Posts Tagged ‘jesse eisenberg’

SNL Recap – Jesse Eisenberg and Nicki Minaj

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

I’ve been looking forward to this edition of SNL since I first heard that Jesse Eisenberg was hosting.  I thought he gave the best male performance of the year in The Social Network and he’s proven great comic timing in films like Zombieland, Adventureland, Roger Dodger…land, and a host of others.  But it’s always fascinating to see who rises to the occasion on live television and who fails.  Just because you’ve been great before doesn’t mean you’ll be an ideal SNL host, but my finely-honed SNL instincts tell me that Eisenberg will do pretty well.  Apparently Mark Zuckerberg is going to make an appearance as well.  I’m not the biggest fan of real-life counterparts meeting the people who play them because I don’t think there’s that much potential there, but we’ll see how the Zuck does.  As for Nicki Minaj, can’t say I’m the biggest fan, but I do love her amazing verse on Kanye West’s “Monster” off his new album.

As usual, I’ll be offering my thoughts on each skit and giving them a rating out of 10.  Okay, let’s go to the videotape!

Cold Open – Kristen Wiig doing Michelle Bachmann’s rebuttal speech, “second attempt.”  Looks over to the side, chart is also on its side, then the next chart is turned around completely.  This is a pretty easy joke and an easy target and was already done on by Olivia Munn oon The Daily Show earlier this week.  This is the kind of skit that, if it were not political, it wouldn’t open the show.  Hell, it probably wouldn’t have made it past the initial pitch if there wasn’t an identifiable political target here.  These are the worst kinds of SNL skits, where they try to stay topical rather than finding the joke first and then building a sketch around it.  The mistake is compounded by this open going on for a full four minutes, which is about three minutes too long.  This was a stinker.  1/10

Monologue – Eisenberg’s hair is longer and straighter, looks like he’s nervous and full of energy, but he kinda always looks like that.  Says he’s not the “shy and unassuming” guy he often plays in movies.  “Who is that freight train of confidence?  Or not, I wouldn’t want to pretend to be an expert…”  That’s pretty funny stuff.  “Every 28 days, a female will shed her uterine lining.”  He seems more and more comfortable as this monologue goes on.  “Heeeere’s Jesse!”  Samberg as Zuckerberg comes out to complain, “All hail the Zuck.”  Zuckerberg and Lorne Michael backstage, Zuck looks really happy to be there, smiling even though he’s supposed to be upset.  Zuck makes it onstage as Eisenberg and Samberg compare notes on how to play Zuck.  Eisenberg, Samberg, Zuckerberg, Berg, Berg, Berg Berg’s the word.  Awkward conversation between Eisenberg and Zuck, who calls The Social Network “interesting.”  I think this is another example of trying to inject topicality awkwardly into the proceedings.  The monologue was going well, Eisenberg was charming, but then they had to bring in Zuckerberg and the whole thing lost a good deal of energy.  Still, it was fun to see Zuckerberg and Eisenberg poking fun at themselves.  6.5/10

Commercial – Bill Hader as a pre-op transexual in an ad for “Estro-Maxx.”  This is pretty clever.  Armisen running on the treadmill.  Paul Brittain is going to be a breakout star, I’m telling you; “I’m the head of a major corporation.  I can’t spend all day increasing market share AND turning my penis into a functional vagina.”  Bobby Moynihan at airport security; last week he was Chaz Bono, this week he’s a transexual.  Keenan as the TSA officer showing up at the party at the end was a nice touch.  6.5/10

Mr. Wizard’s World – Okay, I’m excited because I remember watching this show as a kid.  This is kind of obscure, so I already love it.  Bill Hader doing a pitch-perfect Mr. Wizard, one of the strangest talents a person can have.  Eisenberg, Nasim Pedrad, Keenan, and Abby Elliott are the kids.  They’re learning about static electricity, rubbing baloons on themselves and each other, Eisenberg and Nasim are getting a little too comfortable rubbing the balloons on each other.  “What’d you experience with the balloons?”  “Something new?”  “It felt like a good headache.”  This is a clever skit already.  “You guys feeling that charge?”  Eisenberg and Nasim are killing it in this skit, really going for it.  “What’d we learn from this experiment?”  “I like rubbing?”  Oh boy, what are they gonna do with that Van de Graff generator?  Nasim and Eisenberg humping the generator, their hair is sticking up.  “I wanna do science in the shower.”  Wow, that was an excellent skit.  This is what I’m talking about, the skit wasn’t topical but managed to cram a whole lot of laughs into it because the basic premise was already funny.  9/10

Don’t Forget the Lyrics – Is this an actual TV show?  I’ve never heard of it.  Jason Sudeikis is host Mark McGrath “…and yes, I do this now!”  Eisenberg as the first contestant.  “Don’t forget the lyrics.”  “That is the purpose of this show, yeah!”  Eisenberg has just got a whole lot of energy tonight and is investing himself fully, really impressing me.  “I Love Rock N’ Roll” is the song he’s chosen and he ends it with, “So come and kiss a lime, you dance machine” instead of “Come and take the time and dance with me” and I’m officially laughing out loud by myself.  “Lock ’em in.”  Next song is “Doctor Doctor” by Robert Palmer.  I know where this is going and I can’t wait, which means the writers have a solid premise.  Instead of “bad case of loving you,” Eisenberg sings, “I’ve got one extra testicle.”  Not as funny as the first misread lyric.  “Cel-e-brate Saddam Hussein.”  “I was thinking of a different song.”  That’s a good one.  “It’s Not Unusual” by Tom Jones and he sings…”It’s not unusual to get a boner a the movies.”  Not bad.  Nice Toy Story 3 joke too.  I think this sketch started out strong and then faltered as it went on.  Still, I laughed out loud, so points for that.  7.5/10

Next Week – Dana Carvey is hosting!  Wow, I really hope he does nothing but old characters that I haven’t seen in forever.  Bring back Mike Myers and do Wayne’s World!  I’m sure they’ll do Church Lady.  I hope we get a reprise of “Choppin’ Broccoli.”  He was one of the best cast members of all-time, but he probably should have been a permanent SNL fixture since his movie career never really took off.  It’s a shame too because I actually consider both Opportunity Knocks and Clean Slate to be perfectly decent vehicles.  Linkin Park is the musical guest next week, so that’s, um…they still exist?

Herb the Reporter – Bill Hader doing his old guy reporter Herb Welch.  Usual shtick, he talks really softly and shoves his microphone in people’s faces.  Hader is interviewing his Adventureland co-star Eisenberg and keeps shoving his mic in his face, focusing on the fact that the kid is wearing pajama bottoms.  I gotta say, this is not my favorite recurring character.  It’s a one-joke skit that seems like a poor waste of Hader’s considerable talents.  There’s only so many times I can watch Hader hit someone in the face with a microphone.  Keenan showed up to get hit in the face and Hader is losing it, having to turn away from the camera to hide his laughter.  Well, at least someone’s laughing.  3/10

Digital Short – Let’s hope this one is as good as the Pee-Wee one from two weeks ago.  John Waters presenting “The Creep.”  All of the Lonely Island guys are in this one, dancing like creeps, dressed in suits that are too small with pencil-thin mustaches and glasses.  This is pretty good, but the best part is watching the faces that Andy, Akiva and Jorma are making.  Nicki Minaj shows up as the female creep and drops a good verse, but her presence doesn’t really work that well because she’s not nearly as creepy as the Lonely Island boys are and diverts attention away from the funny.  I enjoyed aspects of this one, but it’s not a home run.  A solid 7/10.

Nicki Minaj – She’s dressed like Kirsten Dunst in Marie-Antoinette or like a character in an Adam and the Ants video but her back-up dancers and the band isn’t keeping with the theme.  I don’t know what this song is, but I’m not really digging it.  She’s got some pretty good skills as a rapper, but the beat is way too treacly.  I don’t understand her choice in dress because it limits her ability to move around the stage, so she’s just kinda standing in place and swaying slightly.  4/10

Weekend Update – As with every week, I’m hoping Stefon makes an appearance, but it’s already been a Hader- heavy show so I doubt they’ll go there.  Meyers starts with a joke that manages to combine the current events in Egypt and the McRib.  Well played, Meyers.  Another Michelle Bachmann joke, I’m sick of this topic.  “This week Comcast officially took control of NBCUniversal and I have to say: things are better already.  Seriously.  I have to say that.”  Fred Armisen shows up as Egpytian President Hosni Mubarak, talking about the internet and blaming Time Warner.  “I’m beloved, my approval rating is 115%.”  “We needed ten plagues before we left, you know what I mean?”  Armisen killed it as Mubarak, a really funny take.  Charlie Sheen joke, “It’s a good thing he kept the cocaine in a briefcase because if anybody saw him, they’d go ‘there goes Charlie Sheen with some paperwork.'”  A pretty clever joke about the two waitresses fired from the Standard hotel for being short.  Tyler Perry Presents Tyler Perry…Keenan is throwing money around as Tyler Perry Presents Tyler Perry.  “Not one nomination…poor, poor Tyler Perry.”  White people problems?  Isn’t that a trending topic on Twitter?  “My best friend is Oprah.”  “I Can Do Internet All By Myself.”  “Adventureland, where a young man is sad because he has a job.”  This is a pretty solid skewering of Tyler Perry Presents Tyler Perry and his movies.  Lame New York cab joke.  Lady Gaga wants her fragrance to smell like “semen and blood” and Meyers says it’s gonna be called “Hotel Mattress.”  Jersey Shore’s fourth season is going to be in Italy, which Meyers says will hopefully segue into an episode of “Locked Up Abroad.”  Pretty soft joke to go out on, but the Update was fairly solid overall.  7/10

TCM The Essentials – I love it when they do these TCM parodies, mostly because I love TCM and Robert Osborne.  We’re taking a look at the “Bride of Blackenstein” with Jay Pharoah as the doctor, Keenan as the monster, Eisenberg as Igor and Nicki Minaj as the Bride.  I guess they felt like they had three black people on tonight for the first time in ages, so they could finally do a sketch that is all about Nicki Minaj’s ample posterior.  Pharoah is doing Dr. Blackenstein like he’s a young Eddie Murphy.  “Where did you get the mouth, Igor?”  “From a ho who didn’t know her place!”  Eisenberg and Pharoah are the best parts of this skit and of course, they are relegated to the background so that we could focus on Keenan and Nicki Minaj doing stereotypes.  “I’ve just been with Jewish girls.”  “Oh, then you gotta understand.”  Hader and Wiig, “You know I like a booty like yours, flat and shapeless.”  “Good!”  I felt like this skit was a missed opportunity that focused on all the wrong things.  I can’t imagine how many people will be offended by this, but the truth is that the only thing offensive about it is the waste of Pharoah and Eisenberg who were clearly game, but weren’t given enough good material to work with.  5/10

MTV – Andy Samberg as the head of programming, talking about the awful US remake of Skins.  “Because of all the controversy and ‘child porn laws’ we lost our sponsors.”  Samberg knocks over a prop and almost loses it, but he’s a professional and keeps it together.  Eisenberg and Abby Elliott in a scene from Skins, promoting Kennedy Fried Chicken.  “Speaking of which, cool cocaine.”  “Stank ass foot powder, so sexy.”  Paul Brittain shows up to promote “Walzer Toyota.”  “Just hearing about used cars makes me hella horny.”  Nasim shows up for a four-way.  I think this skit would probably work better without the product placement angle.  It limits them.  If they just did a straight up parody of Skins.  “That sounds great…for young vaginas.”  Abby Elliott was excellent in that skit and Paul Brittain’s “I’m twelve” at the end was a nice touch.  I hope they’ll revisit Skins is a future episode, but I doubt it’s going to last long enough.  It’s a shame, I think there was a better skit to be made.  6/10

Spa Talk – Kristen Wiig as Tyla Yonders, host of Spa Talk.  “Isn’t stress gross?”  She’s basically a modern-day hippie.  Keenan and Abby are playing a married couple.  Wiig sprays water all over Keenan’s face, then spreads lotion on it.  This skit is really not working already and it’s getting worse and worse.  This is a character in search of a skit to put her in.  The talk show aspect is not really being utilized, Keenan and Abby are playing stock characters, and there are no jokes.  Oh boy, it’s going on, more guests coming.  Eisenberg, Vanessa Bayer (hey, welcome to the show at 12:45!) and Bobby Moynihan as the family.  I suppose the joke of the skit is supposed to be Kristen Wiig’s hippy-dippy character rubbing up against blue-collar folks, but it is just not working at all.  I don’t know how this wasn’t cut after Dress because this is unbelievably awful.  She rubbed turtle shit on their faces, wow, this is really bottom of the barrel.  Please tell me it’s over now.  Thank goodness, it is.  1/10

Nicki Minaj Part 2 – She’s still wearing her Bride of Blackenstein hair, except now she’s wearing the most disgustingly colorful onesie I’ve ever seen.  I’m definitely digging this song more, though.  I think her talent lies in the fact that she’s a rapper that actually has a nice voice, which makes her versatile, and this song really exploits that talent.  And her outfit shows us that she wasn’t padding for that Bride of Blackenstein skit, either…Jesus.  8/10

It’s Too Big – Andy Samberg as Arthur Perkins in a paid advertisement.  Jesse Eisenberg joins him  as his friend to promote “El Shrinko” for men with penises who were once too big.  The joke is that it’s clear that they’re just trying to come up with an excuse for why they are lacking endowment.  “It’s why Arthur and Randy’s penises are too small.”  Wiig, Bayer, and Nasim show up to vouch for them.  For the last skit of the night, it was concise and induced a chuckle.  6.5/10

Final Grades:

Jesse Eisenberg – He did a really good job.  I was impressed by his level of commitment and energy.  He didn’t seem to look at the cue cards at all and was elevated every character he played.  I really hope he’ll be on again in the future because he’s a great utility player, seeming like he would fit in as a regular castmember.  I think the writing stranded him in some poor skits, but he was sharp throughout.  9/10

Nicki Minaj – I thought she was solid overall, with special credit given to her for acting in the Digital Short and the Bride of Blackenstein sketch.  Not sure that I’m rushing out to buy her album anytime soon, but it was pleasant enough to see her and listen to her.  7/10

The rest of the cast – No MVP tonight, except for Eisenberg maybe.  I think Jay Pharoah, Paul Brittain, and Abby Elliott all need to be used more.  Armisen wasn’t really in a lot of skits tonight either, surprisingly.  Sudeikis did a good job as Mark McGrath.  I thought Nasim did a good job overall, with excellent work in the Mr. Wizard skit.  Bill Hader was the most-used castmember tonight and the results were strong (Mr. Wizard) and weak (Herb Welch).  Taran Killam was completely absent this week and he’s been used pretty sparingly all season, so I wonder if he’s gonna stick around next year and Vanessa Bayer didn’t show up until the last two skits, but she did solid work.

The writing – Really up and down night tonight.  There were two absolute stinkers with the cold open and the Spa Talk skit, which was just DOA.  However, the Mr. Wizard skit was a real high point.  Everything else was somewhere in the middle.  They had two weeks to come up with material for tonight and I felt like this was a bit of a let-down.  Don’t Forget the Lyrics was a decent skit, one that I might consider watching again and Weekend Update was pretty strong this week, even with an absence of Stefon.  6/10

As for myself, I give myself a 5.5/10.  I think I’m getting better at this SNL Recap thing in my second try, but just like the show itself, sometimes I have trouble going on too long.  So, at almost 3000 words, I’m going to say adieu.  See you next week for Dana Carvey’s return.

Frenzy on the Wall: If I Had a Ballot 2011

Monday, January 24th, 2011

2011 was not a very strong year for movies, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t worthy performances and filmmakers that deserve some attention.  As I do every year,  I’m going to give my picks for the Oscars in the major awards as if I had an actual ballot.  Since the Academy cannot be trusted to make the right decisions and will probably make the safe choice whenever possible, it’s fun to give my perspective.  Needless to say, I don’t see the Academy sending me a ballot anytime soon.

Best Picture

  • The American
  • Black Swan
  • Blue Valentine
  • The Social Network
  • Trash Humpers

I don’t believe in the Academy’s new(ish) rule to expand the category to ten nominees, so I’m going with five.  I think Black Swan and The Social Network are locks for spots and Blue Valentine will most likely make an appearance, but you can forgot about the Academy nominating something as deliberate as The American or something as truly avant-garde as Trash Humpers.  The Academy will pat itself on the back for nominating Black Swan, thinking that it’s an “art” film when it’s really just an amazingly well-done and dense genre picture.

I’m not knocking Black Swan at all – it was my second favorite film of the year – but what the voting bloc views as “avant-garde” and what is actually avant-garde are two entirely different things, so let’s not applaud the Academy just because they nominate a film as complicated as Black Swan; that should be the norm and we should be pushing them to go even further.

Having said that, I think all five of these films are worthy pictures of getting nominated in a field of ten in any given year.  A film like The American or Trash Humpers probably wouldn’t make it on my ballot of five in a stronger year and Blue Valentine is pushing it.  I didn’t catch the latter film until recently and I think it’s strong from start to finish, but that scene at the hospital towards the end really strained credulity.


I just don’t see how a man can go into a hospital and punch someone/wreck the place without security or an orderly coming to help.  People in hospitals are trained to subdue people who may get violent and yet, the man in question is able to walk out of the place and get in his car.  More than that: this was a film that I related to on such a deep level for almost every second of the film until that moment, when I could no longer relate to that character.  It’s a shame, because it’s a perfect film otherwise.

(End Spoilers)

But really, The Social Network is the film to beat and I don’t see anything coming close.  It’s not a revolutionary movie, it’s just a really great story told well.  It’s a profound statement about the times we live in and there are a lot of issues of betrayal, friendship, privacy, etc. that are brought up and explored in the film.  But more important than any of that is that it is exceptionally entertaining on a surface level.  The subtext of the film would not be nearly as interesting if it wasn’t for the fact that the text itself is so funny, poignant, and exciting.  It’s not perfect, but it’s close to it.  If I had any issue with the film, it’s that I wish it was at least an hour longer.  It’s the film of the year and unless the Academy is incredibly short-sighted (and they are), it will win Best Picture.

Best Director

  • Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan)
  • Anton Corbijn (The American)
  • David Fincher (The Social Network)
  • Harmony Korine (Trash Humpers)
  • Gaspar Noe (Enter the Void)

Ordinarily, I believe that the best five films are the five best directed films.  However, I had to make room for Gaspar Noe for his dynamic achievement with Enter the Void.  It’s not a great film because Noe’s script is a bit too trite, but the way he brings the impossible to life is something to be applauded and rewarded.  Derek Cianfrance did a fantastic job,  though I think it owes a big debt to the films of John Cassavetes, but it’s really not about the job that he did with Blue Valentine, but rather how masterful Noe’s direction was for Enter the Void.

Noe and Korine were the only filmmakers this year that sought to create something that was unique to the screen yet familiar enough to audiences.  I don’t think they were perfect because their natural impulse is to push the audience away rather than invite them in; it’s almost like they created video art rather than cinema (although that argument is a slippery slope and worthy of its own column).  Both Noe and Korine were successful in bringing their eccentric visions to life, but I can’t say they were the best because it was harder for me to engage with their works.

I think Corbijn did a fine job with The American, which has one of the most beautifully melancholic tones and a somnambulant yet charming pace.  The film it reminded me of the most was Anthony Minghella’s fantastic The Talented Mr. Ripley.  Both films are about handsome killers who hide themselves and fall in love, yet can’t escape their pasts; and both films are set in beautiful European cities that are shot lovingly and without rapid movements of the camera.  It’s really a complete 180 from Corbijn’s first feature, Control, and showed that he’s capable of all sorts of genres.  I’m excited to see what he does next.

For me, this award is a race between Aronofsky and Fincher.  These couldn’t be two more different films and both are really indicative of who each of these directors are as filmmakers.  Aronofsky’s Black Swan is hyper and emotional while Fincher’s The Social Network is controlled and tightly focused.  I think both films are touching in their own ways and both have (very different) built-in reasons to keep us from being too heartbroken by what occurs.  But for me, I have to go with what I thought was the better film and that’s The Social Network.  Having seen both multiple times, I don’t think The Social Network loses anything on repeat viewings whereas Black Swan loses the element of surprise that makes it so distressing to watch the first time around.  So, Fincher should – and will – win the award for Best Director.

Best Actor

  • George Clooney (The American)
  • Aaron Eckhart (Rabbit Hole)
  • Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network)
  • Andy Garcia (City Island)
  • Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine)

To me, it’s a real shame that Aaron Eckhart isn’t getting more love for his performance in John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole.  He and Nicole Kidman are equals in that movie, one performance doesn’t work without the other and both of them smash it out of the park.  Eckhart is understanding and sympathetic and yet flawed and on the verge of making mistakes; what makes his performance (and the film) work so well is that we relate to both his and Kidman’s characters from moment to moment.

Gosling is similarly great and for a lot of the same reasons.  Blue Valentine is also a film about a couple first and foremost and wouldn’t work if the two actors weren’t at the top of their games.  Gosling is given the more difficult role in Blue Valentine because he does quite a few things that might make us detest him, yet he more than makes up for it by playing a character who is understanding at the oddest of times – and Gosling makes it feel earned.  His character is not a particularly intelligent person and we’re given a few hints at why this might be the case, but can sympathize with his longing and with the ways in which he tries to make this relationship work.  Gosling and Eckhart both deserve to be nominated.

Clooney and Garcia are playing two completely different parts (and I just realized at this moment that they played adversaries in the Ocean’s 11 franchise).  Clooney is introverted from beginning to end and is loathe to tell his secrets to anyone.  Garcia is more manic and upbeat, anxious to get his secrets out.  People don’t give Clooney a whole lot of credit because he’s always so cool, calculated and…well, handsome as hell.  But he’s playing a difficult part in The American because so much of it is dependent on the way in which he moves rather than the way in which he speaks.  Garcia’s part in City Island is the exact opposite – it depends so much on how his speech and manner changes from scene to scene depending on who he is around.  Clooney’s part is dramatic and tragic in every sense of the word; Garcia’s part is dramatic in the hysterical sense of the word.  Both actors play their parts as perfectly as could be expected and I’d be willing to bet that if you swapped their roles, we wouldn’t be talking about either movie right now.

Finally there is Jesse Eisenberg who gives the best male performance of the year in The Social Network.  There isn’t enough I can say about this guy, who manages to make the character of Mark Zuckerberg into both villain and hero.  We cringe when he puts down his best friend because we know he’s better than that.  We believe he’s capable of redemption, that he’s not a monster.  The tragedy of the film is that he’s a person that so badly wants to connect with the people around him, that he wants to be popular, and yet he fails at every turn on a human level while succeeding on a business level.  Ultimately, at the end of the film, he’s in the Facebook offices surrounded by people and yet he’s completely alone – headphones on his ears, isolated from everyone and even his best friend can’t jolt him out of this unreality by smashing his laptop because there’s always another computer at his disposal.  Eisenberg convinces us that Zuckerberg is human and so we realte to much of what he does.  If we didn’t,  we wouldn’t be so disgusted by what he does wrong.  He should win Best Actor, but he won’t because the Academy will reward Colin Firth’s stammering performance in The King’s Speech.

(Side note: The King’s Speech is a perfectly decent film but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before.  Firth is a great actor, but this is hardly his crowning achievement.  The truth of the matter is that we can see Firth’s acting in every scene, we can see the wheels turning.  William Goldman once said that actors love playing drunks and mentally disabled people because Oscar voters can actually see them acting, knowing that the actor themselves isn’t actually disabled in any way.  But those aren’t the difficult roles at all; rather, the difficult roles are the ones where it’s hard to see the strings.  I think Firth does a good job in The King’s Speech, but I don’t think it was particularly difficult role to pull off.)

Best Actress

  • Madeline Carroll (Flipped)
  • Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole)
  • Natalie Portman (Black Swan)
  • Rachel Weisz (Agora)
  • Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine)

It was difficult to leave off Jennifer Lawrence (excellent in Winter’s Bone), Annette Bening (for that one amazing scene in The Kids Are All Right), Zoe Kazan (astounding in The Exploding Girl), Tilda Swinton (heartbreaking in I Am Love), Carey Mulligan (wonderfully understated in Never Let Me Go) and Hailee Steinfeld (for carrying True Grit).  It was a strong year for lead female performances.

However, I couldn’t in good conscience omit young Madeline Carroll’s dynamite turn in Rob Reiner’s Flipped.  I don’t blame you if you haven’t seen the movie because it doesn’t look like it’s going to be nearly as engaging as it is.  It’s a sentimental and saccharine-laced story of young love in early 60s suburbia, but one of the primary reasons why it works so well is Carroll’s charisma.  She’s playing an eccentric character who is irrationally in love with the boy next door.  The only reason the film doesn’t work is because Carroll is so much more magnetic than her counterpart.  She’s so good that it almost ruins the movie because no other part of the film works as well as her performance.  Carroll is someone to watch for.

Rachel Weisz carries Agora in a way that very few actresses could.  She is powerful and dynamic as Hypatia, the mathematician and astrologer in 5th century Alexandria.  There is a fine line that Weisz navigates between being magnanimous and being a martyr, yet Weisz’s Hypatia is noble throughout without us ever feeling like we’re being given a caricature of a decent person in the face of evil.  A lot of the dialogue Weisz has to recite is a bit cumbersome, but she is able to pull it off and make it sound natural.

Nicole Kidman and Michelle Williams are fantastic for all of the reasons I mentioned above in regards to their co-stars.  Kidman does some of the best work of her career in Rabbit Hole, giving us a character who is going through unimaginable pain.  And Williams continues to prove that she might be the best actress of her generation by playing a woman on the precipice of imploding.  What makes both performances so strong is the fact that both actresses make difficult choices in order to make their characters feel real and human.  The disinterested look in Williams’ eyes as she walks past Gosling in the shower “future room” sequence in Blue Valentine or the way Kidman smacks herself in the shoulder in the climactic argument in Rabbit Hole, these are tics that the actors bring to the table that humanize their characters in unexpected ways.

But the performance of the year – male of female – is Natalie Portman in Black Swan.  It’s not just that Portman’s Nina Sayers is so fragile that she’s almost on the verge of tears in almost every scene or that she commits herself so fully to this unhinged performance that is both repulsive and attractive at the same time, it’s that in addition to all of the typical acting traits she exhibits, she is also a convincing dancer.  Let me make that clear: Portman’s dancing ability and the way in which it morphs throughout the film is integral to the development of the character.  When Portman dances at the end of the film and we see that she has finally captured the essence of the “black swan” role, I could tell that there was a difference in the way she danced.  I’m not a ballet scholar, but even I could tell that there was a different emotional tone to her dance at the end of the film.  It wasn’t just in the way she moved – although there was that – but it was in the look in her eyes.  I can’t think of another performance that I’ve seen in recent years that was so dependent on movement and I can’t think of another performer who pulled it off so well.  Portman is in nearly every frame of Black Swan and she doesn’t give a single false note.  Nina Sayers is the Daniel Plainview of this year.

Best Supporting Actor

  • Matt Damon (True Grit)
  • John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone)
  • Kevin Kline (The Extra Man)
  • Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom)
  • Justin Timberlake (The Social Network)

The most difficult thing about this category was figuring out The Social Network situation.  I could easily replace Timberlake with Andrew Garfield or Armie Hammer.  And it was difficult not to put Garfield or Hammer in there in place of Kevin Kline or Matt Damon, as well.  Ultimately, I went with Timberlake in my Social Network slot because the film goes to a completely different level the moment Timberlake steps on the screen.  He is playing the most engaging character, for sure, but he is absolutely mesmerizing.  Timberlake has always been charismatic, but here he uses it to play a character who he is ruthless and villainous; he is the Iago of the film and his paranoia is always bubbling under the surface.

Kline and Damon are both playing oddball characters in their respective films and there are few actors better suited to those sorts of eccentrics than the two of them.  Kline plays a kind of greasy and unhygienic “gentleman” that I had never seen before on a film screen, yet he makes it seem familiar and comfortable.  And Damon plays a cocky and stupidly courageous Texas Ranger.  When writing about their characters, one has to use odd word pairings in order to describe them, like “stupidly courageous” or “unhygienic gentleman;”  for that alone, I think they deserve to be here.

Hawkes and Mendelsohn, for me, gave the two best performances in this category and they are surprisingly similar.  They both play shady criminals who are akin to caged animals, ready to strike at a moment’s notice despite the fact that there aren’t many scenes where they do.  It’s all in the way these actors move, the eerie calm in their eyes.  They are playing different sides of the same coin, to be sure, since Mendelsohn is truly villainous and Hawkes is surprisingly heroic.  However, if Animal Kingdom was from Pope’s perspective, perhaps he would seem more heroic and if Winter’s Bone was from Teardrop’s perspective then he might seem more evil.  I found it hard to shake either of their performances and each had a specific scene that was emblematic.  In Animal Kingdom, there was the scene in which Pope harasses one of his younger brothers and calls him gay and in Winter’s Bone, there’s the scene in which Teardrop gets pulled over by the cop.  In both scenes, we can tell from the performances of Hawkes and Mendelsohn (as well as their co-stars in those scenes) that they are capable of doing absolutely anything in that moment.  We have no freaking idea how these characters are going to react in those scenes and that’s what makes their performances so fantastic.

If I had to pick a winner, though, it would have to be Hawkes.  When the film ended, I wished I was following Teardrop on to wherever the hell he was going.  It haunted me.

(Side note: I know, I left Christian Bale off for The Fighter.  Truthfully, I really liked his performance and thought it was the best Bale has been since Rescue Dawn.  However, similarly to Colin Firth, I think Bale has the showier role and I think quite often he goes over the top.  I think he’s saved somewhat by the fact that Melissa Leo goes so far over the top that Bale’s scenery-chewing doesn’t seem so blatant, yet I found his scenes to be a bit cringe-worthy at times and for the wrong reasons.  He wasn’t terrible, and I’m certainly in the minority, but I didn’t buy into his character whole hog the way I wanted to.)

Best Supporting Actress

  • Greta Gerwig (Greenberg)
  • Rebecca Hall (Please Give)
  • Barbara Hershey (Black Swan)
  • Mila Kunis (Black Swan)
  • Dianne Wiest (Rabbit Hole)

I’m hesitant to even put Gerwig in this category because I think she’s really the lead of the film in so many ways, but I wanted to sneak her in here because she really holds that movie together.  Ben Stiller has the showier title role of the stunted adult, but Gerwig fascinated me because I know that character.  She plays the young hipster who is trying to get by and accidentally (and naively) sleeps around with all the wrong guys, including the title character.  Each of her mistakes is easily forgivable because she’s such a decent person, but despite seeming like she has her head on straight, she continues to see Greenberg, a man who is wrong in every way possible.  I really admired the way Gerwig was willing to do less in each of her scenes, knowing that the audience would be understanding her more because of her quietness.

Rebecca Hall is also playing a character that often goes overlooked by most award-givers: a nice person who does good things.  Hall plays a woman who is kind to her cantankerous grandmother and gives mammograms, often to older women.  She isn’t a dark or dangerous character, but a decent one who strives to be better.  In other words, Hall plays a character like many of us; someone who feels obligated to care for the people that she loves.

The fact that Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest gave terrific performances in their respective films should come as no shock to anyone who has followed their careers.  These are two wonderful actresses.  Wiest is quietly heartbroken and devastated throughout Rabbit Hole, hoping to spare her daughters the pain that she has felt.  Hershey, on the other hand, is playing a character who is almost hoping to pass on the pain she felt to her daughter.

For me, the winner of this category has to be Mila Kunis, for many of the same reasons why Portman should win her category.  Black Swan does not work if Kunis is not Portman’s equal and other in the film.  When Kunis shows up in the film, it’s that same feeling as when Timberlake shows up in The Social Network: everything becomes more electric and exciting.  Each scene with Portman and Kunis in Black Swan is ripe with tension and emotion because of the way they play off one another.  Witness that scene in the restaurant.  It’s not just that Kunis eats a burger while Portman eats her salad, it’s that Kunis derives pleasure from her food without much thought while Portman pokes around at her food meekly and painfully.  I’m sure this won’t be the last we see of Kunis in the awards conversation, but that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t win this year.

The Rest

The column is running a little (okay a lot) long, so here would be my winners in some of the other categories:

Score – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for The Social Network, hands down, no contest.  One of the best albums of any kind that I heard this year.

Cinematography – Benoit Debie for Enter the Void, for doing things with the camera I never thought possible.

Best Original Screenplay – Derek Cianfrance, Cami Delavigne, and Joey Curtis for Blue Valentine.  A great screenplay for what it leaves out.

Best Adapted Screenplay – Aaron Sorkin for The Social Network.  Duh.

Best Documentary – Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, even if it might be a gigantic joke on all of us.  A fascinating portrait of the rise of graffiti art.

Frenzy on the Wall: Is The Social Network Fincher’s Best Film?

Monday, October 4th, 2010

I’ve made no secret of my love for David Fincher. Simply put, I think he’s one of the top five living filmmakers, the second best living American filmmaker and I anticipate the openings of each of his films the way someone might await seeing their favorite band at a concert. But is his latest film, The Social Network, his best film?

Even before I saw the most brilliantly constructed trailer of the last few years, I had The Social Network on the top of my list of films I needed to see in 2010. The problem that comes with that kind of anticipation is that it can lead to massive disappointment (see: Panic Room) and so as I sat down Friday afternoon and The Social Network began to unspool, I felt anxious.

Luckily, I had nothing to worry about. The Social Network is easily the best film I’ve seen so far this year and it’s not even close.

I think the most fascinating thing about Fincher’s career has been his ability to adapt to the material he chooses. Very rarely do we find scenes in Fincher’s films that seem over-directed or showy. When the camera does all those twists and turns in Fight Club or there is a super close-up, we never feel like we are taken out of the film. This goes hand in hand with why I think Fincher is so great: his ability to create a tone and mood, finding tension and milking it with every weapon in his arsenal including photography and editing. So while Fight Club had a lot of quick cuts, which kept us on our toes, Zodiac used well-timed cuts to create a sense of foreboding.

The Social Network is almost classic in its tone and mood. We have two separate lawsuits – although they never actually go to court – which makes the film feel a bit like a legal drama, but there’s also the rise to power of a genius which makes it feel perhaps like a Citizen Kane-esque operatic drama.

If I had to find a theme that runs through most of Fincher’s work, it would be alienation. He tends to be drawn to characters that don’t fit in: Morgan Freeman’s Detective Somerset in Se7en; Robert Downey, Jr.‘s Paul Avery in Zodiac; Brad Pitt as both Tyler Durden in Fight Club and Benjamin Button .

In The Social Network, we are presented with a very peculiar outcast in Mark Zuckerberg. What makes Zuckerberg so odd – and so compelling – is that he has a quick wit, lots of intelligence, and a good deal of bravado. Most people would use these gifts – not to mention his genius ability to work with computers – to gather as many friends as possible. I mean, the tools are there for him to be an extroverted and popular kid despite the fact that he’s no Brad Pitt.

But instead, Zuckerberg (as presented in the movie, at least) uses his abilities to cut people down and make them feel bad about themselves so that he could feel better about his life. Yet, the amazing thing is that he’s portrayed as longing to have friends, to have a girlfriend, to have a connection. And I think it’s an interesting perspective on the man who created the largest social networking site of all-time.

I have to say, though, that I didn’t find Zuckerberg to be a villain. Maybe it says a lot about me, but I found myself on his side for most of the film. Sure, he can be resentful and spiteful, but considering he’s a kid who doesn’t know how to deal with people, I can’t really blame him for a lot of what he does. In fact, I can defend every decision he makes throughout the film. I can even defend what he does to his best friend and business partner Eduardo Saverin. (Spoilers ahead)

When Zuckerberg, the brains behind the operation, decides to head out to Silicon Valley to grow the company (which turned out to be the right decision), Eduardo stays in New York instead of moving out to California with Mark. To me, that says that Eduardo didn’t believe in the company the way that Mark did. In any fledgling company, the CFO needs to, you know, oversee the business and make sure it’s running smoothly, that the funds are being used correctly. Eduardo clearly doesn’t think the site will take off the way it ultimately did.

Sure, you could say that Mark shouldn’t have betrayed his best friend in that way, but business is business. And the truth of the matter is, as depicted in the movie, Eduardo’s biggest contribution to the creation of the site was as the money-man. He supplied 19,000 bucks – money that Mark could have gotten from a number of other sources, including the Winklevoss twins. Of course, most of the audience I was with was rooting for Eduardo; when the crawl at the end of the film pops up on screen and informs us that Eduardo got a large settlement, the audience applauded. (End Spoilers)

I think the fact that I wasn’t rooting against Zuckerberg speaks to the film’s power. A lot of people have justly given credit to Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, but mostly folks have pointed out his fine ear for dialogue. The dialogue is indeed strong, but the most important aspect of Sorkin’s script is the way he has structured the film in a complicated yet coherent way. The first part of the film is set at Harvard as Mark is creating Facebook and the second part of the film starts when Mark meets Sean Parker – the creator of Napster – and becomes enamored with how Parker operates so smoothly.

Meanwhile, there are two settlement hearings that take place after the events in the regular narrative, and those hearings are inter-spliced at key points throughout the film, giving us both a hint of what is to come for the characters and some perspective. It also helps to give Eduardo Saverin and the Winklevoss twins a voice that is equally as loud as Zuckerberg’s in the narrative. It was really a genius move on Sorkin’s part and I’d give him the Oscar for Best Screenplay based on that alone.

I haven’t mentioned the acting at all, so let me dedicated an entire paragraph to the masterful performance of Jesse Eisenberg. The whole cast is uniformly excellent – seriously, not a bad turn in the batch – but Eisenberg deserves special recognition for being the most effortlessly compelling protagonist of the year (and maybe the last few years). I say “effortlessly” but I’m sure there was a lot of work involved, it’s just that Eisenberg makes it seem easy. It’s not just the way he delivers Sorkin’s dialogue so naturally, it’s the way his eyes narrow when he’s thinking or the way his lips turn up into a smile when he’s creating FaceMash; more than anything, it’s the way he perks up with confidence when he knows he’s right.

He doesn’t just seem believable, he is believable and real. This is the kind of performance that is so difficult and that doesn’t get any credit because it’s not flashy. I’m sure the Academy will ignore what is, so far, the performance of the year, but I guarantee we’ll all be talking about it for years.

Now, onto the rest of the cast! Justin Timberlake is going to be a movie star, without a doubt. He exudes confidence in most of his scenes as Sean Parker and he would be so easy to detest if he wasn’t so charming; he makes us understand why Zuckerberg falls under his spell. I especially loved his scenes at the end, when he’s finally feeling vulnerable. Andrew Garfield is going to be a movie star too; in fact, he’s going to be Spider-Man. Garfield is certainly the heart of the film, the naïve soul who is destined to get his heartbroken.

We sympathize with him, we want him to be okay and we cheer when he breaks apart Zuckerberg’s laptop. Garfield arguably has the easiest task because the script sets him up as the puppy dog who squeals with delight about having groupies, but Garfield takes it to an interesting place. There is a vulnerability in the way Garfield speaks his lines that is affecting in a different way. And Arnie Hammer (with help from Josh Pence) astounded me as Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss. The Winklevi could very easily be portrayed as villains, but the script and Hammer doesn’t allow that to happen; they actually seem like reasonable and bright gentlemen with an emphasis on the word “gentlemen,” as they believe very much in tradition and manners and codes of ethics. Hammer gets the best line in the film – a reference to Karate Kid that made me chuckle – but it’s in the way he delivers his lines as the Winklevoss twins, the way he imbues every line with conviction.

The other actors, from Rooney Mara as the girl who calls Zuckerberg an asshole in the beginning of the film to Rashida Jones who brings things full-circle at the end, are all excellent. John Getz, Brenda Strong, Joseph Mazzello, Max Minghella … everyone does their parts perfectly. There isn’t a single false note and it takes a lot of strong supporting work to be able to allow the leads to shine and everyone should be proud of their work here.

I have to give special mention to the music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross because I don’t usually pay that much attention to the scores of films unless they really strike me, but this is one that I want to buy immediately. I’ve been a big Reznor fan since I was a kid listening to Nine Inch Nails in my room and I always thought, based on his instrumental work, that he’d be a great film composer. Well, I was right, because this score kicked my ass right from the beginning when we see Zuckerberg creating FaceMash cross-cut with a Final Club party. Just masterful.

Jeff Cronenweth’s photography is as great as it usually is. He’s worked with Fincher since Se7en and I think he’s one of the more underrated cinematographers out there. Cronenweth has this one shot in Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo where Robin Williams is running down a circular parking garage and it just blew my mind. Cronenweth is also smart to work with visually talented filmmakers and Fincher knows how to frame a shot that can be hung on a wall and called art.

The Social Network is the best film of the year so far and we’ve got three more months to go, but I feel it’s safe to say that it’ll be somewhere near the top of my ten best list in December. However, where does it rank with other Fincher films? That’s what I’ve been debating ever since I walked out of the movie and I’ve been wrestling with it all weekend.

I don’t think I can put it up there with Zodiac or Se7en yet because I feel like those two films have themes and stories that are timeless and I do worry that The Social Network could be dated in a few years. The theme might be timeless, but facts could emerge that could change our perception of what occurred. There’s still so much we don’t know and that could change.

On the other hand, I think Fight Club is one of the most important films ever made and it’s certainly one of the most important films for me, personally, as a cinema freak; I certainly can’t put The Social Network up there yet. I loved The Curious Case of Benjamin Button more than most people I know, but I suppose I could confidently say that The Social Network is better than that one. So, does that make it the fourth best film Fincher has done? I’m not entirely sure yet, I need to let it marinate a bit more. But if that’s so? Holy shit, that’s amazing. I mean, that’s not a knock on the film at all; if The Social Network, a brilliant film that I might even call a masterpiece, is only the fourth best film Fincher has made, then I don’t think I need to make any more arguments about why he’s the second best living American filmmaker.

Paul Thomas Anderson is still number one…for now.

(Side-note: It’s strange when I hear people call it “the Facebook movie” or folks complaining about the subject matter. Perhaps it’s just me, but the subject matter of a film is usually the least important aspect of a movie. A film could be about sex, which is arguably the most “exciting” and “risqué” topic there is, but that doesn’t automatically make the film riveting. And a film could be about people talking in rooms and it could be absolutely enthralling.

The truth of the matter is that The Social Network is really about people talking in rooms; they could be discussing creating any kind of business and I don’t really understand why people would be put off by the idea of that specific business being a website that most folks check several times a day.)

MW on Movies: The Social Network

Friday, October 1st, 2010

The Social Network (Four Stars)

U.S.; David Fincher, 2010

The Social NetworkDavid Fincher and Aaron Sorkin‘s high-style, computer-circuit-fast tale of flashy programs and dirty deeds behind the 500 million-user Internet hookup phenomenon Facebook (or at least their version of it) — is obviously the next hot thing in award-caliber, critic-certified, “must-see” movies. It’s the primo right-now generator of Oscar buzz and of comparisons to Shakespeare and Citizen Kane.

That’s fine with me. This is the kind of movie they actually should be spending 50 million dollars to make in Hollywood. It’s a brainy, jazzy, cool, impudent, contemporary-hip, ultra-savvy, wired-in, high velocity show that races you through the beginnings of Facebook (hatched in a Harvard dorm by an angry sophomore named Mark Zuckerberg), through its mushroom-like growth on the web and resulting big-bucks corporatization, through all the human eggs you had to break to make this computer-hit omelet, and finally (via actual court transcripts), into the flurry of law suits, “Rashomon-ish” multiple viewpoints and bitter recriminations that almost inevitably exploded when its net worth hit the billions, and there was loot to be grabbed, and lawyers to pay.

The Social Network is almost wickedly entertaining, and it does something most movies don‘t these days. It celebrates smartness, gives us protagonists who are phenoms and prodigies of brain power rather than of sexiness, guts or toughness. (That’s part of why so many critics like it so much.)

The Mark Zuckerberg of the movie — whose real-life model apparently, and understandably, doesn’t like what he saw here — is a perpetually frowning, utterly irreverent, empathy-challenged, hoodie-clad techno-geek of nearly non-existent social skills and a nearly bankrupt couth account — a low-conscience, unrepentantly mean number-cruncher and people-user who arrogantly believes he’s smarter than almost everyone else around him, and whose only saving grace may be that he’s actually, maybe, sort-of right.

Then again, what’s “smart?“ Brains, intellect, or genius, maybe should be defined as a bit more than hatching a lucrative concept, writing a great computer program, and putting a billion in your bank account. (The source for Sorkin’s screenplay is a Ben Mezrich book, written almost concurrently, called The Accidental Billionaires.) Genius may actually be involved with something more scientific, artistic, mystical: with perceiving the ultimate, penetrating the great mysteries of life, reaching the multitudes, touching the soul of the happy few, or even improving the lot of humankind. Shakespeare. Kane.

But, in the top fillip of The Social Network’s many, many ironies, we see that maybe Mark and his fellow web movers and shakers — and the whole new social-communal wrinkle that they‘ve been chosen to dramatically represent — don’t really “need” things like empathy, sympathy, what we’d call humanity. This guy’s got something more tangible: a dynamite idea, a way to hook up 500 million Facebook “friends,” and get advertisers to cough up truckloads of cash. Ironically (of course), all this is accomplished by a guy who alienates everybody in person, including his date and his best friend.

Social Network starts with its very best scene: a fictional encounter in a Cambridge bar between glaring, fast-talking, self-aggrandizing Mark (played to perfection by modern movie geek-in-excelsis Jesse Eisenberg) and an ironic (naturally), knowing brain-babe named (fictitiously but appropriately) Erica Albright (Rooney Mara). Mark is trying to impress Erica with his I. Q., his talk-back panache, and his possible impending campus social triumphs, maybe election to the “final club.” He wants to wow her with sheer words-a-minute. In the dim, chatty little bar where it looks like so many quick hot fucks have been hatched, he keeps trying to drown her in verbiage, lashing back at her parries, pulling out his stud credentials and his coitus curriculum vita. Her scathing response is to tell him that he may think she’s rejecting him because he’s a geek, but it’s actually because he‘s an asshole.

Incensed, he stalks out of the bar, and back to his dorm room — shared with fellow geeks Dustin and Chris (Joseph Mazzello and Patrick Maple) — and hurls himself into a classic miffed geek’s techno-revenge. Mark disses Erica on-line, hacks into the Harvard dorm files, appropriates the girl student photos and sets up a nasty little website called FaceMash, in which horny losers or sex bullies, or just plain lonely guys, like himself, get to ogle the photos and rate who’s hot and who’s not. This site proves so popular, it crashes the university’s computer system.

The exploit also draws flack from the university, as well as the attention of two well-connected Harvard student society, twins, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss — played by the very well-connected 6’5” actor Armie Hammer, with the help of Fincher’s digital aces and actor/body double Josh Pence. The Winklevosses, and their business guy Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) want Mark to create a Harvard variant on other popular student computer social networks of the day at other colleges. He agrees, then joins with his best (maybe only) friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), to start planning and programming what eventually became, without the Winklevosses, FaceBook.

Not so fast. The Winklevosses sued. Others sued. Eventually, even best buddy Eduardo sued — after he got aced out of his top CEO slot upon, the arrival of just the kind of snazzy techno-stud who’d appeal to a jilted geek like Mark: Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the guy behind Napster, bringing with him a promise of dough, babes, lines of coke, incredible success and magnums of champagne (not necessarily in that order) and luring Mark to Palo Alto. (The real Sean Parker apparently doesn’t like his portrayal here either. Actually, I hear Parker is a mix of Mother Theresa, Elvis and Spider-Man.)

That suggests the litigious format in which we get most of the rest of the story: flashback-laced dramatizations of the college and court hearings spouting up around the various suits, charges and counter-charges ignited by all that rancor and all that moola. Who’s lying? Who’s right? Who knows? Who cares? As with the current movie Howl, which mined high drama and bawdy comedy out of the Allen Ginsberg Howl obscenity suits, The Social Network often uses actual court transcripts as its dialogue source, which means we may be hearing actual lies — or actual truth. The important thing though, is that it’s all actually entertaining.

With Sorkin’s dialogue and transcripts crackling like His Girl Friday on fire, and the revelations (true or made-up) popping like a private eye’s unvarnished notes, and with every scene steeped in director Fincher‘s trademark fancy menacing noir moodiness, the rest of Social Network proves definitively that you don’t have to pull a gun to thrill an audience.

It’s never as entertaining though, as that first, terrific, entirely fictional kiss-off scene in the bar. Watching The Social Network and reading the sometimes extravagant comparisons it’s generated to Citizen Kane, and Shakespeare, not to mention Paddy Chayefsky, “Twelve Angry Geeks,” and John Hughes, I began to wonder if the current movie strategy of presenting every fact-derived movie drama, fictionalized or not, with the real names of real people — like Shakespeare’s Holinshed-fed historical plays, but not like “Kane,“ which turned William Randolph Hearst into Charles Foster Kane, Marion Davies into Susan Alexander, and mixed Hearst’s history promiscuously with Welles’ own — isn‘t actually more trouble than it‘s worth.

We know, by now, that most docu-dramas mix fact with fiction, memoir with fantasy, and we’re aware that a movie like The Social Network is not the evening news — though actually, it’s probably more accurate, clear-eyed and less biased than Fox. So why not adopt “Kane’s” tactics?

I guess it’s because Zuckenberg is a star, and Facebook is a big brand name, and that’s part of how you sell movies. But I actually expected something more “Kane-ian” than what I got — expected to see Sorkin and Fincher mix more of the speed, snap and fact-drenched format of the Internet with their classic rapid-fire Hollywood social-dramatic story-telling. Maybe a quick bio of every character, a brisk low-down on every new situation, lots of background, lots of updates, lots of zipping back and forth. Whiz. Bang. But though The Social Network does some of that, it’s pleasantly old-fashioned in some ways. Happiest of all is its dependence on Sorkin’s dialogue, and on the high quality acting of its absolutely zero-cool cast.

Eisenberg makes Mark both pathetic and scary, never more so than in the show’s first scene and last shots — and he also makes the guy believably brilliant, a convincing innovator. Mara comes up with one of the ten greatest squelch scenes in movie history. (Unhappily she sort of vanishes from the movie afterwards, and so does Mark’s sex life, a mistake.)

Garfield makes you feel for a CEO, quite an achievement these days. I nominate Timberlake for “Bad Influence of the Year“ honors. Hammer pulls off a tour de force of digital twinnery; maybe he should now play Indiana‘s 6’5” Van Arsdales, Tom and Dick, in the ultimate inspirational tall twin sports bio. (Just kidding; he did a super job.) Doug Urbanski is believably mean and revoltingly snobbish, as then-Harvard president, Larry Summers. As Eduardo’s girlfriend Christy, Brenda Song is a song, and so is Dakota Johnson as Amelia.

Fincher seemed to give vent to almost every surrealist, artsy, fantastic impulse he had when he put Brad Pitt, in Benjamin Button, in reverse-rewind — and he’s been plunging us into psychological dread and horror ever since 1992‘s Alien 3. Fincher is a real movie stylist, and Fight Club and Benjamin Button are both about as well-visualized as a modern movie can be. But here, Fincher takes a step back, lets Sorkin and the script and actors take over more. It shows how much easier it makes a director’s job when he has good material.

Something bothers me about Social Network though, and actually, I’m not just trying to be perverse and pick on a favorite. Social Network deserves its plaudits, deserves all these prose-poems of aesthetic satisfaction it’s been getting. It’s a hell of a show. But Mark needs more of a backstory, especially a family backstory. Family counts in many success stories, as Armie Hammer would be the first to tell you. And I think it’s wrong to put Mark on his own. Also, the payoff doesn’t seem as exciting to me as the buildup, the climax less of a knockout than I wanted, especially from any movie being described by some as the new Kane. Citizen Kane could eat this movie for lunch. That’s okay. Kane cuts most other movies down to size as well, even great ones.

The Internet has changed us though, and one of the major alterations of consciousness is that these screens and their communications make us feel we’re not alone, when we are — and then realize that actually, we’re never alone. Ideas and words keep us going; all the ideas, and all the people out there are a great pool in which we can all swim.

The Social Network, almost a great movie, tells us that people and society have been changed by the computer age, in those ways and others — and also that, in some destructive ways, they’re still the same. It tells us implicitly that empathy matters more than millions of friends. But though that conclusion edifies and entertains, it doesn’t really dazzle us, or blind us with light. And I can’t help feeling that a lot of the audience may misinterpret Mark the way an older audience misinterpreted and made a hero of Wall Street‘s “Greed is Good” huckster prince Gordon Gekko — and make more of a hero than an anti-hero of Mark, because he’s smart, because he’s rich.

Sorkin actually turned down the Wall Street 2 assignment and maybe he was worried by that possibility of Gekko taking over again. In a society that worships moola as much as ours, it’s an occupational hazard.

This movie doesn’t entirely escape the pitfalls of success, and the perception of success, though it certainly tries to. For some, Social Network will be a cool show about a kid that made a billion. Actually, it’s not.

Review: The Social Network

Friday, October 1st, 2010

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.

Review – The Social Network (98.75% Spoiler-Free)

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

There are three key components to The Social Network.

First, there is the Aaron Sorkin screenplay, which is about as Aaron Sorkin as Aaron Sorkin gets. The first scene of the film – perhaps the best scene in the film – is textbook A.S. A ping-pong match of lust, hope, hate, power, naïveté, and fear… lots of fear… between our anti-hero, “Mark Zuckerberg,” and The Girl Who Would Cause Facebook.

In that scene, we also get a taste of how Element Two, director David Fincher, is going to play it. Straight. And with the exception of 3 or 4 gorgeously indulgent flourishes, he services the screenplay here, first and last. There has never been a Fincher film like it, really. And it reminds is that with his skill set, he can do anything he wants.

The third element is the actors. And Jesse Eisenberg is the Olivier to Sorkin’s Shakespeare, the Bill Macy to his Mamet. Eisenberg has always been engaging, but he was born to this text, both indulging Sorkin’s detailed rhythms (and much of the great cast of West Wing did) and avoiding the trap of sing songing it. You never catch Eisenberg acting for a second, even though his character, Mark Zuckerberg, often is.

This is a very strong movie. A terrific story told as well as, I would think, it could be told.

But… what is missing is metaphor. And I will admit, I have read as many of the raves as I could find, from Foundas’ embargo breaker to this morning’s Dargis NYT review, and I find no evidence of the universality they feel about the film. I think it’s instructive that most have gone outside of the film itself, to their personal feelings about social networks as well as philosophy about humanity as reflected by a wired world, to make the connections. The film, simply, does not. It doesn’t actually make the slightest effort to do so.

The film is about a boy genius that feels like an outsider within his role as one of the most insider-y institutions on the planet, Harvard. The film, for all the expansion beyond Harvard that occurs, never gets very far outside of the tiny, tiny bubble. Even the blaring disco in San Francisco is reduced down to a two-person scene. Sex occurs in bathroom stalls, impersonally, two people to a stall. Moving to California means a house with 4 people imported from Harvard and 3 visitors who don’t get much attention. When Facebook gets some money and more staff and offices, scene take place in closed rooms with glass walls or with characters who are focused only on what is on their computers.

Is that the Great Irony? Is that the Big Point?

Doesn’t say Big Theme to me.

The reason why Fincher’s career top remains Fight Club is that Chuck Palahniuk gave him a Shakespearian tale of man’s fight against himself from which to fly… and fly he did. Sorkin, who is a true master of language and with very few exceptions, does not go much deeper than the skin, doesn’t give Fincher that kind of big picture to work with here.

For me, the most fascinating element of all of this is that it happened so fast, so recently, and so painlessly. But this isn’t really a part of the film. You can surmise it. But Sorkin, as usual, is all about the characters and not about the wake they create.

And as a character study, this is masterful stuff. Fincher’s lush imagery flattens out the vaudevillian in Sorkin just enough to keep the entire enterprise tethered to terra firma. Sorkin’s characters bring Fincher’s brown just enough helium to float above the dirt. It is a perfect pairing.

As noted before, Eisenberg is perfect. Andrew Garfield takes another difficult role – he has to play the straight man here, but must not ask for too much sympathy or demand more from Zuckerberg than his friendship – and finds just the right notes to make is flawless. Armie Hammer (who came from an even cushier berth than his character here) hits it out of the park as God-like, but myopic twins. It’s a pretty perfect cast from top to bottom. (I like Justin Timberlake in the film… but he has never felt like he isn’t on camera while he’s on camera.)

But the ultimate scene stealers of the film are Douglas Urbanski as Larry Summers and Dakota Johnson’s ass. The rest of Dakota Johnson is actually quite arresting as well… and I don’t mean that as a comment on her looks. She has something really interesting going on in her eyes and a slightly quirky look that portends great things in the future. She stands out in a very interesting way. (And now that I have looked her up on imdb, I get it… she’s Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson’s daughter. Completely makes sense.) I suspect that as years pass and we catch up with The Social Network on cable/satellite/internet, there will be “wow… she was in that?’ early performances for her and Rooney Mara. Anyway, Fincher and Jeff Cronenweth photograph her ass like it was the audience’s first ice cream cone.

I feel like I am on familiar 2010 ground here, a bit. Inception was the other film that I quite liked and also felt was being made into more than it is. In many ways, this film is St Elmo’s Fire for a next generation. After the first scene, Zuckerberg comes out of the bar/restaurant they were in and the crane shot looks almost exactly like the one early in S.E.F. They are both college bars shot romantically. But Fincher has the genius score of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross playing. And as we proceed, this film is so much more than S.E.F.

Yet, it is not iconic in the way that S.E.F., unless, perhaps, you are on the outside judging these characters. Virtually every character in the film is, as Obama once said, above the audience’s pay grade, perhaps with the exception of bookend women of clarification, Rooney Mara and Rashida Jones, both of whom will clearly work themselves up into this pay grade.

Of course, St Elmo’s Fire seems like an insulting comparison. But it’s not meant to be. It’s the iconic intimacy of John Hughes’ best work. It’s the way William Goldman brought audiences into his stories. And then you get the more operatic writers, like Shakespeare and Paddy Chayefsky.

It seems to me that the filmmaker who would most perfectly fit this content would be Billy Wilder. This film really wants to be Sunset Blvd. Mark is Norma Desmond… Eduardo is Joe Gillis… Sean Parker is Max. But the thing that makes Sunset Blvd work so brilliantly is that there is clear context. The line between the silent movie past and the talkie future is not blurry. And as here, every character except Norma has conflicting motivations. Norma is driven – in a straight-forward, if psychotic way – by a world in her head that we can glimpse, but only she can really see… just like Mark.

What’s missing, I am afraid, in The Social Network are any real stakes for these characters. The audience responds to a character suggesting that people just move on to chase new ideas and not obsess on Facebook’s success because that character is saying what we, as an audience, are feeling. It’s as though the movie is counting on the ends justifying the means because the ultimate ends for Facebook are in the billions, not the millions. If Facebook was worth only $100 million now, yawn. But now that it’s valued at $25 billion, depth is – allegedly – infused. Not so much for me… though I certainly think there is depth to explore here.

I have seen all kinds of people imprint all kinds of ideas on what they see in this film. And that is a sign of quality work, absolutely. But while I don’t need it spelled out to me in giant block letters, I don’t think that the best movies are Rorschach tests. They may measure you as a person. But it’s a yes/no or multiple choice…not a fill in the blank. “Mark Zuckerberg” uses a computer, but his behavior does not define a generation. He is not Charlie Kane, who lived a life of gusto and real ambition before falling under the weight of his own power. The film might want him to be Bill McKay of The Candidate or Ben Braddock of The Graduate (whom I have compared Tyler Durden to), but unlike those characters, “Mark Zuckerberg” has never believed in anything enough to put himself at risk in a real way.

Perhaps it is my generation and older ones that will see “Mark Zuckerberg” as the next generation they fear… a disconnected, uninspired punk who uses his skills to get something he doesn’t even really appreciate simply to fill the giant gaping void in his ego and never really has to risk anything. Perhaps that unsympathetic view of “Zuckerberg” is what is inspiring the sense of depth… except I don’t think he is that simple and I don’t think, from watching the film, that Fincher or Sorkin thinks he is that simple.

For me, the idea that everyone around him is imprinting their desires on The Guy Who Can Deliver Something Cool and blaming him for not letting them have what they want is the road to a more complex, rewarding film. But the characters who are most on the road, the Winklevosses, are mocked for their behavior by the film, and in the end, whether they get money out of all the inconvenience of these events is of minor impact or importance.

Even the idea that Facebook was inspired by the rejection of a girl doesn’t really get explored enough to be real. It was, the film tells us, a confluence of events and people and choices, all of which conspire to bring a singular event to life. But it doesn’t really explore the randomness of that either. (Interestingly, Se7en did.)


I have spent a lot of words explaining why I don’t think The Social Network is a truly GREAT movie. But I want to write again… it is a tremendous entertainment for adults. It is an interesting story told with a tremendous skill set.

As I was driving away from the screening yesterday (my second look), I was struck with the idea of how movies get rated by critics and that there should be a more expansive scale. There should be a 1-10 star ranking for Fun Junky Films or 1-10 for High Quality Audience Films, or 10 for Seriously Ambitious Films.

The Social Network doesn’t have a Junky bone in its celluloid body. As a High Quality Audience Film, I’d give it a 10. Even Fincher’s forays into “Beautiful Huh?” feel more like a happy palette cleansing than something that should have been cut. It’s pretty perfect. Amongst Seriously Ambitious Films, I give it a 7.5. It’s not that I think it failed to deliver. I just feel as though it wasn’t ambitious enough to merit a higher rank on that scale.

The only people over 30 who I don’t think will enjoy The Social Network are the ones who are just uncomfortable spending any time with “Mark Zuckerberg.” And some will be out there. But they’ll be missing a really,really good movie.

International Trailer: The Social Network

Friday, September 17th, 2010

Wilmington on DVDs: Solitary Man, Crumb, THX-1138, Macgruber and Caravaggio

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010


Solitary Man (Three Stars)
Brian Koppleman & David Levien, 2010

The thing that fascinates people about a serial seducer like Ben Kalmen (magnificently played by Michael Douglas in A Solitary Man) is his speed of conquest. What could take the average man, even in our liberated society, several months or, at best, weeks to do — sleep with the woman to whom he‘s attracted —  a great serial seducer can knock off in a single night, and maybe one or two more as well.