Archive for September, 2010
In the David Fincher-directed ensemble drama The Social Network, musician-actor Justin Timberlake plays Sean Parker -- the real-life controversial co-founder of file-sharing Web site Napster. Parker was Facebook's first president until his firing in 2005 for a cocaine-related arrest.
In the film, Timberlake portrays Parker as a hard-partying, smooth-talking Internet kingpin who teams up with Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) to bring Zuckerberg's start-up social-networking Web site to the next level with the help of venture capitalists.
When Napster debuted its free file-sharing platform in 1999, both Parker and his site were blamed by the music industry as the preliminary cause of nose-diving profits for record labels and musical artists.
Timberlake -- who found success and fame around 1999 as a member of the pop group *NSYNC -- told AMC News correspondent Jacob Soboroff that, as a musician, he saw the irony in taking on the role of Parker but that he didn't get "caught up in a projection" of Parker's status in the music industry and instead just played the part as written.
Whatever personal growth the internet icon may have undergone since the site's launch, it certainly sounds more appealing than the hyper-active Zuckerberg (a perfectly cast Jesse Eisenberg) does in the film's brilliant opening sequence. At a Harvard tavern, Zuckerberg rants about crewing, which is eventually decrypted as his need to get accepted into one of Harvard's beyond-exclusive finals clubs. So caught up is he in his own rambling, he barely notices when Erica (Rooney Mara) breaks up with him, comparing being his girlfriend to "dating a stairmaster." Back in his dorm, he gets drunk, makes fun of her bra size and creates a website that compares female Harvard students' looks with the click of a button; the site crashes Harvard's servers within a matter of hours.
In this exhaustive detailing of the beginnings of a new tycoon, Sorkin and Fincher's Zuckerberg joins a select group of great cinematic misanthropes whose entire fiscal enterprises are built on the hopes of regaining an emotional tranquility, a certain comfort; the resemblances to Citizen Kane are innumerable. And like Welles's towering tyrant, Zuckerberg's eventual enemies originally count him as a friend or a partner. The most prominent of these adversaries turns out to be Eduardo Saverin (a very good Andrew Garfield), Zuckerberg's roommate and business partner. Saverin was the original funder of Facebook, which was born from an idea to create a MySpace made exclusively for Harvard students; the idea arrives at Zuckerberg via a triptych of Porcellian members, Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) and the Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler, who are both played by Armie Hammer.
The film rotates between a linear narrative and two elongated scenes: the birth and rise of Facebook and two separate depositions, Saverin vs. Zuckerberg and Narenda and the "Winklevii" vs. Zuckerberg. But neither the lawyers nor plaintiffs affect Zuckerberg nearly as much as Sean Parker (a rousing Justin Timberlake), the creator of Napster and a nightmare future vision of Zuckerberg with a more expensive wardrobe. It is Parker who will eventually set in motion the betrayal of Saverin, whom Fincher and Sorkin portray as the holy man in a valley of assholes, a half-truth in a film built from half-truths. Zuckerberg's problems may be understandable, but it's absurd to think that an unbiased and honest portrayal of these incidents could ever be produced, and the mogul himself seems oblivious to the irony that his invention's most visible trait is its obfuscation of reality.
Though not nearly as immersive and ragingly investigatory as Zodiac, The Social Network regains Fincher's precise, artistic detachment which clashed with the saccharine emoting of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a technically astonishing film with a thoroughly pedestrian script. The Social Network maintains Fincher's technical virtuosity: It took a second glance at the credits to confirm that Hammer played both Winklevosses, so seamless was Fincher's direction and Kim Baxter and Angus Wall's editing. This parallel charting of factually-based narratives concerned with the movement of information while using advance movie technology started with the homegrown, techno-freak terrorism of Fight Club, but The Social Network sees Fincher more ambitious in his narrative choices than ever before, his visual and thematic ideas seemingly multiplying uncontrollably within each frame.
All of Fincher's films are transmissions from the digital age, mapping our transition from an essentially time-based and physically located reality to the artificial and imagined communities on the web, and The Social Network, certainly the movie of the year, essentially reveals that Zuckerberg's invention has allowed people not only to create specifically produced and edited versions of themselves but to also create their own community that, especially in Zuckerberg's case, can be completely controlled by the individual. Whether or not Zuckerberg finally feels at home in this home inside his home is another question altogether.
It's the early '80s in Los Alamos, New Mexico. We meet young Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) a very sensitive boy with an absentee father and a drunken mother. Mercilessly picked on by bullies at his school, our distressed hero loses himself in a world of imagined vengeance and lonely days on the apartment complex playground. One chilly winter night, he runs into the barefooted Abby (Chloë Moretz), his new neighbor. Owen is initially intrigued, but the girl makes it very clear the two cannot be friends. Meanwhile, a nameless policeman (Elias Koteas) is investigating a rash of ritualistic murders in the area -- and the clues seem to lead to the man (Richard Jenkins) who acts as Abby's guardian. Soon, Owen discovers the truth about his accidental playmate, and the connection between the two grow stronger...and quite sinister.
Like Steven Spielberg shuttled over to much darker and dense territory, Let Me In is a revelation. It's a work of stunning power, visionary in its use of mood and atmosphere, subversive in the way its story crawls under your skin. Like a carefully controlled poem, director Matt Reeves meticulously crafts every scene to fit within the others, nearly turning the film into a cinematic verse epic in the process. With a cast that carries his minimalistic approach to sublime levels and a story that's both slightly familiar and yet completely innovative, it's like watching the original film with totally new eyes. We know where things are going, but Reeves wants to take us there in a new and inventive way.
From the start, the main leads argue for their ability to anchor a film. Smit-McPhee, rather unimportant in the bland adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, is a marvel here. He is so thin, so part of the period being depicted that he's almost iconic. Every time we see him, we sense another avenue of understanding and emotional dimension opening up. He's the fulcrum around which this entire project revolves. Without him, Let Me In would be less than a success. Luckily, Reeves also cast Ms. Moretz as his supernatural lead, and while not quite as ethereal as little Swedish darling Lina Leandersson, she's her own unique version of the ageless member of the living dead. The vampire element is underplayed here -- it's given mandatory moments of macabre bloodletting, but never really viewed as a true threat or supreme evil. Instead, we are supposed to view the horror of the real world as seen through the eyes of these children and marvel at how they could possibly survive.
In fact, Let Me In is one of the best, boldest coming of age statements ever. It centers on the angst that drives the pre-adolescent, the uneasy feeling of being an outsider and alone in your nonconformity, and then highlights its harmful aftereffects. That said sentiments are expressed in torrents of blood instead of silly psycho-babble proves this film's brilliance. Fans hoping that Reeves would merely avoid screwing things up can finally exhale. Let Me In is one of the best films of 2010 -- with or without its celebrated source material.
Chief among them is Barry himself, played by Patrick Wilson in some sort of impersonation-slash-homage to Will Ferrell's more ridiculous characters. Barry is a schmuck insurance salesman who looks like a reject from Napoleon Dynamite. Yet he fashions himself a ladies' man -- and quite a successful one at that, if we are to believe Barry's on-again off-again narration, in which he waxes with quasi-perspective about the unfortunate setbacks that have befallen him.
"What kind of setbacks?" you might now be asking. Well, Barry has lost his balls. Literally. Out on an impromptu date with a much younger woman, Barry's scrotum is viciously attacked by the girl's father, and he later wakes up on a hospital bed only to discover he is missing what the film frequently and joyously refers to as his "family jewels." The bad news doesn't end there, however; once Barry finally gets back on his feet, he is provided a cruel reminder of the "wild and crazy guy" he once was when he is slapped with a paternity lawsuit from a woman who claims Barry impregnated her.
The woman, Ginger (Judy Greer), is a dorky spinster who claims her encounter with Barry was her first sexual experience. For Barry, who can't even remember the night in question, the news is unfortunate and suspicious, but he nevertheless steps up to support Ginger and the baby. There are several tedious and futile attempts to extend the film's running time, from Ginger's mysterious and nosy Asian neighbor (might he be the real father?) to her sister, inexplicably played by Chloe Sevigny as one of the most annoyingly contradictory supporting characters of all time. At its core, though, Barry Munday is an obvious and off-putting comedy about how "testicles don't make the man." As noble a sentiment as that may be, the world surely doesn't need these unsavory characters to demonstrate it in such an ineloquent manner.
Wilson is a fine actor, one who typically selects challenging, meaty roles. And in spite of the material, his particular characterization of this loser is good for a chuckle. One curious note, however, is his apparent attraction to films where he loses his manhood, both literally and figuratively. Most obviously there is Hard Candy, where his sleazy sexual predator falls prey to the imaginary scalpel of Ellen Page, but also Little Children, where he portrays a tail-between-his-legs immature family man who briefly flirts with emotional freedom, or even Watchmen, where he was a "castrated" superhero robbed of his social significance. His choices have been solid and his reasons are all his own, but Barry Munday might be proof that this particular thematic obsession has been suitably depleted of quality.
The same could be said of the film's form, which takes Uncomfortable Indie Awkwardness to an unnecessary extreme. Barry Munday's screenplay, by successful Broadway scribe and first-time feature film director Chris D'Arienzo, seems to forget the notion that simply parading losers in front of the camera and filming them at odd angles does not make a movie funny or interesting. It isn't funny that Judy Greer wears giant glasses and tacky dresses, nor is it funny when Patrick Wilson sings about his awesomeness while scrubbing his nether regions in the shower (okay, maybe that is a little funny). With characters this grating, one wonders how much better Barry Munday might have been had all these good performers just acted normal.
Seth Gordon (The King of Kong) was put in charge of the introduction and interstitial pieces, which set a strangely giddy tone right from the start that jars mightily with some of the more serious material. To a bubbly, Carl Orff-ripoff musical backdrop, Gordon interviews poised and Gen. Petraeus-like Levitt (as the film would have it, a "rogue" University of Chicago economics professor) and the rumpled Dubner (the journalist who helped humanize Levitt's theories) about what Freakonomics is all about. Levitt puts it all down to utilizing data to illustrate different examples of his dictum that "human beings respond to incentives." The idea is that pouring metrics into different situational molds can create surprising results or lead to insights about human nature. That the Steves get along famously is well evident from Gordon's pieces - why he thought we needed these chummy introductions to the meat of the matter is hard to fathom.
Things continue on their rocky way with the first segment, A Roshanda by Any Other Name, by Morgan Spurlock. The Super Size Me one-trick artist shows his most irritating side in this facile rumination on baby naming conventions. Starting with the uncontroversial idea that reading parenting books isn't going to help new parents that much (the fact that they've bothered to read those books is more an indication of how they'll be at raising children), the piece sideswipes into an ill-considered tangent on the differences between names for white and black children, helped not at all by Spurlock's decision to stage reenactments for some of his anecdotes, and try for cheap humor during the whole bit.
Although directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing bring their usual empathic style (used so well in the harrowing Jesus Camp and revelatory 12th & Delaware) to the self-explanatory segment Can a 9th Grader Be Bribed to Succeed?, the final result is hardly more memorable than Spurlock's. The piece follows an experiment run by Levitt's department at a beaten-down Chicago high school where the freshmen are paid cash prizes for good grades. Grady and Ewing follow a couple of students -- one particularly dead-end skate kid who just figures he'll join the army after flunking out, and a precocious underachiever who matches an AP-potential brain with a Mad TV mouth -- through the ups and downs of the experiment, but don't get much of anywhere in the end. Their slow-burn style needs more room.
The high point in a film of mostly low ones is Taxi to the Dark Side director Alex Gibney's lacerating Pure Corruption. A beautifully composed study on the microlevel of what happened in Japan when rampant cheating in sumo wrestling was uncovered, morphs into a larger examination of cheating on a worldwide scale. While it can seem a stretch to equate the 2008 market meltdown to nearly-naked giants tussling in arenas, Gibney and his interviewees do a fine job deciphering what lies behind the posed question of "what happens to markets when people cheat?" One answer posited by this neon-lit, haunting piece is that as long as cheating is hidden from view and the pride of purity (whether in a nationalistic sport or a free-market fantasy) is kept intact, cheating may actually be good for business.
The most controversial equation in Levitt and Dubner's book was the chapter which argued that the stark falloff in American crime rates that started in the early 1990s could have been attributable less to societal changes or shifts in policing policy than it was to the legalization of abortion in 1973. (The fewer unwanted young males hanging around some two decades later could likely be responsible for the drop in crime.) Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) puts a curiously flat spin on this inflammatory theory with his half-successful It's (Not Always) A Wonderful Life. Gravelly narration by Melvin Van Peebles lays out the stark facts against a distracting animated backdrop and a footage collage of Rudy Giuliani soundbites and shots of revolution in Romania (whose 1966 outlawing of abortion, and subsequent doubling of the birth rate, is posited as having led to the overthrow of Ceaucescu).
Some brain-teasing moments rise above the clutter in Jarecki's segment, but like the film as a whole, it never gels into anything even resembling an intellectual discourse -- or even a particularly solid argument. While this can't be blamed on the (mostly) sterling band of filmmakers gathered for the experiment, it remains odd how ill-formed most of their work was -- one directorial vision would have been a better direction.
Where's Errol Morris when you need him?
Our star plays Emily Jenkins, an overwrought social worker trying to maneuver the maniacal bureaucracy of her glorified governmental position. Already handling 38 stress-inducing cases, she is nonetheless larded with number 39 -- 10-year-old Lillith Sullivan (Jodelle Ferland). With her grades dropping and signs of neglect everywhere, Lilith becomes an instant priority, and when Jenkins shows up with cop buddy Mike Barron (Ian McShane) and discovers the parents trying to lock the child in the oven, the girl is immediately rescued. Concerned that the state will not protect Lillith, Jenkins takes the unusual step of fostering the girl herself.
Without warning, odd things start happening. A young boy who Jenkins works with murders his parents. Then, a child psychologist friend named Douglas Ames (Bradley Cooper) dies mysteriously. It's not long before Jenkins is thinking that Lillith has something to do with these deaths. A visit to the prison holding the girl's parents confirms her worst fears. It is now up to our heroine to destroy the evil entity before it swallows her soul -- and then finds another adoptive family to infiltrate and destroy.
Nothing good has ever come out of a delayed release -- and Case 39 is limping, languid proof of such an industry adage. Director Christian Alvart obvious sparked some studio interest with his German crime drama Antibodies. He was immediately tagged to take on this Zellweger vanity project, and then moved on to attempt the Event Horizon rip-off Pandorum. In both cases, his ambitions couldn't match his moviemaking acumen. Case 39 is overlong, clocking in at nearly 110 minutes, and underdeveloped. We expect a combination of The Bad Seed and The Exorcist. What we get instead is lots of Zellweger's puffy pout, her slit-eyed superficiality, and way too many CG hornets. We want to see pre-adolescent fire and brimstone. The final cut only offers flatness and boredom.
Granted, there are individual moments here and there where Alvart gets things going. When Jenkins discovers the truth about Lillith and locks herself in her well barricaded bedroom, the wooden door stand-off with the kid is sensational. Similarly, the paranormal payback our villainenss bestows upon her parents is terrific. But these are limited examples of movie macabre splash. For the most part, Case 39 is a drawn out deconstruction of child welfare and those who struggle within the system. We know almost nothing about how Lillith became "possessed", or perhaps more directly, how she became a Satanic spawn. The ethics over playing guardian for such a little Lucifer? We learn them by rote.
A few years back, multi-Oscar winner Hillary Swank headed down similar scare territory with her Beelzebub-on-the-Bayou effort The Reaping. Clearly, Case 39 could learn a thing or two from that earlier Revelation-based spectacle. It's always better to show your impending doom than talk about it incessantly, and yet Zellweger and co. can't help but yak away mercilessly. Before long, we wish the mean ol' Mangoat himself would appear just to shut everybody up. Unlike a fine wine, Case 39 did not benefit from sitting around in storage. Instead of being creepy, it's corked.