Film Archive for October, 2010

Gearing Up for the Zombie Apocalypse

A while back I took a conversation my guy and I were having via IM (because we are geeks, yes) about the nature of zombies and whether infection-type and parasite-type zombies do, in fact, count as “zombies” proper, onto Facebook. I’ve been experimenting more with using Facebook for conversations about film, in part because the exclusive nature of Facebook and its “friends” model makes it easier to weed out trolls and generally unpleasant people from the conversation, so discussions tend to stay more on topic.
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Review: Paranormal Activity 2

Fans of surprise horror hit Paranormal Activity will find much to like in Paranormal Activity 2. This second round of things-that-go-bump-in-the-night-vision-cameras retains the slow-building, repetitive pace of the first film, while still delivering (for the most part) plenty of scares to keep you on the edge of your seat.
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Indie Screener Grab Bag: Repeaters

Now that we have a flatscreen and DVD player installed in our bedroom, I can actually watch screeners at home with something approximating a semi-theatrical experience, which is better for most films than watching them on my portable mini-DVD player.

So, catching up with some screeners I’ve been watching of late … Henceforth, I’ll be posting more reviews of indie films that don’t fall under the “Awards Watch” header here on Film Essent under the header “Indie Screener Grab Bag.” If you’re an independent filmmaker and have a film you’d like me to check out, drop me a line.

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Repeaters

Dir. Carl Bessai

Repeaters played at TIFF in the “Special Presentations” section of the fest, and I finally managed to catch up with it on a screener at home. To be honest, I wasn’t with this film for the first third or so … my fiance, who was watching it with me, summed it up within the first couple minutes as “So this is basically Groundhog Day in a rehab center?” … which is kind of what it feels like at first.

Then it takes a sharp left turn at “More Interesting,” which for me made it worth writing up. So here you go.

The basic setup of Repeaters is, in fact, very much like Groundhog Day: three 20-somethings at a rehab center (unclear on whether they are compelled to be there or there by choice, but it kind of implies the former) experience some sort of electrical shock that disrupts the flow of the space-time continuum, causing them to experience the same day over and over again. This in and of itself is not particularly original or interesting, but the way in which the character arcs shift as a result of this IS interesting, and there are some solid performances here that merit some recognition.

One thing Bessai does that’s very smart is to take what’s essentially a sci-fi concept and not bog the film heavily with a lot of made-up scientific whatnot that opens the door for people to say things like, “In a real disruption of the space-time continuum, the laws of physics would dictate blah blah blah…” If you’re making a low-budget indie film (which this presumably was), minimizing that sort of thing can go a long ways toward keeping your story interesting while also allowing you to create your own laws of space-time for the purpose of your story.

So, it’s Wednesday in the rehab center, and what we have here are our three main characters, Kyle (Dustin Milligan), Sonia (Amanda Crew) and Michael (Richard De Klerk), on the day that things start going awry. They’ve reached the stage of the “steps” of the program where they are supposed to make amends to the people they’ve hurt with their addiction. They all have day passes so they can go and and, presumably, hunt their people down and attempt to reach out to make amends to them, and then they have to report back to group on how that went.

And the nature of storytelling (or at least, good storytelling) being what it is, it’s not really a spoiler to say that this exercise doesn’t go well for our three protagonists. If it did, there wouldn’t be much need of telling their story, would there? Then this weird time loop thing happens, and all three of them wake up in the morning to find that they are still stuck in Wednesday. Imagine being stuck forever in a permanent Wednesday … never quite getting over the hump, never reaching the weekend. I wouldn’t mind getting stuck on a nice fall Saturday so much, but Wednesday?

Part of what’s interesting about the way in which things unfold is that Kyle, Sonia and Michael are able to change the way in which they do things, presumably without affecting the future. The script doesn’t really delve into the nature of non-linearity and time travel and how mucking about in the past/present might impact the future, which sci-fi purists might consider to be a weakness.

This story is much more interested in exploring the moral implications of how you would choose to live your life if you could get away with anything — anything at all — and know that it didn’t really matter, because the day would just keep resetting over and over again. Because it doesn’t deal much with ideas around multiple timelines and non-linearity, it doesn’t really delve much into whether it’s only for Kyle, Sonia and Michael that things keep resetting and whether the actions they take in subsequent “repeats” has any kind of cumulative impact on future time-paths — a bit of a weakness in my book but it might not be in yours.

The character of Michael is used to explore ideas of moral ambiguity: to what extent is it acceptable to commit morally questionable, even reprehensible acts, if you think that what you’re doing doesn’t matter in the long run? What sets us apart from animals, what defines our humanity? And are the boundaries that determine right and wrong, good and evil, malleable or absolute?

This is ambitious philosophical ground to explore in a film, and I have to give credit to everyone involved for taking on something so intellectually challenging (the equally intriguing Primer dealt with similar ideas in a somewhat different way). All three leads are solid, but de Klerk (also a producer on the film) gives a particularly chilling performance that charts Michael’s moral backsliding with precise, measured beats.

While I wouldn’t call Repeaters exceptionally polished — words like gritty and edgy come more to mind — it also feels like the somewhat unsettled, rough feel of the film is a deliberate choice that works pretty well. Stick with it through the deceptively cheesy set-up, and you’ll be rewarded with a thoughtful and compelling (if rather grim) exploration of morality and humanity.

As an aside, Repeaters would make an excellent late night indie sci-fi double-feature along with Primer. Alamo Drafthouse, if you ever program that, shoot me an email. That and a five-dollar milkshake might just justify a weekend trip to Austin.

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Meet Me at the Protest

Maybe I’m mellowing out a bit as I age, but it’s actually a pretty rare thing these days for anyone’s opinion about a movie to raise my ire to the point that I feel compelled to write an entire article refuting it. Maybe a Facebook post. Perhaps just a 140 character Tweet. But for me to devote an entire blog post or column to a subject, it has to really strike a chord in me. So I’d like to offer my congratulations to David Cox, whose article in The Guardian last week on Nigel Cole’s Made in Dagenham succeeded where so many other inane pieces have failed, inspiring an entire post to refute it.

Made in Dagenham is a fictionalization (though one that, by all accounts, stays fairly close to truth) of a strike by female factory workers at a Ford plant in Dagenham in 1968. A strike that, by the bye, was crucial to the eventual passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1970 (that would be Great Britain’s Equal Pay Act, not the one passed in the US and signed into law by John F. Kennedy in 1963, after which it was put into a vault and completely ignored by the mostly male managers who run things).

Mr. Cox kicks off his piece with this bit: “Dagenham in the 1960s is presented as in thrall to blinkered routine, bumbling incompetence and heedless injustice. It’s a place controlled by men, and its deficiencies spring from theirs.”

Actually, the film presents Dagenham as representative of the Western world generally in 1968. Historical context: England at that time was barely recovered from the economic devastation of World War 2. Post-war, Great Britain went through a period of not only physically rebuilding, but of vast social change; the fledgling post-war Labour Party had nationalized many industries. Since Mr. Cox writes for a Brit paper and might even, for all I know, be British himself, he should know this already. I grew up in America, where the accuracy of our school textbooks depends largely upon the whim of fundamentalist Christian ministers advising mostly white male politicians, and even I know that much.

Further, the context of this film isn’t about women versus men, it’s about women convincing men — in both their union and the larger entity of the Labour Party — to recognize that what’s fair, what’s right, is for unions in general and the Labour Party in particular, to work to support the rights of all workers, not just men. And at that point in history, they did not. You could make an argument that this is not the case today, but even that would be a dicey one to support.

The film doesn’t create some non-existent fantasy world controlled by men; it was a world controlled by men. The women working in that factory were devalued by their male co-workers, referred to by the diminutive term “girls” even when they were older than their male co-workers and managers. The work they did — women’s work, because it involved using sewing machines, and men can’t use sewing machines! They have penises, remember? — was devalued by reclassifying their jobs as “unskilled” so the men in charge could pay them even less than they were already. It wasn’t female managers making those decisions. There were no women at the top of the union heap representing the interests of its female membership.

And the injustice depicted wasn’t heedless, it was explicitly and deliberately designed to both keep women in their place and to control the bottom line — profit — which would be impacted hugely if the demand for equal pay was met. Not just because that one little demand being met for 187 women would have been huge. It was the collective bargaining power of working women around the world being inspired and compelled to demand equality — a movement that was starting to seriously impact larger society — that these men — were afraid of.

It took courage, spirit, and, yes, balls for the women who marched for equality to stand up to their fathers, brothers and husbands, to take off their high heels and aprons, to cast aside the expectations of the men in their lives and in their workplace that the woman’s place was to be subservient to them. The women at the Dagenham factory, fueled, in part, by the burgeoning feminist movement, collectively put their cute little womanly heads together and said, we’re sorry, chaps, but fuck that.

And Made in Dagenham, which depicts their story, is great if for no other reasons than that tells a nearly lost tale about the fight for women’s equality and it’s about women doing more than talking about men and sex and fashion. Also, it stars Sally Hawkins, who is indisputably a British goddess.

But wait! Mr. Cox takes issue also with the casting of the divine Ms. Hawkins in the role of Rita O’Grady, a fictionalized character who’s an amalgam of two or three real women. Apparently Ms. Hawkins isn’t as burly and manly as he would like her to be. Perhaps the makeup department should have given Ms. Hawkins a hairy mole and a brawny mustache, because heaven forbid a working class, protesting, budding feminist woman who’s an abstract representation of real women should be depicted as attractive. Because everyone knows feminists are all burly lesbians with short haircuts and comfortable shoes, right?

Mr. Cox also takes issue with the film’s depiction of the well-established scientific fact that women and men tend to do things in different ways. He says of the film, “Women do things differently. In their domain, sisterly co-operation replaces blustering self-promotion. Compassion trumps protocol. Good humour banishes pomposity. Above all, homely common sense mocks heartless custom-and-practice. The triumph of these values makes the world a better place.”

Well, yes. So what? Women do do things differently than men. And Made in Dagenham is a story about these particular women and how, united by their common cause and yes, god forbid, “sisterly” co-operation, they found the courage to stand up for their rights, at a time in history when women were largely pinned under the boot heels of men.

Next, Mr. Cox attacks the film for daring to imply that men and their testosterone cause problems: “War, it’s implied, in Iraq as much as the Peloponnese, is rooted in machismo. Political factionalism is displaced brawling. Disastrously reckless financial speculation is fueled by testosterone.”

Yes. Yes. And yes, absolutely. Actually, the “testosterone” effect of successful financial traders has been studied for a while now, Mr. Cox. Here’s an article from TIME on that very subject for you to peruse. (It’s also discussed in Charles Ferguson‘s Inside Job, which breaks down the global financial collapse that sent the entire world into a tailspin when the bubble burst in 2008. By the way, the vast majority of the people responsible for that shit? Were men. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

The war for equality didn’t end in Dagenham. In fact, it’s barely begun — as evidenced by this recent article on the disparity in pay between women and men on Wall Street, which discusses little things that might piss feminists off, like women working in the financial sector losing their jobs at five times the rate of men since July 2007. And female managers in the finance field earning 63.9 cents for every dollar earned by men.

Oops, scratch that — in 2007, the most recent year for which data from the Government Accountability Office was available for that Bloomberg article, that dropped to 58.8 cents. Wait, what happened to equal pay? Well, fuck.

The women who protested at Dagenham, at the time they went on strike, were being paid 87 percent of the rate paid to “unskilled” male workers and 80 percent of the rate paid to “semi-skilled” male workers. Women working in finance in 2010 may be bringing home more bacon, but the percentage of what they’re paid compared to their male colleagues has gotten worse, not better. Sucks to be a woman, I guess.

Made in Dagenham does push buttons, yes. But those buttons are well-worn because they’ve been pushed before and need to be pushed again, and again, and again, until the men who are still largely in control of things get the message and fix things. Because the things that were broken in 1968 when the real women of Dagenham went on strike are, to a large extent, still broken. This is exactly why a film like Made in Dagenham is relevant, important, and necessary today.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to pop off to paint some protest signs.

Oscars, Already?

We have the new Gurus O’ Gold chart up, and in taking a look at the consensus votes du jour, I had a couple thoughts. I missed The King’s Speech at Toronto, so I’ll have to wait until screeners come in/Seattle screenings get set to weigh in on it. Could be the Oscar-bee’s knees like I heard from a lot of folks at Toronto, could be Colin Firth‘s year to win a statue. Or not. Time will tell.

Of the Best Pic-contending movies I have seen, I wouldn’t rank The Social Network as highly as it’s sitting right now. It’s very early for that film to be peaking, I think, and I still just don’t see its subject matter and cynicism as broadly appealing to the Academy voters. But we’ll see. Hereafter? Not so much. I wouldn’t even have that one on my Oscar radar at all except that it’s directed by Eastwood — but I personally found it to be maybe on par with Invictus, which wasn’t great, and maybe a tad below Million Dollar Baby (NOT my favorite movie) in terms of emotional manipulation.

Right now, I think my personal top Best Picture pics would be True Grit (haven’t seen that one yet either, but it’s the Coens and the trailer looks great), Black Swan, 127 Hours, Another Year, The King’s Speech (based on the buzz alone at this point) and Winter’s Bone OR The Kids Are All Right as strong outsiders.

I’m more interested at this point in the Adapted Screenplay race, where we have 127 Hours, True Grit and The Social Network as probably leaders of the pack. To this I would add Never Let Me Go, which I think, after reading the book, is a really solid adaptation — more on that one later. Unfortunately, I missed seeing Rabbit Hole (darn that weighty Toronto slate and its surprises), and I’ve heard so many things on that one (mostly positive) that I’m hoping to get to check it out soon.

Right now I’m also interested in the Best Actor and Actress races as well. For Best Actor, everyone (ah yes, the ever-mysterious, yet oddly influential “they”) came out of Toronto saying James Franco is a “lock” for a nomination, and Firth virtually a “lock” for a nom and probable win. I’ve seen Duvall in Get Low and it’s a good performance, no doubt, and one that may appeal to the Academy. Not my personal top o’ the actor heap, but I have no idea what the Academy’s temperature reading is on that film, and no one’s counting my votes anyhow.

Bridges in True Grit may (will probably be) Oscar worthy, but he’s coming off a win last year for Crazy Heart. Personally (and again, not having seen True Grit or King’s Speech yet) my sentimental favorite is Javier Bardem for Biutiful, which I think is the best performance in a career of great performances. But the artfulness of Biutiful may not be enough to lift it up above the rather bleak subject matter to put it up there in the hearts of voters.

As for Best Actress, maybe it’s just me but this feels like a slightly less competitive field this year. After barely missing out on a Best Actress nom for Happy-Go-Lucky a couple years ago, this may be Sally Hawkins year with Made in Dagenham, the kind of uplifting Brit-flick that may be appealing to the Academy. I would probably put Lesley Manville‘s really solid turn in Another Year right up there with Hawkins. and if it were me, Jennifer Lawrence would be right in the mix for Winter’s Bone. I heard really amazing things about Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole out of Toronto, too, and I am a fan of Black Swan and Portman’s performance in it. I wouldn’t count her out completely yet.

The Oscar race will start to take shape more as screeners get sent out and buzz starts to bubble up for this film and peter out for that one. This is a fall with a lot of exciting movies to look forward to and it should be an interesting awards season to watch as well. Much as we all get sick of reading and writing about Oscars, our collective obsession with it drives this business to one extent or another.

I don’t plan to write as much about Oscars as the “Oscar pundits,” more to focus narrowly on specific bits and pieces — screenplay adaptations, docs, maybe foreigns depending on what’s nominated there. After years of having my kids do their Oscar picks randomly using everything from Magic 8-Ball to Twister to Pin the Tail on the Donkey (usually with surprising accuracy) I’ve come to believe that it’s really a crap shoot anyhow.

Fun to talk about and argue about and make charts about, but at the end of the day, I don’t know that any one person’s guesses are actually more accurate or better than the randomness of the Magic 8-Ball. So it goes, let the speculating begin.

Review: Secretariat

Secretariat, the horse, was a big, glossy chestnut colt who won the Triple Crown and is widely regarded today as perhaps the best racehorse who ever lived. Secretariat, the movie, is big, glossy cinematic comfort food for the family in troubled times, grilled cheese and tomato soup wholesomeness to soothe the soul and take the viewer back to simpler, happier times.

In spite of its title, though,the film is not the story of how Secretariat the horse won the Triple Crown for the first time in 25 years — not exactly, anyhow. This is the story of his owner, Penny Chenery, who’s played in the film by a luminous, angelic, glowingly lit Diane Lane (and can I just say as an aside here that, if you have reason to have someone make a movie about your life, you could do worse than having Lane play you on the big screen).

Equally well cast is John Malkovich as Secretariat’s eccentric French-Canadian trainer, Lucien Laurin. Malkovich handles playing the flamboyant Lucien as effortlessly as you would expect of him; every time he’s on the screen he dominates your attention, and yeah, he occasionally munches a little scenery, but he’s fun as hell to watch.

Lane, to her credit, plays Chenery as befits honoring the woman who became one of the first female members of The Jockey Club — with spunk and vivacity, charm and fierce determination. It’s an excellent performance on Lane’s part, which makes it unfortunate that the story almost completely excises the most interesting feminist aspects out of the film, making Penny Chenery into almost a mildly rebellious PTA-mom extraordinaire, well-coiffed and resplendently elegant in heels and dresses even as she takes on the men of the racing world and kicks their chauvinistic asses.

What with the film being set roughly from 1970 to 1973, it surely must have been tempting for someone involved in this film to play up more the political aspects of the story. We have all the key ingredients here: Chenery, who held a B.A. from Smith College and had attended Columbia Business School, married Columbia law student John Tweedy and spent the next 18 years playing housewife and mother before getting roped back into her father’s racehorse business when he grew ill 1968.

But the script, based on a book about Secretariat by Bill Nack, skimps on showing us the prejudices Chenery surely faced as a woman in a predominantly male world.

There must surely have been a lot more marital tension, resentment, and familial strife in her Denver homebase when Chenery abandoned her post as general of hearth and home to pursue a racing dream than what’s depicted in the movie, which makes it seem like it all happened seamlessly. The former housewife turns prominent career woman, while her endlessly supportive husband and fresh-faced, perpetually happy and understanding children cheer her on from the sidelines. Really? Only in a Disney movie. I’m sure in retrospect her husband and kids are proud of Chenery’s achievements, but I just didn’t buy at all that her victories in her career came without any cost on the homefront.

Speaking of homefront, wasn’t there a war (excuse me, “conflict”) going on around then too? There’s complete lack of cultural context in the film, which barely tosses a reference to the political stew brewing in America at the time by giving us A.J. Michalka (who, together with her sister Alyson, compromises popular Disney group AJ and Aly) as daughter Kate, a well-off white girl who wades in the shallow end of the political pool by playing dress up with hippie clothes, painting protest signs, and writing a political play.

But this is a Disney movie with a Disney star as the daughter, kids, so Kate is a clean and wholesome sort of hippie with clean-cut, wholesome wannabe hippie friends who don’t, apparently, believe in the free sex, power to the people and pot-smoking of that era. Or at least, they certainly don’t inhale. This film could have taken some lessons from, say, television’s Wonder Years, which at least attempted to address the tension of those times within its storyline while still being entertaining.

Also, while we see Chenery get some crap from men around the racetrack, we never once see another woman question Chenery’s commitment to her husband and children because her work requires her to travel away from her family. I get comments about that myself in 2010 over my own work travel, and I just find it impossible to believe that no one ever pulled that on Chenery in the 1970s.

On the other hand, while I do think the film considerably glosses over the politics affecting the country at the time, I don’t see it as particularly being bait for conservative Christians in flyover states or Tea Party wives. Penny Chenery was no obedient little wifey. The real Penny Chenery may or may not consider herself a feminist, but certainly by the actions she took she certainly set a feminist example that a woman can be a wife and a mother and also chase a dream. And that’s not a bad message for a little girl, even one living in 2010, to get.

I’m not saying I disliked Secretariat overall. It’s well paced and edited, glossy and golden and gorgeously shot. Every scene, practically, is bathed in a golden glow, as if we’ve died and gone to horseracing heaven. The horses coats glisten with sheen, there are slow-mo shots where we see every muscle rippling under shiny coats in exquisite detail. There are shots during the racing sequences here that could be framed and hung in museums, and the visuals alone make Secretariat compelling to watch.

Director Randall Wallace does a good job as well of overcoming the considerable hurdle that we know going into the film how it ends. I mean, it’s Secretariat. It’s not a spoiler to say that he wins the Triple Crown and goes onto become a prolific producer of very valuable racehorse semen. The excitement and tension in the film doesn’t really come, therefore, from there being uncertainty as to the outcome, which is a challenge from a filmmaking standpoint.

Wallace makes the race scenes thrilling to watch, even though we know that (most of the time) Secretariat, in spite of his habit of starting at the back of the pack, would come out of nowhere with a near-miraculous burst of speed to win. The racing montage of Secretariat’s wins leading up to the Triple Crown races in particular was edited artfully, and the horse’s big battles against rival Sham are tense and exciting even though you know the outcome already.

But I almost felt sorry for Sham, a beautiful, athletic racehorse in his own right who also had the heart of a champion but here is painted as the “bad guy” standing in the way of what feels in retrospect like Secretariat’s foreordained place in racing history. And this is a problematic element in the film, one that’s not similar, actually, to the issues I had with The Social Network‘s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg as a villain for the sake of storytelling.

Here, the role of necessary bad guy is played by Sham’s trainer Pancho Martin, played by Nestor Serrano (presumably because the script and director so guided him) as a dark, smoldering, cocky, chauvinistic and inherently unlikable asshole of a guy. And hey, for all I know maybe Martin was that kind of guy, but this portrayal of him felt unnecessarily over-the-top.

Sham and Secretariat were rivals on the racetrack, yes, but Sham really was a good horse who just had the misfortune (or bad karma, maybe) to be born the same year as perhaps the best racehorse in history. It’s too bad for him, really, and I think a bit of a disservice to that horse to paint him as a classic Disneyesque sidekick-to-the-bad-guy character.

Think of the story from the point of view of Panco and Sham: Pancho has this great colt, maybe the best colt of his career, in Sham — who, in fact, also broke track records even when he lost to Secretariat. But poor Sham was doomed to be relegated to the horse beaten by Secretariat, kind of the racing world equivalent to playing “second shepherd on the right, recognized only by his mother” in the church Christmas pageant.

Andrew O’Hehir made some interesting points in his write-up of the film about Secretariat being custom-made for the same Christian segment that made a surprise hit out of last year’s The Blind Side, and as a story it’s certainly true that it follows that film’s successful formula almost to a tee. I’m not sure I’d argue for an Oscar for Lane for this role, but neither would I discount the appeal of the chipper, perky, ladylike woman who overcomes odds to the Academy voters.

I’m not sure I agree, though, with O’Hehir’s accusations of blatant Tea-Party pandering and overt racism in Secretariat, other than perhaps to a degree in the portrayal of Pancho-as-villain. Is it true that the only other significant minority in the film is Secretariat’s groom? Well, yes. Secretariat’s groom, Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) was black, there’s no getting around that. I can see the argument that the portrayal of Sweat in the film is perhaps a little “Uncle Remus,” but I don’t know that it’s an unrealistic portrayal, given the time and setting of the story.

The world of horse racing is a sport that’s almost exclusively the domain of rich white men and their rich white wives who like to wear big hats to the Kentucky Derby while they sip mint juleps, which is what makes Penny Chenery’s place in racing history that much more interesting. I guess I take issue more with the castration of the feminist element, as it were, than with any latent racism in the film.

Overall Secretariat is to me an interesting blend of the feel-good Disney family movie and an attempt to make a classier, artsier movie out of a racehorse story while maybe angling for the Oscars, but that doesn’t make it an unenjoyable film. As a film to see with the kids, it’s not a bad choice, even if for me, it’s painted a little too broadly and uninterestingly to launch it significantly into year end or awards consideration. Secretariat plays as more of a feel-good crowd-pleaser than compelling art, but for what it is, that’s probably good enough.

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Top 100 Best First Films

The Online Film Critics Society (disclaimer: “of which I am a member”) has posted a really excellent list of 100 Best First Films. Check it out, and then feel free to weigh in with best firsts you think we overlooked.

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Review: The Social Network

The problem with Facebook is not just how distracting it can be to try to focus on things like writing reviews rather than checking your newsfeed to see which of your friends has just said something particularly pithy or made a splendid gourmet meal for dinner; it’s also that it’s so darn hard to filter out things you don’t want to see at all — like, for instance, people raving about The Social Network before you’ve seen it yourself.

There’s no way on Facebook (that I know of anyhow) to tell it “don’t show me any updates with the words “The Social Network” until after I see the film (are you listening Mark Zuckerberg? Because the ability to filter out what you don’t want to see by keyword could be a nifty feature to add, and I won’t even sue you for $600 million for stealing using the idea). So even though I’ve tried very hard not to read or hear anything about The Social Network, David Fincher‘s and Aaron Sorkin‘s fictionalized story about the beginnings of Facebook, it would have been impossible for snippets not to filter through, unless I’d gone dark on Facebook altogether for the last couple weeks. Can you imagine how far behind I’d be on the minutae of my friends’ lives if I did that? Perish the thought.

Many of my friends, as you might expect, also work in this field, so in spite of my best efforts to the contrary, word of what many of them thought about The Social Network inevitably filtered down to me through my own social network. When I start to get the general idea that every critic and his brother is in love with a film — when comparisons to Gatsby and even the holy grail of Citizen Kane are being bandied about; when the film’s official site already boasts pull-quotes raving that this is, practically, the best film ever made in the entire history of films being made (and we haven’t even seen the Coens’ True Grit yet, people!) — well, I have to take a step back, try my best to distance myself from all the orgasmic gushing, and go into the film as unbiased as possible. Because a lot of the time — maybe even most of the time — the end result fails to live up to the hyperbole.

So now I’ve seen it and yes, okay, The Social Network really is all that and a bag of chips, as the kids say — for what it is. Not a “masterpiece.” Not “astounding.” Probably — almost definitely — not a film that will “literally” change your life. Maybe — dare I say it? — not even the absolute “best” film of Fincher’s oeuvre. And by the bye, what The Social Network is not, actually, is a film about Facebook, the social network, or an exploration of the impact of living our lives online, or a thoughtful exploration of the nature of social networking as a phenomenon.

So what is The Social Network? It’s a film with a very specific (and, I have to add, quite possibly not entirely accurate) story to weave about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who’s portrayed here as a grim, driven, humorless, almost savant-type guy who allows greed, his own intellectual superiority and sheer hubris to twist him into the kind of person who would screw over his best (in the movie, only) friend, Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield).

As such, what this story needed to make it click is a study in opposites: a devil of a bad guy and a morally upright good guy, and what Fincher and Sorkin have created here is exactly that: a very one-dimensional, quite possibly unfair portrait of Zuckerberg-as-villain that fits exactly the shoe they wanted the character to fit.

Now, if you toss things like objectivity and the fairness of how you’re portraying real people completely out the window, and you look at The Social Network as purely a work of storytelling — at best a fiction based very loosely on one person’s interpretation of real events — then it is a pretty good film, that works as it needs to. Certainly a lot of critics will place The Social Network among the best films of this year.

And if it’s guilty of perhaps not entirely telling the objective truth about the founding of Facebook, of maybe unfairly and subjectively painting boy-wonder Zuckerberg in a particularly unflattering light while being, perhaps, just a tad biased in favor of Saverin (the only one involved, if you’re keeping track of things like that, who gave his side of things as a consultant for Ben Mezrich‘s book The Accidental Billionaires, Sorkin’s source material for the screenplay), well, what of it? After all, Zuckerberg didn’t choose to make himself accessible to tell his side, and besides that he’s super rich, so who cares if the portrayal of him in a movie that will be seen by millions is fair or accurate? Er, right?

It does all make for a heck of a good story, anyhow, and so far at least, neither Zuckerberg (played in the film by that boy-wonder of indie films, Jesse Eisenberg) nor controversial Napster-founder/now part-owner of Facebook Sean Parker (played here very well by Justin Timberlake, a boy wonder of another sort altogether) has filed any lawsuits alleging that Fincher, Sorkin or Mezrich got anything substantially wrong. Or at least, not wrong enough to make it worth suing over.

Nonetheless, as with any real-life story that involves friends falling out and lots of money, we should maybe keep in mind while watching The Social Network that this story does have two sides, and while Zuckerberg might be the main bad guy of The Social Network, the movie, this is also a tale that’s clearly very much spun from Saverin’s point of view as the guy who was dicked over by his best friend, to whom he fronted the money that seeded the business that made Zuckerberg the world’s youngest billionaire. Thus, we should, perhaps, take everything in this film with the proverbial grain of salt (even Sorkin himself has said in interviews that he’s not that familiar with Facebook, the website, and that The Social Network is “not a documentary.”)

Still, there’s no denying that The Social Network is effective storytelling and filmmaking, and that’s at least partly because Sorkin has written a script that makes what could have been the most boring subject matter imaginable: watching an antisocial computer geek — or at least, an approximation of what Sorkin thinks an antisocial computer geek looks and acts like — sitting at a computer writing tens of thousands of lines of code — and makes it pretty fascinating.

So Sorkin and Fincher paint us a story about a brilliant, socially inept, self-aggrandizing and arrogant kid, a guy so utterly solipsistic, so certain of his own superiority and brilliance, that he would have the balls to steal the basic idea — a social networking site exclusive to Harvard — brought to him by a pair of fellow Harvard students — the rowing, Olympic-bound, silver-spoon born Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler (both played here by Armie Hammer) and their business partner Divya Narenda (Max Minghella) — and, with mind-boggling speed and focus, expand it into something bigger, better and ultimately exponentially more profitable than anything the Winklevosses had imagined.

Completely accurate or not, Zuckerberg as portrayed by Eisenberg in the film is an excellent bad guy, the epitome of the cliched antisocial computer geek, who did, in fact, dream of and build something that surely far exceeded even the wildest expectations he had when he started. And Jesse Eisenberg is just terrific in his portrayal of Zuckerberg, the character who exists in this film. Eisenberg’s always been an actor to watch, but with this film he truly establishes himself as a star.

All the cast is great, by the way: Andrew Garfield does his job of making Saverin eminently likable and sympathetic (between this and Never Let Me Go, he is now teetering on the brink of real stardom); Timberlake as Sean Parker is just fantastic, rivaling Eisenberg’s performance, and even the smaller parts — most notably Rooney Mara as Erica Albright, the fictionalized girl who starts it all by breaking up with Zuckerberg in a bar when she wearies of his arrogance, Brenda Song as Saverin’s girlfriend, Hammer and Minghella — are uniformly excellent.

Fincher takes Sorkin’s excellently imagined script and grabs the short attention span of the Facebook generation by the horns, giving the film a brisk, almost brutal pace, cutting effortlessly among interspersed scenes of two separate lawsuits (culled, I believe, from actual court transcripts) and past events as Sorkin imagines they unfolded, without ever leaving us lost as to where we are in the story.

The directing is tight and paced, perhaps in homage to the speed with which Zuckerberg’s success (and personal failure?) fable unfolds — more reminiscent in style and pacing of Fight Club or Se7en than Zodiac or Benjamin Button — though in many ways it’s as artistically conceived as Zodiac, my personal favorite of Fincher’s films.

As you would expect from a Fincher film, the cinematography (by Jeff Cronenwerth, who shot Fight Club and worked on Se7en) and editing (Angus Wall, who edited Panic Room, Zodiac and Benjamin Button and Kirk Baxter, Benjamin Button) are practically perfect as well, and Fincher, as he did so well with Zodiac‘s newsroom, really nails the environment — what it feels like to be a student at Harvard, what it felt like to be working in a fast-paced internet startup at the height of the internet bubble. You feel, truly, as if you are a fly on the wall watching all these events unfold, and it’s riveting, captivating, fascinating.

As to whether it’s all true — or whether anyone involved sees the irony in a studio making millions of dollars off a rather questionable skewering of a real guy who happens to be a billionaire — well … that’s a question for another day, I suppose.

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“The thought is interrupted by an odd interlude. We are speaking in the side room of Casita, a swish and fairly busy Italian bistro in Aoyama – a district of Tokyo usually so replete with celebrities that they spark minimal fuss. Kojima’s fame, however, exceeds normal limits and adoring staff have worked out who their guest is. He stops mid-sentence and points up towards the speakers, delighted. The soft jazz that had been playing discreetly across the restaurant’s dark, hardwood interior has suddenly been replaced with the theme music from some of Kojima’s hit games. Harry Gregson-Williams’ music is sublime in its context but ‘Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots’ is not, Kojima acknowledges, terribly restauranty. He pauses, adjusting a pair of large, blue-framed glasses of his own design, and returns to the way in which games have not only influenced films, but have also changed the way in which people watch them. “There are stories being told [in cinema] that my generation may find surprising but which the gamer generation doesn’t find weird at all,” he says.
~ Hideo Kojima

“They’re still talking about the ‘cathedral of cinema,’ the ‘communal experience,’ blah blah. The experiences I’ve had recently in the theatre have not been good. There’s commercials, noise, cellphones. I was watching Colette at the Varsity, and halfway through red flashes came up at the bottom of the frame. A woman came out and said, ‘We’re going to have to reboot, so take fifteen minutes and come back.’ Then they rebooted it from the beginning, and she had to ask the audience to tell her how far to go. You tell me, is that a great experience? I generally don’t watch movies in a cinema at all. Netflix is the future. It’s the present. But the whole paradigm of a series, binge-watching, it’s quite different. My first reaction is that it’s more novelistic, because if you have an eight-hour season, you can get into complex, intricate things. You can let it breathe and the audience expectations are such that they will let you, where before they wouldn’t have the patience. I think only the surface has been touched with experimenting with that.”
~ David Cronenberg