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2010 Fantastic Fest #2: Good Movies, Stupid Plots

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What does Ryan Reynolds have in common with a rubber tire? A promising acting career and a nose for risky but rewarding roles -- not, I hope, homicidal tendencies.

After ten solid minutes of watching Ryan Reynolds scream and writhe around in a box in the just-released thriller Buried (Lionsgate), I started to think to myself...so, is this it? He's very good looking and screams loudly and everything, but am I really going to have to watch ninety minutes of this? While the answer is essentially yes, what director Rodrigo Cortés manages to do with a setup more limited than even Open Water ("we're trapped in the ocean!") or Frozen ("we're trapped on a ski lift!") is spin straw into gold. The premise of the film sounds like that of a particularly macabre Choose Your Own Adventure story -- an American Average Joe is trapped in a coffin somewhere in the Iraqi desert with nothing but a cell phone, a Zippo, and his cajones -- but with killer timing, buckets of low-fi ingenuity, and a stunning one-man show from Reynolds, Cortés is able to craft a riveting bonafide action movie.

When the film begins we know very little about Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds), other than the fact that he is fucked. As he tries to MacGyver his way out of his devastating situation without exhausting his air supply or having a meltdown, we learn that he is a regular husband and father who took on work driving trucks in Iraq for the US Army. During a routine delivery, Paul and his colleagues were attacked by insurgents, and the next thing he knew his fellow truckers were dead and he was waking up bloody and panicked in a primitive wooden coffin. Paul finds himself staving off his kidnappers, who call to request ransom videos and impossible sums of money, while desperately trying to hunt down some assistance in a series of increasingly frustrating phone calls to his petty sister-in-law, unfeeling boss, and a red-tape addled state department. More than war or terrorism, this is an astute and sometimes very, very darkly funny film about the failures of bureaucracy in American culture.

Although Buried incorporates some sensitive hot button issues, from political kidnappings to execution films as terrorist tools, Cortés uses these elements more as accessible, evocative societal touchstones than major themes. Rather than making the film seem superficial, the lack of meaningful political commentary heightens the sense of disconnect between bewildered Paul and the forces that govern his fate, bringing the focus to the emotional plight of this tragic pawn. Cortés augments his sharp, tense storytelling with plenty of jump scares, unexpected humor, and insanely dynamic shooting. Apparently eight different coffins of various designs were constructed to suit his cinematographic needs. This ingenuity is matched by Reynolds' performance; carrying a ninety minute movie solo is no easy task, but he depicts a range of emotions from rage to terror to joy with believable aplomb. I never expected to describe an actor who got his start on Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place as a tour de force, but Buried has Definitely, (not) Maybe, convinced me that this heartthrob has prospects beyond the realm of the tepid rom-com.

Even odder and more abstract than Buried is Quentin Dupieux's Rubber (Magnet Releasing), a movie about, no joke, an evil tire that can blow things up with its mind. Just the fact that this film gives one the opportunity to refer to a tire's "mind" with a straight face is enough to recommend it, and yet that is just the tip of the iceberg. In a beautifully arid, classic Western landscape, a tire becomes sentient. At first he is like a gangly newborn foal or The Little Engine That Could, and the audience coos over his adorable attempts to rear up and make his way in the world. As the tire matures, however, and realizes he has potent telekinetic powers, he turns into vicious serial killer with a penchant for French brunettes and vintage exercise videos. Providing a significant twist on what is actually a pretty compelling narrative is Dupieux's inclusion of an audience, seated in the sand dunes a respectable distance away from the action, to witness Mr. Goodyear's journey as a form of living theater. This creates a film within a film, providing uncomfortable perspective on the real life audience's enjoyment of the goofy, sensationalist violence via their cinematic counterparts.

Dupieux uses the framework to poke fun at filmmaking conventions, cold-hearted industry douche bags, and screenwriting clichés with all the playful intellectualism of Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry. He succeeds in creating an entertaining, sometimes even tense horror film with the very same footage he lightly mocks. The result is an uber-cerebral spoof that is at once silly and smart, populist like a mildly trashy B-movie yet high brow like absurdist theater. The director is aided by what I believe to be one of the most powerful performances by an inanimate object in decades. Wordlessly, the unlikely rubber "beast" of this strange take on the monster movie is able to convey a witty but sadistic personality and emotions of longing or frustration with just a few quivers and nods.