the countries those corporations enable us to invade and occupy. As bad as the enemy may be, their motivation is all the same -- money. It's just the difference in the means of getting it.
Or you could ignore the politics and just see a ballsy suspense film that piles sickening levels of desperate tension on Reynolds as we spend an entire film claustrophobically trapped in a box with him. It still works wonderfully, either way.
Paul Conroy (Reynolds) is a contract truck driver working in Iraq when his convoy is attacked by insurgents. When he awakens -- where the film begins -- he finds himself buried alive in a pinewood coffin under the sand with, initially, nothing more than a Zippo lighter. While he comes to grips with the situation, a cell phone begins vibrating away and after some contortions inside the slender confines of the coffin he manages to get a hold of it. It's his captor. He demands $5 million dollars and wants Conroy to get it if he ever wants to see the surface again.
Conroy starts making calls. His family can't help. He's a father and husband who took the contracting job nine months earlier because of the horrible economy. In one exchange on the phone with his captor he tries desperately to explain that he's not a soldier or a military contractor (the swarthy-voiced Arab accuses him of working for Blackwater), simply a truck driver. When he tries to call his company, he gets voice mail -- he was given a safety number for just such a occasion but it was taken in a creepy sign that he is not the first from his company to suffer such a fate -- and when he finally gets through to the State Department, who put him in touch with a special unit that specializes in contractor hostage rescues, he quickly gets the idea they are just as interested in keeping the situation quiet as they are in finding him.
I have to resist the urge to dissect this films near nihilistic dystopia concerning corporate/military synergy and the consequences on expendable human life -- I've felt nothing like it since Verhoeven's Ropocop -- because that would do a disservice to the films true triumph; squeezing a deluge of suspense from its wickedly simple premise.
Directed by Rodrigo Cortés from a freshman feature script by Chris Sparling (both of whom I'll be keeping an eye on), the film makes the most out of its Spartan confines and concept. Edgar Allan Poe may have put the fear of burial alive on the map but The Premature Burial's narrator never found his cataleptic fears realized until the end of the story. Buried doubles down on that phobia by making it the whole conceit, taking that fear and giving it a modern context to make it that much more horrifying. Cortés capitalizes on that with his minimalist camera work (he really had no choice) that manages to remain varied and claustrophobic at once, while giving the viewer the uncanny feeling of being trapped in the box, too.
But it's really the script that sets the aesthetic and it sticks to its guns. Played with a queasy realism, Buried gamely utilizes the cynics view of the military's habit of combat revisionism (i.e. Pat Tillman) and the reptilian corporate aversion to liability in brutally smart and subtle ways, while icing the cake with a torturously suspenseful story that is solely carried by Ryan Reynolds career-defining performance.
Reynolds is best known for his comedic turns in Van Wilder, Waiting... and Best Friends (seemingly though sheer repetition on Comedy Central), but has been lately straddling a strange path that sees him balancing the comedic/romantic leading man types with serious action heroes in Blade: Trinity and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (where he played Deadpool, who is also getting his own movie). All things considered, Buried represents another shrewd and strange turn in revealing Reynolds considerable talents. It is easily his best performance.
You can see Conroy's logic at work as he wracks his brain for every possible avenue of escape and as the story peels back the layers on his character Reynolds adeptly weaves an emotional arc that mines dramatic territory, which should be a wet dream for any actor. Aside from some voices on the phone and a brief video Conroy sees on his cell, he's the only person we see or hear (hat-tip to the great sound design). It would make an amazing one-man play. Reynolds completely carries it with a performance that is intense and yet still veined with his inherent sense of cocky humor.
The next time you see Reynolds will probably be in The Green Lantern, but it's a film like Buried that has me hoping he's the kind of actor that does one for commerce and one for art. He can clearly handle both. Buried isn't a perfect film but it is damn near flawless at what it's doing.
See it this Halloween and skip the familiar.
Walk Like an Egyptian
When I learned Atom Egoyan had a small hand in getting Cairo Time made the film made a bit more sense to me. Egoyan always had an appreciation for mapping the inner architecture of the sexes and that is most certainly what writer/director Ruba Nadda aims to do. The Best Canadian Feature Film winner, in fact, seems to dilute Egoyan. Were this his film, Patricia Clarkson would have had earth shattering sex with Alexander Siddig in the moonlit pyramid shadows of Giza.
While Cairo Time is (somewhat disappointingly) more subtle -- and chaste -- than something like Chloe, its subtle story, as leisurely paced as the meandering Nile itself, has the charms of its leads to provide its current.
Juliette (Clarkson) is a writer for Vogue who is set to meet her husband in Cairo for a vacation. Unfortunately, her husband, Mark (Tom McCamus) works in the Gaza Strip for the U.N. coordinating the refugee camps. Mark can't make it to Egypt so he has his close friend, Tareq (Siddig) meet Juliette to get her settled in for what may be a long wait.
Juliette is no wallflower and gets about exploring the exotically mysterious city, finding that unveiled blonde American women invite curiosity and scorn from the locals, though more of the former. She begins to cleave to the people who accept her, particularly Tareq, and as her husband's arrival is continually delayed, Juliette and Tareq's acquaintance of circumstance grows into friendship and soon attraction.
Cairo Time is an incredibly subtle story that seems to delight in not quite going in the direction that one expects it to. It plays with expectations, notably in a sequence that finds Juliette weary of waiting and taking a bus to Gaza. On the bus a young woman she's struck up a conversation with begs her to take a note to her boyfriend when the bus is stopped by the military. They take Juliette off and send her back to Cairo and while Tareq's reaction to her action pays service to the possibilities of the communication she's been given, it turns out to be nothing resembling espionage. Unexpected, yes, but the payoff remains more slice of life than larger than life.
Instead, the film aims to envelop the audience in the tangible atmosphere of its namesake locale, and it does so quite well. It is Cairo that is larger than life and the sumptuous photography of the sharply beautiful Clarkson treading the Fatimid alleys, sipping the (apparently world's best) coffee in mosaic cafes and smoking with Tareq in romantically exotic hookah bars gives the film an enigmatic naturalism. But the look of Cairo Time -- its attention to cultural detail -- is at least as compelling as the gossamer, if emotionally detailed, narrative itself. I know that gets raves from many, but I still needed more.
While I appreciated its unhurried tone, and close to terra narrative, it's really the vibrant performances from Clarkson and Siddig that keep Cairo Time from being a bit of a travelogue. The script by Nadda has many fine little moments brought to life by Clarkson and Siddiq, as well as the supporting cast, but it rarely feels like there is any tension. Nadda toys with cultural differences -- as when one Egyptian woman seems clearly confused that Juliette didn't disown her son for eloping or that her daughter didn't leave home to move in with a husband--but she merely notes them. When Juliette pitches the idea of doing a story about Cairo street children, Tareq sarcastically questions whether it should appear between the articles on how to get the perfect lipstick look and how to please a man in bed. It never amounts to a true rift as their attraction grows. The narrative is more interested in smooth subtlety.
Clarkson and Siddiq have a fine chemistry and the film suffers more often than not when they are sundered by the story. Siddiq in particular breathes a tactile life into Tareq whose character has the advantage of being the more down to earth of the two, as Clarkson's Juliette bears all the regality of her Shakespearian namesake. Clarkson imbues her with humble warmth that allows her to sidestep the characters vaguely entitled aura.
Cairo Time aspires to draw us into these people and the city where they share their moment in time and in that it succeeds, though its Gaussian narrative, while often intoxicating, has all the impact of a lucid dream's ghostly meaning.
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