Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Waiting For 'Superman' (**1/2)

Directed by Davis Guggenheim


I grew up in a suburb outside of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and spent my entire education in a public school system that I was convinced was teaching me close to nothing. I graduated from McArthur High School in the Class of 2007, in which only thirty-two percent of the seniors actually were able to pass and get their diploma on time. I'm currently a senior at the University of Central Florida, and according to the new documentary Waiting For 'Superman', this makes me a statistical marvel. The film takes aim at the American public school system and exposes some grave gaps in the institutions that teach our children and presents very poignant examples of children and families that are bucked by the system. It also gives us a bevy of information that pushes a specific agenda led by good teachers.

The film begins with its director, Davis Guggenheim, talking about he film he made in 1999, entitled The First Year, which chronicled the year of three dedicated public school teachers in an attempt to prove the values of the American public school system. But these days, with his own children, he fears placing them in mediocre schools with dilapidated buildings and sub-par teachers. He'd rather shell out the extra cash to put them in a private school and secure that their education is first-rate. But how did his ideals change so drastically? As a man who preached the value of public school, how could he not practice his own sermon? Guggenheim explains that he has the advantage of having the choice, and in Waiting For 'Superman', he attempts to show the stories of families that aren't so lucky.

We see three children and their families. All of them come from disadvantaged neighborhoods, and all three kids have parents or grandparents who have trouble raising money just to put food on the table, let alone take their children to a private school. They seem doomed to a public school system that pushes less then intelligent students early on without proper attention, and allows them to fester once they get to the tougher grade levels. There is one hope, though, and that is the publically financed, but independently owned charter schools that rank amongst the best schools in their respective districts. Because these charter schools are high in demand, there are not enough open spaces for all the applicants, and students are chosen not by performance, but by a random lottery.

At the end of the film, we watch five separate children as their academic lives are held by the random sequence of either a lottery ball or Tupperware box filled with names or a computer that picks names through an equation. It's the emotional high-point of the film, if only because we know that its a documentary and the happy ending isn't confirmed like it is in narrative films. We become relatively close to these children throughout the film, and it seems almost humiliating that their opportunity for getting into a good school is showcased by a public display that is guaranteed to send close to all the families home disappointed. Should being able to attend a good school be this difficult? Why are the odds be so stacked against lower-income families? These are the various questions that Guggenheim attempts to address in his film.

Much like Guggenheim's 2006 Oscar-winning film An Inconvenient Truth, the filmmaker is able to show us a plethora of graphs and statistics to prove how disfigured our public school system is. When giving us a stat that says over sixty percent of high school dropouts end up in prison, he also summizes that simply sending that same sixty-percent to a better school for four years and giving them a proper education would not only be better for society, but it would save over $100,000 in government money. Now, I'm not crazy about the concept that all high school dropouts are going to prison (we have tons of evidence that shows otherwise), or that any criminal given a proper education can be rehabilitated, but some of the statistics that we are shown are flabbergasting.

We are shown interviews with various interviews with education bureaucrats, including Michelle Rhee, the public school Chancellor of Washington, D.C. - one of the worst counties in the country for education. She made news by closing twenty-three schools and firing nineteen principals, and while her radical methods were heavily criticized at first, but slowly her ideas were adopted and D.C. students are slowly getting better educations. We also hear from Geoffrey Canada, a pioneer for the idea of charter schools. He's established 'Kipp Academy' schools across the country, usually in the poorer neighborhoods in the country. Canada's love for teaching and children is obvious and infectious, and though the charters are forced by government law to accept students via random lotteries, basic stats show that students going to these independently run charters are getting exceptionally better grades.

One thing is obvious to everyone inside the film and outside the film: what makes a school work is good, passionate teachers. As Canada explains, a great teacher is as rare as a professional athlete; it needs dedication, work, and consistency. Too often, Guggenheim's film takes aim at the Teacher's Union for sticking up for mediocre teachers and public school tenure (isn't that what a union is for?), instead of adopting Canada's line of thinking. Not that teachers can't be blamed, since I know first hand that a bad teacher's damage could be irreversible. I'm just not in agreement with the idea that breaking the strong Teacher's Union holds the key to making public schools better. Too much of Waiting For 'Superman' shows teachers slacking off, waiting for tenure, and then taking it easy. Not nearly enough time is shown of good teachers working hard for their students, who not only earn their tenure, but continue to work hard after they get it.

If we're looking for a sole reason as to why education has dipped in our country, one stat that Guggenheim shows us seems shine some light on it. Compared with thirty major nations across the world, we rank near the bottom in almost all school subjects. But we rank first in confidence. I guess the children of our country need a serious humbling. Guggenheim has shown his ability as a filmmaker, and Waiting For 'Superman' has some incredibly touching, occasionally crushing moments. All of that, unfortunately, has to do with the children whose hope dangles helplessly in a random process. It's when Guggenheim tries to use statistics to push his own misguided agenda where the message starts to get muddled. Schools can be better, I agree. But I went through that same system, and I came out okay.

'Blue Valentine' Gets Smashed by MPAA

I'm coming on a little late to this news on December release Blue Valentine, but seeing as the film's first trailer has just been released, I figure I can compound the two announcements. Once again, the MPAA has come out in controversial fashion when they handed the film by first-time director Derek Cianfrance an NC-17 rating. Many who've been able to see the film at festivals earlier this year have all decried this decision as erroneous and unfortunate (most of the wrath from the MPAA seems to be coming from a scene where the two characters go down on each other). If anything, it's a box office kiss of death, but that isn't a particularly big deal since I'm not sure how big the audience for this film will be to begin with. But combine that with its misguided December 31st release date, it seems like this modestly-scaled romance, with two incredibly talented young actors in Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, might get completely swallowed by the Christmas glut of more showier films like True Grit and The Fighter. More then anything, it complicates any possible path toward an Academy Award. Seeing as Cianfrance doesn't seem compelled to appeal or cut the film for a more amicable 'R' rating, I guess gold statues isn't the first thing on his mind. Which is fine, but I would have enjoyed the Oscar season a lot more, I feel, if Blue Valentine was going to be a big part of it. Well, whatever happens, the film will come out at the end of December.

**Update (10/14/10)**: The film's distributor, The Weinstein Company, has decided to appeal this rating. Here's Harvey Weinstein's statement: "We want to express our deepest gratitude to our colleagues in the industry and in the media for their recent outpouring of support for Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine after the film surprisingly received an NC-17 rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. We are taking every possible step to contest the MPAA’s decision. We respect the work of the MPAA and we hope, after having a chance to sit down with them, they will see that our appeal is reasonable, and the film, which is an honest and personal portrait of a relationship, would be significantly harmed by such a rating."

Here's the first trailer of Blue Valentine:

Friday, October 8, 2010

Never Let Me Go (***1/2)

Directed by Mark Romanek


I guess I understand why the posters and trailers for Never Let Me Go try to hide the fact that it's a science fiction film. It's a genre that has become overloaded in various cliches (usually involving space ships and extra-terrestrials), and when films like this (dealing with human emotions and love) come along, it's hard to really market it successfully. There was a similar issue in 2006 with Children of Men, a sci-fi masterpiece that also dealt with more humane characters. Universal botched the marketing on its release, and though it's now considered a contemporary classic, you couldn't pay someone to see it when it first came out. I don't know if Never Let Me Go will have the same fate, but you can't blame the promotions for pushing the "We have an amazing cast!" angle. Especially when you consider that the cast includes three of the most talented and exciting English actors working today.

In Hailsham Academy during the mid-1970's, a large group of children are taught and housed in a very strict, intentional fashion. Every child is watched over by the academy's headmistress Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling) with a terse eye. They're never allowed to leave the estate or interact with any other children who may be from outside of Hailsham. Three of those children are Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth, whose intelligence seems to be higher then the rest of the students. Tommy is an outsider amongst the rest of the boys and is known for throwing wild, violent tantrums, but Kathy offers him friendship because she finds him to be a sensitive alternative to the rest of the rowdy boys and takes a liking to him. Soon after, with almost spiteful haste, Kathy's best friend Ruth offers Tommy her heart and he accepts as Kathy watches with rampant jealousy.

The children are not totally privy as to why they are holed up in at Hailsham, but when a new guardian, Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), comes to teach their class, she becomes overwhelmed by what she has seen and spills the truth to them: they are clones created to give organs for people who may otherwise die. They are part of a medical system developed in the last century that has helped create cures for many terminal illnesses, and they will likely not even live to middle age. Immediately after stating the truth, Miss Lucy is dismissed, but Kathy, Tommy and Ruth never forget what they've learned. Later, when they're eighteen, Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield), are moved to The Cottages where they prepare for their lives as "donors".

By this time, Ruth and Tommy's relationship has matured sexually but not emotionally. Kathy watches them from afar, still hurt that her friend would steal her crush, but still too timid to disrupt their relationship. In The Cottages, the three learn of a rumor: if two donors can prove that they love each other, they can request a "deferment", which can give the two in love at least a few years of freedom to be together before they're sent off for surgeries. Ruth and Tommy seem genuinely interested in the idea, but Kathy has grown weary thinking of their future and applies to become a "carer", which is someone who looks after the donors as they depreciate during their surgeries. But being a carer doesn't totally dismiss your donor responsibility. It only postpones it, and Kathy begins to see if she can find a way to experience this "deferment" she'd heard of, before she loses her chance.

The film is based on the acclaimed novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. Like the film, the book is broken into three equal parts: the Hailsham childhood years, the teenage years at The Cottages, and lastly, the adult years before "completion". I'm not sure how much the film benefits from having such a strict adherence to the source material's structure. The film's few pace issues could have been solved by shaving quite a bit off of the first segment. But then again, I've never been a fan of the thirty-minute childhood prologue (which explains my distaste for the 1996 film Shine), so this could be just a matter of taste. I do think it helps my case, though, when you consider how much more exciting and interesting the last two-thirds of the film are.

A lot of that has to do with the tremendous collection of acting talent. Mulligan, Garfield, and Knightley all deliver first-rate performances and each perfectly create a distinct, nuanced character, complimenting each other exquisitely (in a fair world, both Mulligan and Knightley would be in line for Oscar nominations, but that doesn't seem like the forecast). As other films like The Island have shown, it's difficult to tell the story of a "clone", but Never Let Me Go doesn't really seem to get hung up on problems like that. Instead, the film treats them as they should be, like real people. The fact that they are not de facto people doesn't prevent screenwriter Alex Garland (also wrote the two Danny Boyle films 28 Days Later... and Sunshine) from treating them as though they are. For all the hangups I may have felt hampered the first third of the screenplay, Garland's script is incredibly absorbing, filled with just enough drama and intrigue to allow the viewer to really care.

The film was directed by Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo and more interestingly - as I found on IMDB - the music video for Michael Jackson's "Scream"), who is able to successfully pull off the balance between the sci-fi and romance elements. Any trailer would have someone figuring that Never Let Me Go was just a stuffy romantic costume drama, but it's a lot more dense then that. There are several levels of emotional turmoil here and Romanek balances all of the thematic elements pretty competently. Sure, it helps when you have Mulligan, Garfield, and Knightley to express the emotional core of your themes, but there have been other films with better casts that weren't able to generate the emotional reaction that this film does.

I can see some people seeing Never Let Me Go and being a bit disappointed with its science fiction elements. If all I knew about the film was from the trailer, I would have figured it to be a well-cast period romance. Not that the film isn't a period romance, but when you bring any kind of clone into the mix, you're bound to trigger certain prejudices from the audience. Whatever category you may try to shoehorn the film into being, it succeeds because it deftly defies both romance and science fiction. It carries various aspects of genre while being earnest enough to rise above it. The best way to break away from genre pitfalls is to make sure that the characters come first, and Never Let Me Go makes sure that they're telling a story about people - well, kind of.

Buried (***)

Directed by Rodrigo Cortés


It takes some serious sack to pull off a film like Buried. On the surface, it just seems like a giant, suspense film gimmick - even its throwback poster seems more like homage then actual serious filmmaking. An entire film taking place in a claustrophobic coffin, and all we see is one man with a lighter, a flashlight, and a cell phone. Doesn't seem like it works, but it does here, thanks to a great performance from Ryan Reynolds and creative, at times innovative work from director Rodrigo
Cortés, cinematographer Eduard Grau, and music composer Victor Reyes.

The plot is deceptively simple. Paul Conroy (Reynolds) is an American contractor working in Iraq in 2006. He wakes up in a wooden coffin, with only inches of space in each direction. He's bound and gagged, but he's able to get out of them pretty quickly and effortlessly. All he has is his zippo lighter to light the inside. He tries to punch and fight his way out at first, but he recognizes rather soon that all of that is futile. He begins to notice small grains of sand seeping through the cracks in the wood, and he realizes that he's underground. The stress of it causes him to have an explosion of hysteria, while attempting more pointless escape attempts.

But the story kicks in when he notices a cell phone ringing by his feet. He kicks the phone up to his head and begins calling various people: his wife, his boss, the FBI. Occasionally, he's able to speak to someone who can offer him very little help. More often, he's only able to get someone's voice mail, leaving panicked messages without a contact number. He gets a call from an Iraqi man demanding $5 million in less than two hours in order to get him out and Paul scrambles to see how he can accomplish that. He begins talking to another man who's responsible for rescuing hostages overseas, but this man says that there is no negotiating with terrorists. Paul's paranoia begins to grow as Brenner searches for him unsuccessfully and Jabir continues to give him threatening phone calls.

A movie like this only works if you get a virtuoso performance from your lead actor, and that's exactly what Buried gets from Ryan Reynolds. I highly doubt that Reynolds spent the entirety of filming in a tiny wooden coffin, but watching the film you would think that he has. His performance encompasses high anxiety and yet has a stubborn wherewithal to keep you interested for an hour and a half. We understand his flare-ups and empathize with his occasional lack of tact. I've always liked Reynolds despite his penchant for making films (Smokin' Aces, Blade Trinity, and Van Wilder) that I've thought were way below his talent level. But for anyone who's watched those performances have known that he's capable of greatness, and Buried is the first time we've seen that potential materialize.

Now, to be fair, this film is an actor's dream; it's a film totally dependent on your performance, and if you nail it, then you're bound to create something tremendous. It's easy to get caught up in the gimmick of the coffin, but you would never buy into it if Reynolds wasn't as good as he is. Not that the director,
Cortés, is not just as exceptional. As hard as it may seem to act inside a coffin the size of a pillbox, I imagine it would be just as hard to direct a film inside of one. The film sits at 95 minutes and it doesn't feel a second longer. With the help of cinematographer Eduard Grau, Cortés keeps the film moving both figuratively and literally. We are so far into Paul Conroy's point of view, that we ourselves feel the time ticking away, all the while still aware of the inventive shots that are spread throughout the film.

Cortés is careful to recognize his influences, as Alfred Hitchcock's fingerprints lay all over this film. Everything from the descending/ascending title sequence, to the manic Psycho-like score by Victor Reyes. While I'd never compare Buried to Vertigo or Rear Window anytime soon, I don't think Hitchcock ever visualized claustrophobia and panic as well as it's done here. It is really a brilliant display of suspense, since it never allows itself to relax. Even in its slower, more precise moments (a scene where Paul calls his Dementia-afflicted mother is particularly effective), the constant mania of the situation is always apparent and driving the film in a solid forward movement.

It's hard to write a lot about a film that has essentially one actual scene. But it may seem strange that after praising the film as mush as I have, that I only gave it three stars. Well, I have a very deliberate reason for that. SPOILER ALERT: This film would be damn near perfect if it weren't marred by a final three minutes that is more cruel to its audience then anything else I've ever seen. I don't mind somber endings, but when a filmmaker goes out of his way to manipulate the viewers' emotions for little more then his own amusement I simply get upset. I enjoyed the first eighty-five minutes of Buried more then I enjoyed most films that I've seen this year. I did not like the ending. That's right, I didn't like it that much.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Catfish (****)

Directed by Ariel Schulman & Henry Joost


As much as I loved The Social Network, there was an aspect of the film that I felt was missing. It's not a film's fault if it doesn't address the concepts that I wanted it to address, but it can cause a viewer to feel a bit empty when you hope for something that never comes. I was hoping the film would discuss the more dangerous aspects of Facebook, its leading to the downfall of true identity. Secret lives are now created all over the internet, using various Facebook-like social networking sites. We delude ourselves into thinking that we know more people then ever before, but the quality of our "knowing" has now depreciated because of Facebook, and I hoped that the "Facebook movie" would ponder a bit on that. Instead, we got a film about a young man trying to find a way to impress and win back a girl he briefly dated. And that film was exceptional, even though it wasn't what I wanted. Catfish, on the other hand, gave me exactly what I asked for.

**Before I write anything, I should probably say that most of the charm of Catfish comes from the absolute shock of the events that unfold. The more you know about the elements behind it, the less the film will reach its fullest effect. So, I feel its my responsibility to tell you that if you plan on going to see the film and truly enjoy it, you should go in with a blank slate. This may mean that my review here may be detrimental to that. I'll do my best to avoid spoilers that could harm the intended reaction of the film, but if you are spoiler-phobic (and there are many of you), feel free to leave now and come back after you've seen the film so we can discuss.** Now, that the housekeeping is finished, I'll continue.

When photographer Yaniv Schulman is sent a painting of one of his published photos by an eight-year-old painter named Abby, he's astounded by how good the work is. Yaniv and Abby begin an open correspondence over email, and Abby begins sending him numerous painted copies of his photographs. This captures the eye of filmmakers Ariel Schulman (Yaniv's older brother) and Henry Joost, and they decide to film Yaniv as his relationship with the young girl begins to blossom. They film as Yaniv keeps getting paintings, but then Yaniv gets a chance to speak to Abby's mother Angela, who is just as surprised as everyone else with her daughter's brilliant gift in art. Yaniv becomes friends with Angela on Facebook.

As Yaniv continues his transactions with Abby, he gets deeper into her family. On Facebook, he becomes friends with Abby's father Vince, her brother Ryan and several other cousins and family friends, including her half-sister Megan. Megan sends Yaniv personal messages thanking him for his interest in her little sister, and soon she is actually sending him flirtatious text messages and having long conversations with him over the phone. But (for reasons I won't explain here) Megan's actions begin to become more and more suspicious, leaving Yaniv, Ariel and Henry to question the peculiar nature of this cyber-family. Frustrated and confused, Yaniv takes Ariel and Henry with him to Abby's home in Michigan to confront Megan and Angela on their strange behavior. What they uncover upon their arrival is something that is as astonishing as it is heartbreaking, proving how little they knew about Abby's family after all.

We live in a climate of cynicism, and in the era of Joaquin Phoenix's disastrous coup I'm Still Here, that cynicism has spilled into the world of documentary cinema. But whether or not Catfish really is 100% legitimate doesn't really effect my response to the film, because what it says about our society is incredibly potent and effective either way. As The Social Network explains expertly, all of Facebook's popularity is based upon people trying to get closer to other people they're sexually attracted to. It's voyeurism that's legal because we put ourselves out there to be spied on. There are people who live their entire lives on Facebook, but there is also a more ominous minority, whose lives are Facebook. Catfish is about that minority, and the dangerous nature of developing relationships with people within that minority. You never know what's going to come out in reality.

I could probably praise the filmmaking of Schulman and Joost, but what's great about Catfish has very little to do with them. If anything, the film does a good job of showing that their fear came very close to sabotaging their own uncovering. It's the people in front of the camera that really fascinate us. As I sat in the theater, there were many people who chuckled at some of the experiences in the film. This was not an indulged laughter coming from something funny in the movie, but a chuckle bubbling up from a brewing storm of discomfort welling inside of them. Facebook has totally sucked in most of the country (and, I can only assume, a lot of the world), and a lot of the attraction comes from the ability to act cryptically in a way that we haven't been allowed to before. I've got a feeling that more people can relate to Yaniv's complex online relationship than I'd like to think about.

I really feel that documentary cinema has been at its peak in the last decade, thanks to guys like Michael Moore, Alex Gibney, and Charles Ferguson, who have imbued the usually sterile genre with real heart, passion and (that dirty word) bias. This film was produced by Andrew Jarecki, the man behind one of the greatest documentaries I've ever seen, Capturing The Friedmans, that excelled because it repelled the oncoming style of making documentaries more cinematic. In Alex Gibney's and Michael Moore's films, they are the stars. In Catfish and Friedmans, their subjects are the stars, and their lives are so interesting and at times depraved and shocking. Closer to Terry Zwigoff's masterpiece Crumb. Now, I won't go as far as to call Catfish a masterpiece, since there are times when it takes its own technological wrinkle and overexposes its own cuteness. But it is relevant and it is good. I think more people will go see Catfish as opposed to most documentaries, but I'm not sure too many will learn the lesson. That lesson that was missing in The Social Network.

Let Me In (***1/2)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Matt Reeves


When I saw the 2008 Swedish film Let The Right One In, I was blown away. This doesn't happen to me often when it comes to horror films - particularly ones about vampires. So, there was some trepidation when I first heard that there would be an American remake. With the Twilight craze at the multiplexes and the HBO show True Blood becoming a huge success on television, it would be so easy to take the modest brilliance of the first film and turn it into another lazy horror romance (with the blatant sexuality of True Blood mixed with the chaste, teasing nature of Twilight, I think they've essentially maxed out their audience with vampire films). Luckily for fans of the original Swedish film, Let Me In is a faithful remake that compliments itself and the original quite exquisitely.

All the same plot points are there: Owen (The Road's Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a fragile, soft-spoken young man, who lives alone with his pious, alcoholic mother (Cara Buono). His parents are going through a tumultuous divorce, and his mother doesn't even allow him to speak to his father. Owen's only outlets seem to be Now and Later candies, and putting on ominous masks while having fantasies of being a threatening, violent figure - stabbing trees with pocket knives, pretending their little girls. At school, he's tormented by a troubled bully (Dylan Minnette) who originally teases with innocent pranks in class, but quickly escalates to atomic wedgies and threats of further violence.

When Owen notices that he has new neighbors in the apartment next door, he quietly investigates from his window. He sees a young girl, walking in the snow with no shoes on, her eyes on the ground, looking inconspicuous. She's accompanied by a much older man (Richard Jenkins), who could only reasonably be her father. As Owen plays in the courtyard of his complex, playing out another one of his sadistic fantasies, he is visited by the shoeless young girl. Her name is Abby (Chloe Moretz, of Kick-Ass and 500 Days of Summer fame). She tells Owen almost immediately that she cannot be his friend, but she instantly intrigues him. When they meet again on the courtyard, he gives her a Rubik's Cube as a gift, and she solves it in one night.

The relationship between Owen and Abby grows quickly. He takes her to play video games in the local grocery store and he tries to buy her Now and Laters, but she declines. He doesn't ask her many questions about why she doesn't go to school or go out during the day, or about her mysterious father who takes suspicious trips out in the middle of the night. He just knows that he likes her very much, and soon, Abby shares his feelings. But as they become closer, Abby's real identity becomes clearer. She lives on human blood. When she doesn't seek out people to kill and suck out their blood, she asks her "father" to go out and murder men to drain out the blood for her. It becomes clear that Abby and her "father" (as we learn soon, it's actually her former lover now grown much older than her stunted age of 12) are responsible for a string of brutal murders in the city.

As a remake, Let Me In works because it's just close enough to the original to please fans of the 2008 version, but all its subtle changes actually improve the film. Not that Let Me In is better then Let The Right One In - I find it silly to compare the two since both are exceptional. I simply find them high-quality companion pieces. It's obvious that writer-director Matt Reeves (director of Cloverfield) is not interested in simply taking a successful foreign film and transforming it into his own. Instead, Reeves makes an almost identical film that pays homage to the original while also exposing American audiences to a film that they probably have never gotten around to seeing. If anything positive happens, let's hope its that more American moviegoers go back and watch the 2008 Swedish film. Because Let Me In is so delicate in its retelling, it doesn't feel like the fraudulence of Gus van Sant's version of Psycho or Michael Haneke's ill-conceived remake of his own film Funny Games.

But enough about Let The Right One In. Matt Reeve's film has many things that stand on its own. The performances of Smit-McPhee and Moretz are both satisfying in ways that help us understand their unorthodox romance. The film plays with that wobbling balance of innocence and sexuality. We're not chastised here the way we are with Twilight, that likes the idea of goading its audience with beautiful people on the screen. Instead, we are shown the bright insecurity of childhood, whether it be the need to experience love before we're ready to comprehend it or the chronic fear of bullying in middle school hallways. Few times has childhood been shown more accurately then here, capturing children's feverish fantasies and suppressed, misguided perversions.

It also works well as a suspense. Sure, I could call it Hitchcockian, but the more appropriate allusion is to early Polanski and the Stanley Kubrick of The Shining. With a subplot involving a dedicated police detective (played by a bespeckled Elias Koteas) searching for the people responsible for the gruesome murders, there is an interesting undercurrent of menace. We empathize with Abby for the entire film, because we can reconcile her addiction. But that does not mean that we shy away from her more ghastly characteristics. Based only on my memory, Let Me In seemed to be a lot more bloody and grisly then the original, but it doesn't feel like a remake's gluttonous revamping, but more like what the original would have done, had their budget been a bit more amiable.

It's a shame that this will be released within the vacuum of vampire mania, since most audiences may dismiss it as just one of many. It cuts deeper then the conflicts of most vampire flicks, treating vampirism more like an affliction. No sparkling in the daylight or abrasive sex covered in other people's guts, but a need for blood that matches a junkie's need for heroin. As I said before, I had my reservations when I heard Let The Right One In was going to be Americanized, but having seen it, I'm glad it has happen. I'm always happy to see a superior film in theaters, especially at a time when studios are trying less and less. But it's an American film that notices how evolved European films appear to be, and gives them credit. I like to see that modesty every now and then.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Social Network (***1/2)

Directed by David Fincher


It happened in a moment. But when it did, it was irreversible. Eight years ago, nobody knew what Facebook was. Today, for all young people, a world without Facebook seems like a world without television or Oxygen (for some). When a cultural phenomena sparks and flies as quickly as Facebook has this past decade, it seems almost inevitable that there would be a film made about it. Leave it to David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin to take this concept and develop it into a film that is fully engrossing and entertaining, even if it does lack a plentiful amount of information and facts.

The popular site was started by Mark Zuckerberg who, in this film, is a very sarcastic, defiant persona embodied by Jesse Eisenberg. We learn very early that he is involved in two very serious, very expensive lawsuits - one against his best friend. But the creation of Facebook begins well before all that, when he is a student at Harvard. He has just been dumped mercilessly by his girlfriend Emily (Rooney Mara). Afterward, he is inspired to go on a late night bender, developing a website that takes a photo of every girl in the school and asks you to compare "who is hotter?". He hacks into the school's database to get the pictures of every girl on campus and gets the site into the Harvard internet server, all while blogging about it relentlessly and being drunk on beer. By four o'clock in the morning, the site has gotten so many hits in that one night that it overloads the entire internet server and it crashes down.

Embarrassed and shocked that Mark defeated their internet security system so easily, the Harvard AD board put Mark on academic probation for six months. By that time, though, his name has become synonymous with infamy across campus and he catches the eye of the wealthy, pro-rowing brothers Cameron Winklevoss (Armie Hammer) and Tyler Winklevoss (Josh Pence). They approach him with the idea for a Harvard social networking site. When Mark asks why it is different from other sites like MySpace or Friendster, they reply with the magic word: exclusivity. Mark agrees to join the project, and asks his best friend Eduardo (Andrew Garfield) to put up the money for the development process and be the business manager. Of course, Mark doesn't mention the Winklevosses to Eduardo and as Mark's rapid development of "The Facebook" gets more and more sophisticated (relationship statuses, photo collections, The Wall), he decides to launch the site on his own.

Very quickly, the site grows throughout Harvard and the Winklevosses are understandably indignant that Mark would take their idea and go forward with it on his own. Mark says that they only offered him the concept, but he is the one who really invented Facebook. When Eduardo learns of the Winklevosses, he's distressed to find that their idea may not have been completely original. Facebook begins to expand to universities across the country, including Stanford, where it's discovered by Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake). When Sean meets with them, he woos them with ideas of complete expansion and becoming billionaires. But as Sean's influence becomes bigger and bigger, Eduardo's becomes smaller and smaller until it is nearly nonexistent. Just as the the site's popularity is reaching its apex, Mark is being sued by both Eduardo and the Winklevosses for tens of millions of dollars.

The film is an adaptation of the book "The Accidental Billionaires" by Ben Mezrich, which is well-known to be rooted almost entirely in fiction. Zuckerberg himself has spoken out against the film, and who could blame him; it certainly paints him as narcissistic and sleazy. In many ways, this is a film truly about Mark trying to become less of an asshole, except that he never succeeds (in other words: if I were Zuckerberg, I'm not sure I'd be the biggest fan either). The book was adapted by Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame, and he turns this tale into a rapidly-paced travel through the renaissance of social media that was Facebook. Sorkin does an impeccable job of keeping the pace moving and the dialogue sharp, so that we're never overwhelmed by the avalanche of technological and legal jargon that the film shoves down our throat throughout.

Surely, there are many moments when the film wants to have it both ways: to be a formal piece of historical fiction and a witty retelling with clever showcases of pithy dialogue. Throughout the entire movie, I was struck by this one realization: I'm not sure the world within this film really exists. Sure, it would be amazing if it did, I'd like to see twin brothers like the Winklevosses speak in rhythmic patterns of repartee. Everyone in this universe seems like a professional humorist - even the Dean of Harvard is a master of quick-witted banter. That said, this is probably the greatest film that Sorkin has ever written (also penned Charlie Wilson's War, An American President, and A Few Good Men), since he has finally allowed his Mamet-like skills with dialogue and pace to be part of a film that can actually employ it effectively. He's no longer forced to bog down his style with political intrigue, but instead is set free in a way that has never been seen and what follows is a stupendous display of dialogue.

And those words are put into some very capable, young actors that deliver this script in a very proficient and effective way. Jesse Eisenberg, in playing Zuckerberg, shows once again his uncanny ability to pick roles that he'll be good at. After Zombieland and how big this film is sure to be, he should finally be the nebbish, alternative movie star we've been waiting for since Woody Allen decided to stop acting. Rashida Jones, Brenda Song, as well as Garfield, Hammer, Pence, and Mara, all give exceptional supporting performances. But the key performance to this excellent film is Justin Timberlake (a sentence I never thought I'd write on this blog). Out of everyone, Timberlake is the only actor who perfectly understands Sorkin's cross between snarky shrewdness and human drama, and his scenes are the most vibrant and exciting. Yeah, I'm talking about that Justin Timberlake.

On the David Fincher scale, The Social Network is a whole lot closer to the brilliant Se7en and Zodiac then it is to the overblown, overwrought, overrated Fight Club and Curious Case of Benjamin Button. There are very few filmmakers that make me fluster violently from one direction to the other. For one, there is no one better at showing his own polish. The Social Network may be the most stylish film that we see all year, with cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth making the bronze-like tone throughout the film seem particularly slick. All things considered, he's become very important in the filmmaking community and all of his movies have become like sponsored events. This film especially, since it has the gall to tackle the most popular website in the short, but illustrious history of the internet. I think Fincher puts a lot of stock in being perceived as an "important filmmaker", and while it can sometimes lead to the grandiose ejaculation of ego that was Benjamin Button, it can sometimes produce films as likable as this one.

I don't think this film will let down the young crowd of Facebookers, since it moves briskly and is filled with humor that is both smart and broad. I do wonder why this film chose to go in a direction which everyone involved has said is completely untrue. This would be more forgivable if the film really took any kind of stance on Facebook itself and commented on its monolithic effect on today's culture and society, but there is very little in the way of parable or argument. But whether or not this movie is a true collection of events leading to the creation of Facebook seems to be besides the point, since if social media has proven anything, it's this: the most interesting version of the story will end up becoming the truest version of the story.