Jan 28, 2011

The Social Network (2010): A

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As I've already named it my personal #1 movie of 2010, I'll go ahead and assume that my affection for The Social Network is generally understood. Like GoodFellas, Pulp Fiction and David Fincher's own Fight Club, The Social Network strikes me as being as breathlessly composed as almost any work of the cinema and is equally infectious, like a great pop song. Fincher's kino eye, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's ear for wittily self-conscious dialogue (the kind that people actually use, thanks most likely mostly to the long-term effects of the movies themselves) and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's addictive electronic score make for something of a perfect storm. Similarly consistent praise is due to the cast; Andrew Garfield is a personal favorite, but the lot are not unlike the perfectly oiled cogs to a massive, beautiful, funky machine.

For a movie so popular amongst both audiences and critics, the level of discourse surrounding has nevertheless struck me as surprisingly minimal, which is to say, both the praise and the dissent have struck me as almost equally weak in their articulation (such lack of discussion has been a particular buzzkill to how I typically enjoy these things). Early hype labeling the film an heir to Citizen Kane was both blessing and curse; as a friend aptly noted, the structure of the film acutely parallels that of Orson Welles' oft-named G.O.A.T. masterpiece, possibly more so than any non-parody of that film has ever managed, but such lofty praise can easily backfire under even the most conducive circumstances. (I'm speaking of critical hype, for the record, not Fincher's own tongue-in-cheek declaration that his film would be the Kane of John Hughes movies, a title I'd think appropriately bestowed on Adventureland, which, coincidentally, shares the same lead.)

When concerning a social trend that has thus far included close to 1/10th of the world's population (over 500 million have joined Facebook's network as of 2010), it's hard not to brush with the topics that guide the very essence of modern life, and part of The Social Network's appeal surely lies in the fact that it feels so very current -- a self-aware time capsule. But the film only incidentally examines the nature of this digital tsunami (Sorkin is allegedly computer illiterate; as the cute final scene demonstrates, however, he certainly grasps what Facebook can and does mean to millions of people) as it carries on with its primary task of scrutinizing the (interpreted, not real) character of Mark Zuckerberg (Jessie Eisenberg), the gifted programmer who launched the site in 2003 and is represented here by what are the likely questionable depositions following court action taken against him.

Early indicators set The Social Network aside from absolute factuality, and we're spared that most dubious of screen captions, "based on a true story." As is typical for movies based on real happenings, details have been changed aplenty, and as the adage goes, never let the facts get in the way (of a good story). To these eyes, The Social Network makes no claims to historical truth, and in doing so probably gets to the core of the material's truths all the better. I've not read Ben Mezrick's The Accidental Billionaires, on which Sorkin's screenplay is based, but as usual, I'm comfortable with whatever diverges have taken place so long as they remain in service of the film –- not some sloven adherence to trite details.

In collapsing the events of many years into a single streamlined narrative, Sorkin's screenplay is almost certainly deliberately indebted to Kane, a quality that wordlessly speaks to Zuckerberg's own inflated ego. As presented here, Zuckerberg's conception of Facebook followed his being courted to develop a similarly conceived web site meant to offer exclusive dating opportunities to Harvard students; after Facebook launched, Zuckerberg's would-be business partners took legal action, followed by former Facebook CFO Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who was pushed out of his stock ownership in the company in an apparent revenge stunt by Zuckerberg. As the early stages of Facebook's creation are recounted via two different court hearings in overlapping (and seamlessly logical) fashion, we see Zuckerberg squirming his way through the proceedings, dodging questions, lying methodically, defying the laws of intellectual property and showing a general contempt for the legal system. His creation being certainly his own in the majority, the film doesn't slander his character for bad business -- just bad friendship.

It speaks to the sublime ambiguity of the film that what little diversity of opinion exists on it is largely of a directly conflicting nature (key example: those who think the film blesses Zuckerberg's questionable actions versus those who think it rakes him over the coals for them entirely); as someone points out at a key moment in the film, "You're not an asshole, Mark, you're just trying so hard to be" (the term is only used three times in the film, the first two coming from those who were closest to Mark, now pushed away). Longtime indie favorite Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale, Zombieland) lends Zuckerberg what feels like a natural likability buried within a deeply insecure nature, but he doesn't warm up the character in audience-friendly terms (in other words, he lets you decide).

The machine gun dialogue of the opening scene sets the tone for both the character and the film, and speaking personally, I've been exactly that kind of thick-headed guy (in a crowded restaurant, albeit minus the educational condescension and assumptive judgment about “the door guy”), and I appreciate the hell out of any film that can be honest about that kind of character without relegating the perpetrator to the status of sheer dickhead. As a representation of this moment in history, we surely cannot be the final judge on the film's effectiveness (only hindsight will allow such), but as a touching look at friendship falling outs, its personal meaning to me remains unrivaled.

Directed by: David Fincher Screenplay by: Aaron Sorkin Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Max Minghella, Josh Pence, Brenda Song, Rashida Jones and Rooney Mara 2010, Rated PG-13, 120 minutes

127 Hours

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For all intents and purposes, Danny Boyle perfected his distinctively flamboyant music video-ish mode of filmmaking with the infectious and masterfully crowd-pleasing -- if somewhat slight -- Slumdog Millionaire, so it is perhaps inevitable that the similarly show-offy 127 Hours feels a bit redundant. Frequently utilizing split-screen panoramas and editorial effects that display everything from otherwise unrelated mood-setting imagery to Hulk-like multiple angles of the same event, Boyle aims (and, I would argue, mostly succeeds) to turn the infamous experiences of Aron Ralston (a recreational hiker who, in 2003, while alone in the proverbial middle of nowhere, inadvertently dislodged a large boulder and fell with it down a canyon shaft, his right arm becoming pinned between them, utterly immobile; after the titular time span, he freed himself by cutting off his arm with a dulled pocket knife) into an existential riff on determination, self-examination, and the sheer will to survive. Boyle's impulsive creative choices often lash out with seemingly little rhyme or reason, and his hyperactive editorial dashes tend to work best when they're emulating the thought processes of the main character (at one point literally, in a tongue-and-cheek talk show sequence), but they also develop collectively, not unlike the satisfying rumbles of an intense storm.

Alas, Boyle's awareness of his chosen style's limitations isn't among his present strengths, and one wishes that he'd handed the spotlight over to the almost one-man-show that is James Franco (he's as good to this film as Tom Hanks was to the similar, superior Cast Away) about twice as much as he actually did. It's not just that Boyle's flair wears itself out a bit as it goes on (rather than building to a crescendo, it just kind of fizzles out) -- it's that Franco is also just that good. As the loner Ralston, he doesn't just hide from people (implied and stated antisocialism abounds), but himself; he gradually becomes naked to himself, and we watch the unraveling with empathy. By the time he takes to the foretold limb hacking, the character seems stripped away to prehistoric carnality. As a warning to those put off by the apparent levels of violence: This squirmy viewer (icky body stuff bothers me, even though I love The Fly and even enjoy stuff like The Human Centipede, disturb me though they do) was able to get through the eventual mutilation with relative ease, so those deterred by intense levels of drawn-out violence can be at east. Then again, once you've seen Irreversible (twice), you can sit through just about anything. Now that I've gotten way off track, back to 127 Hours: It's a good movie, nothing great, but certainly worth a watch. I'm out.

Directed by: Danny Boyle Screenplay by: Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy Starring: James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara, Clémence Poésy, Lizzy Caplan, Treat Williams and Kate Burton 2010, Rated R, 94 minutes

Jan 26, 2011

When We Leave

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When We Leave is as shrill as any handful of the interlinking paths from Paul Haggis's Crash (spoilers ahoy), and while a climactic scene that similarly involves both a child and a gun makes the film's indebtedness unmistakable, the film differs from 2004's Oscar winner in that it actually captures something resembling legitimate human emotions. As far as pro-humanitarian arguments go, one could do far worst for subtlety, but while the film's points are on target and virtually inarguable (modernity = good, ancient barbaric misogyny = bad, etc.), the degree to which the script flatters the intended liberal audience won't do much for the non-believers. In this case of calculated injustice, a traditional Turkish family (living in Germany) rejects the wishes of their daughter Umay (Sibel Kekilli), who chooses to leave her abusive husband and take their young son with despite cultural traditions dictating the husband's absolute final say (the still accepted practice of "honor killings", in which dishonorable women are typically killed by family members, is the film's key social target). The material has great potential but the ultimate shock is softened by a common foreshadowing device that doesn't contribute anything thematically -- rather, it exists merely to pull the rug out from under you. What does move is the conflicted humanity on display via the cast, who collectively embody the social disharmony that pressures so many people into behaving into the hands of the past (lead actress Sibel Kekilli in particular is sheer radiance). Screenwriter/director Feo Aladag is a hip to human suffering as she is prone to lay it on thick; a thematically encapsulating line of dialogue -- "Leave God out of this, it has nothing to do with Him" -- suggests too knowing a summary, not unlike a bumper sticker slogan. While a step in the right direction for prestigious socio-political issue films, When We Leave nevertheless remains too little Do the Right Thing, too much Crash (which is to say, it's a borderline cheat).

Directed by: Feo Aladag Screenplay by: Feo Aladag Starring: Sibel Kekilli, Nizam Schiller, Derya Alabora, Settar Tanriogen, Tamer Yigit, Serhad Can, Almila Bagriacik, Florian Lukas, Nursel Köse, Alwara Höfels, Ufuk Bayraktar, Blanca Apilánez and Rosa Enskat 2010, NR, 119 minutes

Jan 25, 2011

The King's Speech

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The King's Speech isn't the worst of the recent films to receive a gluttony of Academy Award nominations, but it is quite likely the most boring. There are films that win Oscars and there are films that are made with the intent to win Oscars, and sometimes those two overlap, but for the time being (nominees were just announced this morning) Tom Hooper's film is most definitely in the latter category. As dolled up and self-consciously serious as to count as something of an epitome of the glamour-hungry Weinstein Company's distinctive output, this dramatization of Prince Albert's (later King George VI's) journey to overcoming his speech impediment would like to think of itself as a moving, soulful character study, but such are the clothes of the naked emperor. In actuality, this high-minded exercise -- pretty looking and paper-thin -- utilizes the same template as any number of crowd-pleasing biopics, but whereas a film like Walk the Line embraces the simplifying nature of historical caricature (and Hollywood-typical manipulation), The King's Speech foolishly tries to pass off connect-the-dots psychology as profundity and sitcom mechanics as high art.

It speaks to the strength of Colin Firth's lead performance, then (as well as his shared chemistry with Geoffrey Rush, who portrays the speech expert who tries to cure the King), that the film almost gets away with it. Alas, personality has been washed from the cloth of The King's Speech with a heavy starch, and save for a few humorous sequences concerning Bertie's (as his family and friends refer to him) diction lessons, the effect is not unlike being straightjacketed for tea. A scantly-used Rorschach device typifies the wasted potential here; instead of a legitimate psychological inquiry, we're given a lavish movie of the week with lip service, and for every idiosyncrasy there are a half dozen lame concessions to sutured, unimaginative screenwriting -- it isn't long before the film feels thoroughly "safe" and insignificant. Emotional heft is traded in for tidy resolutions and pat history lessons (Hitler, the ultimate challenge of his kingship, is presented as a daunting Great Speaker and then promptly forgotten), and they all lived happily ever after. Ultimately worth watching for Firth, who finds nuance amidst what might otherwise be cartoon slickness, Helena Bonham Carter, who puts on a great fashion show as Bertie's wife, the Duchess of York, and Rush for his particular refusal to devolve into complete two-dimensionality, but only just. The pleasures are minimal, but at least the pain is, too.

Directed by: Tom Hooper Screenplay by: David Seidler Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, Timothy Spall, Jennifer Ehle, Derek Jacobi, Eve Best and Michael Gambon 2010, Rated R, 118 minutes

Jan 14, 2011

Viewing Log #3.4

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True Grit (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2010). Although toned down from their usual, ironically detached style, this distinctly un-ironic remake/retelling of the original Charles Portis novel is every bit as assured and idiosyncratic as the Coens' other (albeit more subversive) western, No Country for Old Men. Never stepping on the toes of the original 1969 adaptation (an okay film elevated by at least one wonderful lead performance; the presence of the Duke never hurt anyone, either), theirs sticks closer to the reported darkness of the original novel, most notably in a touching denouement that amplifies the existential trappings of the film without literalizing them. As the young heroine Mattie Ross, relative newcomer Hailee Steinfeld is a tour-de-force of whiplash verbosity and razor-sharp wit, a maturity of character that sees her determined to avenge the murder of her father by the cowardly drunkard Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). As her hired bounty hunter Rooster Cogburn, Jeff Bridges is at least as appropriate and iconic in the role as John Wayne was four decades ago. More proof for the usefulness of remakes by great talent (if anything, the '69 original is now a better film that it can stand alongside this one), the Coens' True Grit also functions as an equally somber and hilarious criticism/correction of racism past. As a nearly-definitive cinematic representation, one doubts it will ever be contested. [Rating: 4.5 out of 5]

Tangled (Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, 2010). Disney's postmodern retelling of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale "Rapunzel" certainly doesn't lack for archetypal recognition; more often than not, the film is suffocated by it. Seemingly an attempt to board the Shrek bandwagon without the excessive smartassery, this, the 50th animated production from the studio (and the most expensive animated movie ever made, at an unadjusted budget of $260 million), gets at least as much right as it does wrong but the final effect remains one of a barely-triggered gag reflex. Narrative abbreviations curtail much in the way of accruing emotional resonance as the film rushes through back story to the present where Rapunzel remains locked in a tower, convinced by her evil faux mother (who, at several hundred years old, needs the girl's anaconda-like hair for its life-giving qualities) that the outside world is too dangerous to venture. As a singer, Mandy Moore's pop voice is pleasant enough, but her ability as a voice actor is too limited, perhaps simply inexperienced, to lend much in the way of characterization to the lead role -- the princess remains firmly less than the sum of her parts. The guys aren't much better off, and frankly, I found the songwriting terribly shrill and annoying, and this coming from someone who once wore out virtually every Disney VHS through The Return of Jafar. When Tangled does work, however infrequently, the results are often breathtaking, sometimes among the finest in the studio's canon. Leave it to Rapunzel's sidekick chameleon, Pascal, to pick up the slack the rest of the time. Someone give this little guy a movie all his own. [Rating: 2.5 out of 5]

Tron: Legacy (Joseph Kosinski, 2010). These eyes didn't glimpse 1982's Tron until adulthood, so it isn't through the rose-tinted lenses of nostalgia that I say I believe that film to be very nearly a masterpiece, a Metropolis-esque utilization of technology fused with a technologically-slanted narrative that is at least as important to the evolution of digital cinema as later behemoths like Jurassic Park and Terminator 2. This long-gestating sequel recognizes that relationship and capitalizes on it in the form of a pseudo-philosophical recalibration of the original concept that owes as much to the past two decades of video games as it does to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Jeff Bridges reprises his original role, now trapped inside "the grid" as an exiled Zen master betrayed by one of his own creations: Clu, made in his own image and named after the departed program from the original film and whose purpose to create the perfect world turns malevolent as he attempts to weed out the impure from his digital domain. The recreation of a younger Jeff Bridges is at least as startlingly realistic as the young Arnold Schwarzenegger's digital cameo in Terminator Salvation but his lingering presence quickly triggers the uncanny valley effect to sublime (if not necessarily deliberate) results; the photo-realistic nature of the character (with the exception of his mouth, which never seems quite as spot-on as the rest of him) suggests something too good to be true. Musings about science and religion never transcend lip service but a plot development involving naturally occurring digital life is plenty to chew on amidst the surreal neon images, less revolutionary (and trippy) than the 1982 effects but never lacking for imagination or visceral thrill. The climax, involving something not unlike a reverse big-bang, is a masterstroke. If only Disney could always be this kinky. [Rating: 4 out of 5]

Jan 3, 2011

OFCS Winners Announced

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Winners can be found here (yep, we loved The Social Network, too). Of the thirteen categories, I only predicted eight correctly, but that's okay by me given that the shit stain known as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo went home empty-handed.

Jan 2, 2011

OFCS 2010 Nominees & Ballot

My choice in each category is in bold italics; blind spots are notated with an asterisk. If I've seen less than half of the nominees in a category, I don't vote on it (my choice). As for the total absence of The Ghost Writer in any of these categories...I'm ashamed.

Best Picture

Black Swan
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone

Best Director

Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
*Danny Boyle, 127 Hours
Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, True Grit
David Fincher, The Social Network
Christopher Nolan, Inception

Best Lead Actor

Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
*Colin Firth, The King's Speech
*James Franco, 127 Hours
*Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine
*Edgar Ramírez, Carlos

Best Lead Actress

Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
Kim Hye-ja, Mother
*Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone
Natalie Portman, Black Swan

Best Supporting Actor

Christian Bale, The Fighter
Andrew Garfield, The Social Network
John Hawkes, Winter's Bone
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids are All Right
*Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech

Best Supporting Actress

Amy Adams, The Fighter
Mila Kunis, Black Swan
Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
*Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom

Best Original Screenplay

Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz & John McLaughlin, Black Swan
Noah Baumbach, Greenberg
Christopher Nolan, Inception
Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg, The Kids Are All Right
*David Seidler, The King's Speech

Best Adapted Screenplay

*Danny Boyle & Simon Beaufoy, 127 Hours
Michael Bacall & Edgar Wright, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network
Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, True Grit
Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini, Winter's Bone

Best Cinematography

*Anthony Dod Mantle & Enrique Chediak, 127 Hours
Matthew Libatique, Black Swan
Wally Pfister, Inception
Robert Richardson, Shutter Island
Roger Deakins, True Grit

Best Editing

*Jon Harris, 127 Hours
Andrew Weisblum, Black Swan
Lee Smith, Inception
Jonathan Amos & Paul Machliss, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Kirk Baxter & Angus Wall, The Social Network

Best Animated Feature

Despicable Me
How to Train Your Dragon
*The Illusionist
Toy Story 3

Best Film Not in the English Language

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
A Prophet

Best Documentary

*Exit Through the Gift Shop
Inside Job
*Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
*Waiting for "Superman"

And what the hell...here are my predictions for the winners, to be announced tomorrow.

Best Picture: The Social Network
Best Director: David Fincher, The Social Network
Best Lead Actor: Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Best Lead Actress: Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale, The Fighter
Best Supporting Actress: Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
Best Original Screenplay: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz & John McLaughlin, Black Swan
Best Adapted Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network
Best Cinematography: Matthew Libatique, Black Swan
Best Editing: Lee Smith, Inception
Best Animated Feature: Toy Story 3
Best Film Not in the English Language: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Best Documentary: Inside Job