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Column Fri Oct 01 2010
The Social Network
I saw the Aaron Sorkin-written, David Fincher-directed The Social Network two days in a row, and I've held off writing about it because I wanted to get my thoughts exactly right. I'm not sure I did, but this is what I've got. With three months left in the year, The Social Network is the best film I've seen so far in 2010. Is that clear enough for you? If it's at all possible, don't go into The Social Network thinking you're going to discover "the truth" about the founding and possible idea stealing being Facebook, the online phenom that has introduced a slew of new lingo to the English language and has made it possible for every single friend I had in high school to find me within one month of me joining a couple years back. Thanks, Mark Zuckerberg.
The first time I saw the film was at a 10am screening in Chicago. I'll admit I was tired when I sat down, but after the opening sequence in which Harvard undergrad Zuckerberg (played with astonishing energy and inflated self worth by Jesse Eisenberg of Adventureland, Zombieland and The Squid and the Whale) essentially allows his arrogance end a relationship with one of the few women (Rooney Mara, soon to be Fincher's Lisbeth Salander in the U.S. version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) on campus who will actually date him. The scene is just two people sitting at a table in a bar talking, but the words are flying in a verbal fencing match that is won by Zuckerberg but the price is the death of his relationship. She assures him, she's isn't leaving him because he's a geek but because he's an asshole. My reaction after the sequence: "Shit, that's a lot of words." Sorkin cleverly bookends The Social Network with women that Zuckerberg clearly has feelings for (the other is played by Rashida Jones, in a role that's a bit of a mystery) defining his asshole behavior, and it's as strong an argument for his drive at creating Facebook as any I've heard.
But Sorkin, Fincher, and company are actually telling slightly different versions of the same stories as seen from the men who lived the moments. Through two depositions, we get versions of how Zuckerberg came up with the idea of a way of linking people that replicated the college experience. In the end, his goal appeared to be to level the playing field, eliminating social cliques, secret societies, and invite-only fraternities and clubs that he was never invited to join. Whether this is true or not, I don't know or care. But Eisenberg makes me believe it is the motivation, and every characters' motivations are a huge part of The Social Network. Why were they friends with Mark? Why are they suing him? What do they get out of knowing him? What do they represent to Mark?
It's tough to see the glue that bind Zuckerberg and his best (possibly only true) friend and business partner Eduardo Saverin (played as the heart and soul of this movie by Andrew Garfield), who also happens to be one of the people suing him later in the timeline. Zuckerberg never misses an opportunity to belittle Saverin's accomplishments, but he remains loyal as the money man in the early part of the business, known at the time as The Facebook. The plaintiffs in the other lawsuit are twin Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer, who has paved the way for his eventual stardom with this movie) and their friend Divya Narendra (Max Minghella), all of whom came up with an early template for Facebook geared just at Harvard students. Their arguments are sound, but since Mark didn't steal code and quickly branched out beyond Harvard (to other schools and then the world), he makes the most compelling statement in his own defense: "If you invented Facebook, you would have invented Facebook."
Zuckerberg's world view grows exponentially when he meets Facebook founder Shawn Fanning, renamed Sean Parker for the film and played by Justin Timberlake in the best acting work of his career by far. Parker is sharp as a knife and he comes across as just as dangerous, a slick idea man who dabbles in drugs and seems like more of a facilitator than an actual worker bee or creative type. Timberlake is incredible here, truly, and he handles Sorkin's dense words like he was born to do the job.
In fact, all of the actors here are perfect, with no weak links in the bunch. Anyone who has had issues with Eisenberg in the past, giving him the Michael Cera rap of playing the same character in every movie can eat my ass with how wrong the are, and how definitively he establishes his characterization of Zuckerberg in the first few minutes.
I have the least to say about Fincher's direction, because he does very little visually to overpower the poetry Sorkin has given us in his screenplay. Fincher has proven time and again that he knows how to create unforgettable images for us to carry with us, often into our nightmares. But with The Social Network, he stands back and gives us a rare look at low-key Fincher. There's a subtle color scheme going on, and I love the way he finds incredibly interesting ways to show us people talking--seriously 90 percent of this movie is just talking, with a bit of rowing thrown in (the Winklevoss twins were on a crew team and went on to the Olympics). But Sorkin's words feel like action and violence and good and evil mixing it up. There's no possible way his screenplay isn't winning an Oscar. The Social Network is a celebration of smart language and the art of conversation, and every film lover should celebrate right along with it.
I'm at the tail end of seeing a couple dozen genre films at Fantastic Fest, an event that reinforces my belief in violence, blood, gore, action, martial arts, the grotesque, the inappropriate, and the hilarious. But The Social Network doesn't have any of that, and I still found dozens of reason to love it immensely. The writing, the acting, and the steely visual style that David Fincher has been perfecting for most of his career and has found a completely new and original way of applying it to a film that, at first, may not seem like a perfect match for his abilities. But Fincher loves a challenge, and with The Social Network, he set himself the goal of providing a stunning backdrop for his note-perfect actor to deliver fully loaded dialogue. It sounds simple, but it isn't. And it's the reason this film triumphs. I'm ready to see it again right now.
Let Me In
Beauty is beauty. If something beautiful looks like some other beautiful thing that came before it, does that somehow negate the original? I guess that's what the debate revolving around (more like swallowing up) Let Me In, the impressive and, yes, similar remake of the Swedish vampire masterpiece Let the Right One In. If I liked Lawrence Olivier's Henry V, am I not allowed to like Kenneth Branagh's. If I like the visual take that Tim Burton gave to Batman, does that erase the powerful drama that makes up Batman Begins or Dark Knight? Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead is easy to love, and I would argue that the recent remake of The Last House on the Left is better than Wes Craven's groundbreaking original. So, is the fact that Let Me In comes so closely on the heels of Tomas Alfredson's original (both based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who wrote the first adaptation) the part of this equation that bothers people so much? It kind of feels that way.
I picked Let the Right One In as one of my favorite films of 2008, and I listed it as one of the Top Five vampire movies of all time for a podcast I was on recently, so few people have put their money where their keyboard is on this movie like I have. So when it was announced that Cloverfield director Matt Reeves had written and was directing a remake, I felt the breath leave my lungs. But having seen the new film recently, I had a reaction that was unexpected, to say the least. Reeves has given us an alternate--but not radically different--version of this story of a young boy and his relationship with a friendly vampire girl next door that is as good as the original for quite a few different reasons. Reeves has expanded certain elements, streamlined others, and given his actors room to show the true nature of their characters.
The young boy Owen (played by the young Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee from The Road) is portrayed as a bit more of a perv and potential homicidal. He spies on his neighbors with his telescope, and even manages to watch an especially beautiful woman in an apartment across the courtyard having sex. And while his counterpart Oskar in the original film shows such tendencies as well, Smit-McPhee is allowed to show his bloodlust a little more explicitly, with the help of his vampire friend Abby (Hit Girl from Kick-Ass, Chloe Grace Moretz), who encourages him to fight back against a small army of bullies to torments him daily. She's not concerned about his well-being; she's testing him to see if he's worthy of... something. Moretz is incredible as Abby, part subtle temptress, part protector, part nasty creature, and manipulative without appearing so. We get a bit more of Abby's ugly vampire side, a change I'm not sure I agree with, but it doesn't take away anything as much as it doesn't necessarily add either.
The third major player in this unholy trilogy is an unnamed older man (Richard Jenkins) who acts as Abby's caretaker but is clearly exhausted from the work. The two move into the unit next door from Owen and his recently single and hyper-religious mom (Cara Buono, whose face we never see clearly because neither does Owen). When he spots Abby talking to Owen, Jenkins' character is seized with jealousy; the way he looks at Abby is clearly with something more than a paternal affection. One of Reeves' biggest changes is adding a fourth player into the mix, a police officer played by Elias Koteas, who is put in charge of investigating what becomes a series of brutal murders and attacks. The fact that the cops were barely a factor in Let the Right One In always bothered me. Koteas kind of takes the place of a few people in the original and in placed perfectly into the story to bring elements together more satisfactorily.
Reeves also dispenses with the scenes featuring the rowdy drunks at the bar, instead making many of them people who live in Owen's complex. The brutal attack of one woman who actually survives and has an unfortunate incident at the hospital is assigned to the aforementioned pretty lady on which Owen likes to spy. Even the color palette Reeves chooses is dissimilar. The Swedish film was basically boiled down to black, white, and a ghostly blue. Reeves sees the color of 1980s New Mexico (when and where Let Me In is set) as streetlight orange, and he projects that color directly into the courtyard where Owen and Abby regularly meet on a the saddest jungle gym I've ever seen. But the color is warmer and seems to assist in fueling the relationship between the pair. What seems to get lost in the discussion about either film is that, this occasionally bloody, often tense work is a coming-of-age movie about Owen's first (and probably only) love. And while Moretz is certainly a pretty young woman, Owen falls for her because he senses a kindred spirit, a fellow traveller, and, when pushed, a ferocious killer.
Of the three main characters, Smit-McPhee and Moretz at least equal their Swedish counterparts, while Jenkins actually exceeds what Per Ragnar did with the same character in the original. Jenkins plays the role as a tortured, frustrated, angry man that has been at this never-aging creatures behest for most of his life. And when he sees what Abby is lining up for herself, he simply gives up, spectacularly. Above all else, the thing that Let Me In remembers and preserves about the book and original movie is that it is so much more than a vampire movie. If Abby weren't a vampire, she'd be a goth girl with a troubled life, and the story would still be extraordinary, thanks in large part of the performances and smart, dialed-back direction from Reeves.
I'm not sure Matt Reeves has won the "Why remake it?" argument, but if we lived in a world where this was every audience member's first exposure to this material beyond the novel, I think Let Me In would be hailed as a minor masterpiece in genre filmmaking. The fact that it's a remake never really factored into my critique of the movie. It's not a shot-for-shot anything (if you think it is, you either don't remember Let the Right One In or didn't watch the new movie very carefully), and the overall aura of the work is fairly unique. But sometimes getting there first is enough to upset people about what follows that is similar (that's one of the many themes of The Social Network). I don't think remakes are inherently crap. There are many remakes that feel like a sign of the Apocalypse, but Let Me In doesn't even come close. It's a haunting, powerful, still-strange work that I'll treasure alongside the Swedish film, and there's no crime in that.
Waiting for Superman
Unlike Davis Guggenheim's last major documentary, (the Oscar-winning tome on the environment An Inconvenient Truth, starring Al Gore,) his dissection of the current fractured and crumbling state of America's education system, Waiting for Superman, is sadly lacking in solid answers about how to solve the problem. This isn't Guggenheim's fault, necessarily; the problem is so massive and bogged down in bureaucratic tape that it might only be fixable by tearing it down completely--a solution that seems about as unlikely as a well-paid teacher and soaring test scores for the majority of public school students.
One of the funniest statistics presented in Waiting for Superman (there aren't many) concerns the confidence levels in American kids. While their scores continue to drop, their belief that they are scoring well is on the rise. I suppose confidence is important to have when you're growing up, but I'm guessing such blind faith in one's own beliefs and abilities is leading to a generation of entitlement junkies who never admit when they're wrong. Guggenheim makes the startling case that even private schools aren't trending as high in terms of test scores as they once did. So where does relief comes from?
According to the film, relief certainly isn't coming from the various teachers' unions, which cling to an antiquated system of tenure that literally does nothing to motivate teachers to do better and makes it nearly impossible to fire bad teachers. The film makes the point that it is easeir to get a lawyer disbarred or a doctor to lose his medical license than it is to get rid of a crap teacher, and ridding the system of such teachers would help to improve test scores. The case is made time and time again in this very anti-teachers'-union movie that the unions are the key component in ineffective schooling and shocking video gives us a sense of just how bad some of these teachers can be and how much of the blame for turning schools into drop-out factories lies with them.
My favorite interview subject in Waiting for Superman is D.C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee, whose ideas were so radical, she became one of the most hated people in the city for a time...until her methods started netting results. She closed schools to make budget and proposed a new merit-based pay system that might have actually earned some well-performing teachers six-figure salaries (stay in the union: get a modest tenure raise; leave the union: get paid based on your performance). The union was so scared of her ideas, they didn't even allow them to be voted upon.
One of the most effective things Guggenheim accomplishes is putting faces to these devastating statistics. He interviews a handful of girls and boys, all of whom will be taking part in lotteries around the nation to determine if they get into various charter school with limited slots available. Is it heart-string-tugging manipulation? You bet. Does it work? Odds are, you'll cry during the lotteries. And whether you cry or not the heartbreak is genuine and unavoidable. I'm not sure going after unions of the best way to capture the mind of Americans concerned with the education system, but Waiting for Superman is a solid start. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
This worthy docudrama chronicling a small sliver of the early career success of poet extraordinaire Allen Ginsberg is actually four movies rolled into one. The first is simply a running monologue by Ginsberg (played to perfection by James Franco) about his childhood and early years as a struggling artist and gay man that takes the form of an interview with an unseen reporter. Since this version of Ginsberg has a beard, we presume that the interview is taking place a year or two after the main story that gives the film its title--the late-1950s obscenity trial that took place in San Francisco against the City Lights Bookstore, which published "Howl," Ginsberg's first poem. The third is a mid-1950s performance of the poem in front of a clearly ecstatic and excited (and slightly drunk) crowd who respond to Ginsberg's inflections, rhythms, and words with the appropriate level of enthusiasm. The fourth is a little more difficult to categorize other than to say that they are an animated interpretation of the "Howl" poem, designed by artist and previous Ginsberg collaborator Eric Drooker. At first, I wasn't sure how I felt about adding a visual component to an art form that was meant to be read or spoken, but the animation grew on me and truly enhanced my understanding of the work.
Of the four parts of Howl, the trial scenes will probably garner the most attention even though Franco isn't in them (Ginsberg didn't attend the trial since he wasn't actually the one being charged) and they are the most conventional and star studded. David Strathairm gives the best of the courtroom performances as prosecutor Ralph McIntosh, combining self-righteousness with a very clear intelligence. Also on hand is Jon Hamm as defense attorney Jake Ehrlich, Bob Balaban as the judge, and a bevy of witnesses played by the likes of Mary Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels, Alessandro Nivola, and Treat Williams. A couple of these actor come dangerously close to self parody, but for the most part, all are quite good.
As much as you might think James Franco couldn't pull off playing Ginsberg, archival photos and footage of Ginsberg reveals that he looks remarkably like the young poet, and Franco literally transforms his voice to mimic Ginsberg's to perfection. Close your eyes, and you won't know the difference. This is never more evident than during the interview segments, which feature Ginsberg talking, smoking, talking, and more smoking. It's mesmerizing watch Franco absolutely rip into this material so completely, and he reveals in Howl one of his best performances that most of you sadly won't bother to see. I'd love to be proven wrong. Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet; Common Threads) come out of the documentary arena and apply their skills as researchers and editors of a variety of sources to great effect with Howl. They do nothing to censor Ginsberg's more controversial passages, (that would be defeating the purpose), and they do everything to include the details of his more intimate moments during the interview segment, where he chronicles his early love interests and adventures with companions like Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Peter Orlovsky.
The cumulative effect of Howl is a remarkably cohesive and thorough slice-of-life biography that provides a stage for Franco to find new ways to dazzle us with his abilities and for Ginsberg to speak through him. I like the use of images of the real Ginsberg throughout the film rather than have Franco recreate moments that are well documented. The movie gives us a glimpse into an important era in the history of censorship and freedom-of-speech law that many people aren't aware of, and that's always a good thing. And even when certain elements of Howl don't work, as soon as we return to Franco on stage reciting the epic source poem, all is well, and the world makes sense. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
It strikes me as funny that critics and audiences who loved Adam Green's magnificent film Frozen think that somehow his Hatchet movies are somehow beneath him to do, especially now that he's proven himself to be "an artist" with his tale of three very cold folks stuck on a ski lift. What people who hold that opinion fail to realize is that Hatchet and Hatchet II are examples of Green in his zone. Not that he doesn't love all of his films like his children, I'm sure, but the stories of Victor Crowley are where he lives in his heart. And when a bucket of blood gets thrown against a tree in the Louisiana swamps, that's Green's blood (metaphorically speaking). Does that mean that the movies are any good or that you have to like them? Of course not; I'm sure almost every filmmaker is passionate about their films. No, you should like the Hatchet movies because they are gloriously gory, occasionally funny, and there's a story being told that actually progresses, expands, and offers some surprises as it transitions from the first film to the second.
Hatchet II picks up at the exact second when the first film left off. Marybeth is the only surviver from the first film, and this go-round she's played by scream queen Danielle Harris (frankly, I didn't miss Tamara Feldman even a little bit). She makes it out of Crowley's swamp and has been advised by an old guy living in the swamp to seek out Rev. Zombie (Tony Todd, who made a brief cameo in the first film, and has been blessedly elevated to basically the second lead here). With a better (although not complete) understanding of what they're up against, Marybeth and Zombie assemble a team of hunters and other men and women with guns to go seek out and kill Crowley (still played by Kane Hodder).
Some of the elements I like to see in any horror sequel are present, and it's clear that Green sees it as important to step up the number of kills, the quality of said kills, as well as grow the understanding of what exactly Crowley is. And did I mention there are more, fouler deaths to enjoy? Even if you don't give two shits about story in your gore films, there is enough blood and guts and dismemberment to keep you going and possibly throw up in your mouth a little.
I don't want to give away any specific plot point or describe in too much detail the kills, but it's tough for me to imagine that fans of the original film will be anything but giddy with Hatchet II. If anything, I might like the sequel just a little bit more because Green has dialed back the humor and bad jokes. There's a lot more angst and grief and raw rage in Hatchet II, and that's entirely appropriate and helps to enhance the fear tremendously. We also get a bit more detail through flashbacks on Crowley's history beyond what we saw in the first film, and that information provides motivation for his existence on earth. Green isn't trying to make a slick, pretty, polished film. He's certainly capable of producing such a product, but the slasher films he/we grew up loving and inspiring us never looked that way. The film doesn't look cheap--especially the effects--but it looks handmade; you can see fingerprints on the work because that's how it's meant to appear.
That being said, I feel I saw more expression on Victor Crowley's face, and less vacant leather mask-looking makeup. Hodder has more to do here as both Victor and his father (in flashbacks), and he pulls off on particularly emotional scene as the dad pretty convincingly. Academy members, I'm talking to you! But this level of analysis almost defeats the purpose of Hatchet II and movies like it. This movie is meant to have you recoiling and retching in your seat, daring you to keep your hands away from your eyes, and testing the limits of even the hardest hardcore horror fanatic. Through a deal with either God or Satan, this movie will play uncut and unrated thanks to AMC Theaters, so you don't have to wait for the DVD release to see it the way Green intended it be shown. Take advantage, see it on the big screen as a communal experience with fellow gore geeks, because that's the only way Hatchet III is getting made.
A Film Unfinished
I think it's fair to call this new documentary a footnote film, but certainly one of the most unbelievable and intriguing footnotes in both the history of filmmaking and and the Holocaust. A Film Unfinished tracks the unveiling of about an hour's worth of raw film footage found in an archive in post-WWII Germany. The canisters labeled "Ghetto" showed what appeared to be a Nazi-made documentary about the Warsaw ghetto circa 1942, but in it the rich Jews would simply sidestep the poor or dead on the street, and Jews in general were asked portrayed in an unflattering and unrealistic manner in the piece. It's clear the film, which has been widely circulated over the decades since its discovery, was to be used to generate negative feelings about Jews, so if rumors of massive transportation of them to camps began to surface, the justification was already established.
But A Film Unfinished brings us something that has never been seen until now--a missing reel featuring outtakes and other scenes from "Ghetto" clearly being staged and shot by the SS filmmakers. Sometimes, we get the same scene shot from different angles or catch a glimpse of a soldier running off screen after having told his "actors" what to do in the next shot. What's most shocking to me is that the Nazis even bothered attempt to show some Jews living it up in this sequestered neighborhoods. Did such images actually make Germans angrier at them? Whatever the truth may be, it's kind of remarkable to get this kind of insight into the making of a true work of notorious propaganda. I was especially shocked at the liberal use of dead bodies (especially those of children) in the original film.
A Film Unfinished fills out its time with some grueling testimonials from survivors of the Warsaw ghetto, some of whom were either in the film as extras, or saw it being made and have very vivid memories what they witnessed. The stories are as gripping as the footage itself and make this film as essential a viewing experience as "Ghetto." Director Yael Hersonski has carefully pieced together this story about process of myth making and flat-out lying during wartime. The German's didn't invent propaganda movies, but they showed a real flare for twisting the truth in the most painful and disgusting way possible. Whether you were aware of "Ghetto" prior to this film's release, depend on A Film Unfinished to immerse you in the phenomenon and chill you to the core. The film opens today at the Landmark Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park.