Wednesday, October 27, 2010

This Year's Best Film You've Ignored Comes to DVD

Those Swedish films about a tattooed girl who lives dangerously may be the most popular mysteries of the year, but there’s another mystery movie that’s equally worthy of attention and it was filmed in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri.

Winter’s Bone is adapted from the novel by Daniel Woodrell and about Ree Dolly, a teenager with true grit who, due to an absentee meth-addicted father and mentally checked-out mom, must provide for her two younger siblings. One day, the sheriff drops by to inform Ree that her M.I.A. father put their home up for bond and if he fails to show to court then they’ll lose everything they have, which isn’t much. Ree immediately embarks on a door-to-door quest through her community to find her father. That’s where the mystery lies; he’s gone somewhere and something may have happened to him, and everybody will offer Ree pot or cocaine, but nobody will talk about his whereabouts.

This is a film where the characters and the environment (practically a character itself) are equally as important as the mystery. Director Debra Granik (Down to the Bone) went on location and passionately endeared herself to the locals while arranging financing for the film and writing the script. Her appreciation and fascination of the region couldn’t be more apparent and, short of a documentary, you won’t get a more authentic feel for this backwoods community. There is not a single Deliverance joke made at the expense of these people. The properties are shabby, rundown and full of barb wires, broken cars, gravel drives, and muted colors. There is no warmth, no carefully tended yards with pretty flowers or picket fences here.

True to its authenticity, Winter’s Bone blends professional actors with real-life citizens to an almost indistinguishable degree. Chief among the performances, of course, is relative newcomer Jennifer Lawrence, who previously starred in The Burning Plain and Mel Gibson’s still-shelved The Beaver. Lawrence seems to be following the Ellen Page career model by starring in a break-out indie then latching onto an X-Men film (Lawrence will star as a young Mystique in X-Men: The First Class). No matter. In Winter’s Bone, Lawrence proves she’s every bit as formidable a talent, giving us a strong female character with few options in life and the resourcefulness and determination to do whatever is necessary to provide for her siblings. She wishes she could join the military, one of the town’s only opportunities, but her age and situation keeps her at arm’s length. So she continues chopping wood, cooking meals, teaching her siblings how to hunt squirrel, and searching for her father.

John Hawkes, a “That Guy!” actor who’s been in everything from The Perfect Storm to Identity and From Dusk Till Dawn, plays Ree’s uncle Teardrop, a tattooed coke-addict with a quiet and intimidating intensity. We don’t know exactly what to expect from Teardrop, but fear the worst. Hawkes gives one of the year’s most impressive and surprising performances, one that has gained critical notice and may soon pay off with award nominations.

Everything in Winter’s Bone is as downbeat and somber as the bleak topography. The acting here is spare, barebones, and naturalistic. Imagine a film with a sense of place and characters like Fargo or No Country for Old Men, but without their humor or dynamism and only a touch of their brutality. This is not a film about cheap theatrics or big dramatic moments with a background score telegraphing what you should feel.

Winter’s Bone debuted earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and won the Grand Jury prize for Best Picture. It then continued on the art house circuit in early summer where it was mostly ignored by general audiences. Don’t let that fool you into thinking this film is only for the pretentious, artsy-fartsy crowd. Winter’s Bone is a film for anybody looking for movies with great characters and writing. It is a passionately made, quiet little mystery with rich characters, writing, and acting that just so happens to also be one of the best films you’ll see this year.


Should you see it? Rent

Winter’s Bone is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Remember That Movie: Child's Play

It’s well-known that the 1980s was a conflicting decade of excess and trickle-down Reaganomics. Those who had it bad had it really bad while the lucky of us thrived. It was also the period where the Saturday morning cartoon and other product-based children shows exploded. There were many that were based on a movie (from Beetlejuice to The Real Ghostbusters) or centered around a celebrity (including Camp Candy, Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos, The Gary Coleman Show, and Mister T). Yet it seems almost every show was either based around or had a complementary toy; shows like Care Bears, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, ThunderCats, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Transformers, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, Voltron: Defender of the Universe, Challenge of the Go-Bots… I could go on.

But the oddest breed of all was probably the kids show that served as advertisement of a doll. My Pet Monster, Teddy Ruxpin, Barbie and the Rockers… I even remember the My Buddy and Kid Sister doll commercials with their unforgettable jingles.

The 1988 film Child’s Play is a horror film that seems to initially be envisioned as a ruthless commentary on these shows and the parents who’d do anything to get their tantrum-prone children one of these most begged-for and commercially-pushed playthings.

In case you don’t remember, Child’s Play begins with a criminal (Brad Dourif) who, when cornered in a toy store after hours, transfers his soul into a Good Guy doll. See the irony? Meanwhile, Andy Barclay, played so convincingly by Alex Vincent that you’d think he walked away from the set with his share of emotional scars, is a boy who is so enamored with Good Guy that he watches the children’s show, dumps its sugary cereal into his breakfast bowl, and seems to never change out of the Good Guy outfit. He’s also apparently a bit spoiled by his single mother (Catherine Hicks) as evidenced by his pouting over every gift that isn’t exactly what he wanted on his sixth birthday.

Ladies and gentleman, we give you the typical eighties child!

Well, Ms. Karen Barclay happens to have a pal in Maggie Peterson (Dinah Manoff of NBC’s Empty Nest), who unfortunately never had a bright idea in her life. Maggie tips Karen to a bum in an alley behind the department store where they work who is willing to sell a Good Guy doll to any parent desperate and foolish enough to buy a doll from a bum in an alley. Of course, we all know that particular doll is the one possessed by the criminal at the start of the film, so once Andy is given “Chucky”, as the doll calls itself, people soon start dying.

Child’s Play feels a bit half-baked, with more going against it than its good ideas. There’s a well-paced thriller about consumerism hidden in Child’s Play that unfortunately never gets to break out of its package. Director Tom Holland, who directed Fright Night and Fatal Beauty beforehand and then went on to direct two Stephen King adaptations (The Langoliers and Thinner), said he wanted to take Don Mancini’s killer doll creation and turn it into a whodunit with more legitimate scrutiny turned on Andy than what resulted. Unfortunately, what resulted was a movie about adults who lack any sense and whose refusal to listen to a six year old even when they’re trying to get answers from him leads to more attacks.

The Good Guy doll (intended as a stand-in for the Cabbage Patch Kids) is quite creepy as is and knowing that there’s a criminal’s soul inside effectively adds to the tension. However, there are two problems with the movie jumping immediately to the pursuit of this criminal by Chris Sarandon’s (he of Princess Bride fame) detective.

1) We don’t know what we’re dealing with. Is he just a petty thief? A serial killer? A Wall Street stockbroker? In fact, because of our unfamiliarity with the character, his voodoo chant to the doll feels really bizarre. It’s only during the last third of the film that we’re told the criminal is in fact Charles Lee Ray, a.k.a. The Lakeshore Strangler (fun fact: Charles Lee Ray is an amalgamation of Charles Manson, Lee Harvey Oswald, and James Earl Ray; does that mean he’s a cannibalistic assassin?).

2) All this body swap info early in the film blows any chance of a mystery with any suspicion cast on Andy by the audience.

So, the set-up is flawed, but how does it work as a horror film? T.M.I. opening aside, it starts out well with the possible kids show commentary and creepy killer doll tension. But the more ridiculous the characters and the logic gets, the less effective the film becomes.

On the other hand, it’s surprising to learn Chucky isn’t exactly like Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees who run around killing people willy-nilly. Chucky is mostly targeting only those related to the circumstances that lead to his current situation or those who get in the way of his goal to transfer his soul into a living person’s body. In fact, research tells me (since I’ve never before seen an entire Chucky film) that this is the case for most of the series. So, thin as it may be, the Child’s Play series has a specific goal for its character. This speaks to the thriller aspect that was originally intended in Holland’s script. Unfortunately, as was the case with the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, all sincerity was abandoned after a certain point in the series (in this case, The Bride of Chucky). This degeneration isn’t a surprise as even the original film has numerous unintentionally laughable moments, mostly having to do with logic or character intelligence.

That said, one of the strengths of Child’s Play is that it does a lot with very little. High-speed point of view shots and “he’s there and then he isn’t” cutaways are cheap tricks that prove rather effective at building tension. Like many other horror movies, Child’s Play proves that something knee-high can be every bit as frightening as a hulking brute.

Overall, Child’s Play is a missed opportunity. Substance and intelligent plotting was sacrificed for cheap theatrics that rest just above B-movie quality. The creep factor of the doll works well for the first half hour, but is drained of its effectiveness shortly thereafter by everything that doesn’t work. Perhaps Child’s Play serves as a relic of a time when less was demanded of horror films and thereby serves a purpose as cheap entertainment. If not for the skeletal remains of its initial aim to be something more, Child’s Play could’ve possibly been thoroughly enjoyed on that level. I can only hope the remake will give us more by laying down this version’s childish playthings.


Should you see it? All but the most hardcore or nostalgic horror fans should skip this.

Child's Play is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Film Faves: 2000

Welcome to another edition of Film Faves.  Just a reminder, Film Faves is a countdown of my favorites in film.  It is not intended to be an objective 'best-of' list.  Also, Film Faves is not the typical top 10 countdown with a list of honorable mentions at the end.  Every edition of Film Faves is a list of twelve favorite items of any given film topic.

This edition of Film Faves wraps up a decade with a look at the year 2000.

This was a rather decent kick-off to the millennium, although you wouldn't necessarily know that if you were to look at the top grossers of the year's box office.  Mission: Impossible 2, Cast Away, What Women Want, Dinosaur, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and What Lies Beneath were all among the top 10 moneymakers of the year (although Best Picture winner Gladiator was the second-highest grossing film of the year).

That said, some of the year's best included American Psycho, Chicken Run, Dancer in the DarkThe Emperor's New Groove, In the Mood for Love, Kiss Kiss (Bang Bang), Remember the Titans, Shaft, Traffic, and Wonder Boys.

On the flip side to crap, the year's worst included The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, Battlefield Earth, Big Momma's House, The Crew, Dungeons & Dragons, The Flintstones: Viva Rock Vegas, Hollow Man, The Million Dollar Hotel, and The Next Big Thing.

This also appeared to be the year of questions, as many movie titles came in the form of a question: O Brother, Where Art Thou?; Dude, Where's My Car?; Isn't She Great?; and What Planet Are You From?

But here are my favorites:


12. Fantasia 2000

This film is gorgeous and so much fun. Fantasia may be the innovative dropped idea, but Fantasia 2000 adds an extra dose of fun to the concept of an animated concert. While the original is often a chore, the sequel is a breeze. Favorite segments of mine include ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, with its populist theme set against the Great Depression; ‘Pines of Rome’, with its soaring magical realism; and ‘Firebird Suite’, which gives nature a warm hug. Fantasia 2000 is beautifully animated (I can only imagine what the Blu-Ray will look like), funny, touching, and loads of fun. This underrated gem is the last great non-CGI movie Disney put out to date. I only hope it won’t take another sixty years before we see another Fantasia.

11. You Can Count On Me

This is a superbly acted story about two siblings, who are leading very different lives, coming to terms with their differences and who they are. Laura Linney is incredible as the buttoned-up single mother who butts heads with her new manager (played by Matthew Broderick). Mark Ruffalo gained critical attention as her brother, a laid back ne’er-do-well who spends his life traveling the country and occasionally finding trouble. You Can Count on Me and The Kids Are All Right bookend a decade of over 20 movies for Ruffalo with two career-best performances as down-to-earth, flawed but likeable characters. Directed by Kenneth Lonergan (who cameos as a preacher), who later wrote the script to Gangs of New York, You Can Count on Me is an underrated little gem and hands-down one of Linney’s best performances. Do yourself a favor and give it a chance.

10. Battle Royale

It’s the new millennium and teenagers are out of control in Japan. To fight back, the government routinely picks out a random junior high class to brutally engage in mortal combat for three days. Death is the only immediate escape. The opening titles alone scream awesome epicness. But then a funny thing happens: the reality of the situation sinks in. What would you do if it were you? Thinking back on your classmates – not just the ones you hated – could you bring yourself to kill any of them? This continuation of Japanese cinema’s epic struggle between old and new generations with a tone that challenges its audience is what makes Battle Royale an unforgettably great film. Ando Masanobu and Shibasaki Kou are particularly terrifying.

9. Memento

The film that introduced Christopher Nolan to the world. I admit, I screwed up. Contrary to my initial research, Memento actually opened in the U.S. in 2001, first at The Sundance Film Festival and then a couple months later in theaters. But the film debuted at The Venice Film Festival and continued on through 2000’s festival circuit, so please forgive me this one transgression. Of course, the carefully plotted-out reverse-linear story is incomparable and reason enough to see this film. But what makes Memento great is its mystery (clearly influenced by film noir) and how the reverse plotting affects it and the mind-blowing reveal at the end. Memento is a movie about deception, trust, perception, betrayal. It is also a brilliant indication of great things to come.

8. X-Men

X-Men earns mention on this list just for being an X-Men movie, which I’d been fantasizing about since I was in middle school (complete with cast lists!). It ultimately isn’t a great movie - more like a 90-minute prologue to its superior sequel - but the excitement of seeing several characters from my favorite superhero team come to life was irrepressible. Yes, the lore was mussed about with via the various changes to the characters’ ages and the suggested original graduating class. But this was the first non-Gothic superhero film to bring legitimacy and gravitas to the genre since Superman II. It is also what allowed Spider-Man to finally get the green light. And the rest is cinema history.

7. Requiem for a Dream

From one of the decade’s greatest minds, Darren Aronofsky, comes one of the most sobering tales about addiction. There’s nothing easy or pleasant about Requiem for a Dream, but it is perhaps one of the most powerfully acted and directed films of the past twenty years. It is graphic about its subject of drugs and how far down they will drag someone, but it isn’t over-the-top or fantastical. Its uncompromising refusal to look away or sensationalize is part of the reason Requiem for a Dream is the great film it is.  Credit must also go to the spectacular performances by Jennifer Connelly and Ellen Burstyn, which were denied well-deserved awards.

6. Erin Brockovich

This Steven Soderbergh film is remembered best as a true story about how a tough-talking legal aid discovered a southern California energy company’s blatant exposure of deadly chemicals to its neighboring community. That’s enough to make a good film (or a mediocre film if Travolta’s A Civil Action is any indication). But what makes Julia Roberts’s performance as the real-life bombshell interesting is her portrayal of this single mother at her wits end trying to keep a job that can pay for her utilities and medical bills. As I look over the filmography of America’s Sweetheart, it is clear that nothing that came before was able to both demand so much of her, as well as work her strengths as much as Erin Brockovich. It is easily her best film. Albert Finney is a treat to witness stumbling over himself while trying to keep a leash on his saucy bulldog. Aaron Eckhart looks a bit like Hollywood’s version of a biker, but overcomes with his determined sweetness and likeability. Erin Brockovich is that rare film about injustice that avoids maudlin treacle and holds up as a result.

5. Scream 3

I remember the Scream burn-out at the time around this movie’s release. However, I don’t understand for several reasons why Scream 3 is the least-liked entry in the Scream trilogy. It is a tightly constructed slasher flick that continues the self-referential and pop cultural wit the series is known for without becoming tired or irritating. Craven turns his skewer on his own industry for some fresh jabs that didn’t become overly familiar until the following years. Also, the revealed killer made sense and wasn’t as out-of-the-blue as Scream 2’s villains. All of this served to nicely wrap up the trilogy in a complete package. It’s a shame a fourth entry is currently filming as it negates the point of this movie and inevitably will kill off the survivors we’ve grown to love. Can’t Sydney just be left alone? Also worth pointing out, unlike many of the horror genre’s other franchise killers, Ghostface, as it’s commonly known now, is very specific and methodical about its victims; nobody is randomly killed and each death is part of a scheme. Also, unlike other horror franchises, the Scream trilogy isn’t terribly gory; just a stab here or there. Craven effectively rests the tension on whether or not someone will “get it” rather than how they’ll “get it”. This is rare in the genre and worth commending given how successful this approach is.

4. Unbreakable

Bruce Willis stars in what is possibly the best superhero film not based on a comic book. Of course, saying that partially spoils the mystery M. Night Shyamalan lays out in his follow-up to The Sixth Sense. One of the great things about Unbreakable is its sense of discovery, which in turn makes the climactic reveal that much more effective. Also, this is one of the best examples of Shyamalan’s former ability to build great characters. The story is anchored by the relationship between Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, which takes several pages from superhero lore. To say more would cheat those who have yet to see Unbreakable of the experience. Needless to say, my geek imagination went wild with what happens next to Security.

3. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

How did such a beautiful film become such a phenomenon? This Ang Lee epic seemed to break open barriers between foreign films and the subtitle-averse major American audiences. For a brief period of a few years after this film was released U.S. audiences lapped up at least one foreign language film a year, mostly Chinese kung fu epics. Maybe credit should go in part to master fight choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen who was responsible for the martial arts in The Matrix the year before and a style of fight choreography that exploded into every action film made before 2005. I mean, there was even a Woo-Ping Yuen influenced Musketeer movie, for Gods’ sakes. At any rate, while the ballet-like fight sequences where characters seemed to be as light as air is greatly appealing, Crouching Tiger is much more than the sum of its stunts. It is a beautifully photographed love story that also taps into ancient Chinese folklore. Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh are spectacular as restrained lovers. And Zhang Ziyi is a wonder as the arrogant and foolish Jen.

2. High Fidelity

I remember watching this for the first time at someone’s house back when I was something of an audiophile. I really identified with those three characters in the record store played by Jack Black, John Cusack, and Todd Louiso. I aspired to be as well-heard, let’s say, and knowledgeable about great music as them. The other side of that, of course, is there comes a certain snobbery that’s hard to avoid, which Jack Black’s character has in spades. High Fidelity perfectly married my love of music, romance, and lists into an intelligent comedy about maturing into being a good mate for someone. I can’t tell you how much the film spoke to me in my early twenties, how much it spoke to me in my mid-twenties, orespecially now entering my thirties how much this story of self-examination and maturity speaks to me. That last line of dialogue about mix tapes resonates with me. Let’s not forget how hilarious and quotable it is! Music lovers will love this movie. Fans of love stories will love this movie. John Cusack fans will especially love this movie. This is also that rare example of a movie being every bit as enjoyable as the novel.

1. Almost Famous

Almost Famous is one of those movies that knows how to get inside you. At turns it can make you feel melancholy, tickled, inspired, touched, and excited, depending on the moment - be it when Zooey Deschanel looks straight in our eyes (via her brother William, a stand-in for director Cameron Crowe’s younger self), assuring us that one day we’ll be cool; or when the band moves on from a rough patch by singing together Elton John’s ‘Tiny Dancer’; or when a drunken Russell stands atop a fan’s house proclaiming his status as a Golden God; or even when William lights a candle as he absorbs those great now-classic records his sister left behind for him as some covert means of passing her rebellious spirit on to her younger brother.
This may be Crowe’s best in a stream of great films that included Say Anything and Jerry Maguire. Almost Famous is a fictionalization of Crowe’s own coming-of-age. He did tour with bands at a young age for Rolling Stone magazine in the ‘70s. His mom was as stubbornly unconventional and overprotective as portrayed beautifully here by Frances McDormand. His love of Rock & Roll is just as rich and deeply felt as any character’s here (after all, he did marry Heart’s guitarist Nancy Wilson, who also composed the film’s score). This love note to rock music is his way of leaving the records under the bed for us to find; he wants deeply to share that love with us. Almost Famous is a treasure worth rediscovering.

So that's the year 2000 and that wraps up the aughties!  What are your favorite films from the year?  Take the poll to the right or comment below, or on Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter.

Next time, Film Faves takes a look at the talents of the Digital Age.  It's an epic 3-part Film Faves!  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Moretz Shines in Inferior Remake

In 2008, Tomas Alfredson directed a film adaptation of the Swedish novel Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist (who also wrote the script). Its subtlety and simple story about two loner adolescents befriending each other was an instant hit among critics and cinephiles. The fact that story slowly reveals the lead female character to happen to be a vampire was icing on the cake. The film played at film festivals around the world, garnering several awards, building huge buzz and ranking among dozens of top ten lists, earning titles such as “the best modern vampire movie”.

I screened Let the Right One In during last August’s premier Gibson Revue movie marathon. Of the movies on the event’s program, this was the film my audience knew the least about but was most impressed with. It is truly hard to resist the film due to its ability to balance an intimate, deliberately paced and beautifully shot drama with the hallmarks of the vampire mythology.

Recently, Hammer Studios, the distinguished movie makers famed for such classics as the Christopher Lee Dracula films, released an Americanized adaptation of the source novel directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) called Let Me In. It was voted by readers of The Gibson Review as the second most anticipated movie of the fall season (next to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, Pt. 1). Despite skepticism by fans upon the project’s inception there have been reports that Let Me In is better than one would expect from an American remake.

Is Let Me In more than a carbon copy of the Swedish original? Can it stand proudly as a respectable treatment of the story?

Well, not really.

Producer Simon Oakes was quoted as saying this version of the novel holds the same ambiguities and unwillingness to spoon-feed the audience. Oakes must’ve seen a completely different movie, because it can be said with certainty that Let Me In is distinctly American for the very reasons fans initially feared.

Everything is spelled out for the audience in this film. There are lines of dialogue that either blatantly points out what is plain to see (“Is that box yours?”) or could’ve been communicated through a lingering shot of a character’s face. Even the score is annoyingly obvious in its attempts to tell you exactly what you should be thinking or feeling about each character. A comparison between the two weapons the male character Owen (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) uses in a moment of bravery in both films perfectly exemplifies the difference between them; in the former it’s a long, slender stick while in Let Me In, it is a thick blunt object capable of bludgeoning someone to death. At times, Let Me In is like a blunt object bludgeoning its audiences.

However, the newest adaptation strives for creative distinction by means of several changes. Changes are made to all of the characters. None of them are an improvement. A Reagan-era conservatism is also applied for thematic substance, but is done so superficially and comes off as unnecessary. I was disappointed when a picture was also added to the story that seemed to suggest something that undermined their entire relationship between the leads. Finally, rather than gradually drawing the audience into the story, Let Me In starts off with a scene of sudden urgency and horror. Usually this kind of device - a scene that the movie eventually catches up to - holds some great significance that serves as a gut-punch or “A-ha!” moment to the audience. Not so here; only cheap theatrics to grab your attention, as if the story can’t be trusted to be enough.

All is not lost, however. There are some interesting things in Let Me In that prevent it from being a complete waste of time, mostly through its camera work. Reeves occasionally uses selective focus shots that will leave Owen in focus in the foreground while keeping someone out of focus in the background. This trick is particular to Owen’s mom, along with leaving her head just out of frame. Also, there’s a getaway scene that is shot from within a vehicle in such a way that you don’t know what’s exactly going on outside or why the vehicle is moving the way it is, which is quite impressively executed.

The real draw, however, should be Chloe Moretz. She is truly a star in the making. In Let Me In, Moretz plays the female lead named Abbie, a peculiar 12 year-old who moves in next door to Owen. Moretz successfully conveys security, innocence, curiosity, and confidence, as well as the feeling that a monstrous evil lurks under the surface capable of terrible violence in the blink of an eye. I believed Abbie’s fondness for Owen because of what Moretz is capable of expressing with a smile or a look in her eyes.

If you haven’t realized it yet this 13 year-old is a talent on the way to greatness. The lead female character of this story requires someone of considerable talent and there is no one her age more talented than Moretz. File her alongside Dakota Fanning and Abigail Breslin as reliable actresses of the decade to come. If she continues her streak of diverse and uniquely mature roles (like Hit Girl in Kick-Ass), she may even surpass her peers. She may not be jumping to awards-bait material, but Chloe Moretz is certainly building up the chops. Keep your eyes open for whatever may be up her sleeves in coming years.

Fans of Let the Right One In will find it difficult to divorce themselves from that film while watching Let Me In. It’s an inferior and on-the-nose adaptation that fails to trust its audience’s intelligence. That said, as a film independent of its source it’s a decent tale that features impressive and mature performances by its young cast, particularly by Chloe Moretz. The intent of this version of the story is to capture audiences who refuse to see foreign films. If this includes you then, by all means, experience this story with Let Me In, but do so with the knowledge that it is an inferior version.

Otherwise, please see Let the Right One In if you haven’t already!


Should you see it? Skip in favor of the original.

Let Me In is now in theaters.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Social Network: The Next Great American Film

For the past decade, the geeks have ruled. What were often sources of ridicule during the ‘80s and ‘90s became cool and invaded movie theaters, TV, and virtually every facet of pop culture. Now we have a movie about the most successful geek since Bill Gates and Paul Allen, someone who helped change how we socialize and connect with each other, as well as how businesses advertise. This intellectual and (often very witty) era-defining story is perhaps where film has been heading ever since Peter Parker first hit number one at the box office.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mark Zuckerberg, a young man who is ambitious, brilliant, socially inept, incapable of filtering a condescending word, and whose mind is as fast as your high-speed internet connection. He has very few friends and after his girlfriend decides she can tolerate him no more Mark puts all of his energy into creating a “Hot or Not”-like campus site in a matter of four hours… while drunk. Traffic picks up enough by early morning to crash the campus server.

Very soon afterward, Zuckerberg is recruited by two buff rowers known as the Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer) to write HTML code for an exclusive Harvard social networking site. Zuckerberg takes the idea and creates a better one: The Facebook, which becomes a billion dollar idea.

When a movie about Facebook was announced just a year after the site’s popularity seemed to rocket past that of MySpace, I couldn’t help rolling my eyes. Here was what seemed to be another example of Hollywood trying to exploit something people liked. But there was one curious silver lining: auteur director David Fincher - whose previous works includes Fight Club, Seven, and Zodiac - signed on to direct. Also, The West Wing creator and writer Aaron Sorkin was writing the screenplay based on the book The Accidental Millionaires. And then that trailer appeared, with its choral cover of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’, giving indications that maybe the “Facebook movie” was something with substance, something actually worthwhile and not exploitative.

Its status can now be updated: The Social Network is far more than a “Facebook movie”. It is a masterpiece.

Here is a film that takes place during a specific era, but has nothing to tie it to that time. No references to Lost. No superhero posters hanging in dorm rooms or on some theater in the background. And there’s no news footage of President Bush on an aircraft carrier. This film is timeless.

The Social Network is also a movie that is anything but showy. It lacks any melodramatic emotional arc and it features an actor playing twins via a digitally-rendered performance that is so subtle and convincing you wouldn’t know this special effect was used had no one mentioned it.

All that said, when one takes a step back from this film, the big question is: what’s the big deal about this Facebook thing?

Well, on a business level, the movie hints that the potential for ad revenue from a place where millions visit at least once a day is a revolution comparable to that of TV in the fifties. How many businesses, professionals, or podcasts do you hear advertise their Facebook page?

On a cultural level it’s bigger and influential in ways we may not fully understand for years. It changed how we view which information is private and which we’ll comfortably advertise and to whom. Also, not long ago, in order to learn where we’re from, whether or not we’re single, and what kind of work we do, etc. we’d have to actually talk to each other. Now, it’s all available with a glance of a stat sheet. This completely alters how we engage each other in conversation for the first time.

In short, knowledge is power and Facebook gives us a lot of knowledge about each other.

None of this is ever overtly spelled-out by some on-the-nose dialogue in The Social Network, rather only periodically hinted at or suggested via subtext. The Social Network truly is a generational landmark.

The film’s only flaws are a final line of dialogue about our main character that rings false and that the film never really explains how Facebook is more innovative or influential than MySpace, a similar competitor that (recent unpopularity aside) offers more connectivity to musicians and celebrities. Facebook, nonetheless, seems to be currently winning the networking war as inexplicably as if Coca-Cola’s popularity were to one day suddenly eclipse that of Pepsi. Sorkin and Fincher spend a lot of time telegraphing to us how successful an idea Facebook is, but can’t seem to waste a single line of dialogue on why it’s superior to others of its kind.

That said, unlike most biopics or ‘true story’ films, The Social Network isn’t about being factually accurate. Nor is it intended as a scathing attack on Zuckerberg or as exploitative propaganda for Facebook. To think in those terms would be to completely miss the film’s objectives. It is a movie that’s more concerned with themes than history lessons. Like this year’s other masterpiece, Inception, it is about an idea and the actions, motivations, and effects that idea has on others. Also, like the oft-compared Citizen Kane, it’s about how ambition can hurt those closest to us.

It also features a couple impressive performances. Justin Timberlake solidifies his venture into acting as something more legitimate than an experimental exercise. His Sean Parker is intelligent, confident, brash, and potentially reckless; Zuckerberg’s glimpse into a possible future. The irony is not lost that one of this generation’s leading pop stars is playing the man who changed the music IP landscape forever.

The real find, however, is Jesse Eisenberg, who hinted at depth with last year’s Adventureland, but was mostly marginalized in the public’s eye as a Michael Cera doppelganger. Eisenberg is now to Cera what Facebook is to MySpace. This isn’t just the best performance of the Zombieland star’s career – it’s the best performance of the year. Expect awards in this man’s hands by season’s end.

The Social Network isn’t a film about someone typing code into a computer and drawing templates on whiteboards (although there is a bit of that, albeit paced in a way that feels much more exciting than the real thing). This is a film about ambition, relationships, integrity, friendship, and betrayal. All of this is enough for an engaging movie, but in The Social Network all of that is just what’s on the surface. Featuring an exquisitely crafted script – with Aaron Sorkin filtering his trademark rat-a-tat dialogue through a character so smart that everyone is just trying to keep up – and a performance by Jesse Eisenberg that conveys more nuance and complexity than most of this year’s performances combined, The Social Network is an era-defining film.

Unfortunately, I fear it’s one of those films that many will walk away from with a shrug. If that is the case then it’s because, like All the President’s Men and The Graduate, The Social Network’s greatness lies not just in what happens on the surface, but in what it says about an era. That is not something that can be fully appreciated immediately after the credits roll. It requires one to allow the movie to linger a while. Regardless, add this film to your must-see list.


Should you see it? Buy tickets

The Social Network is now in theaters.