PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Social Network (A)
U.S.; David Fincher, 2010, Sony
The Social Network -- David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin's high-style, computer-wise tale of flashy programs and dirty deeds behind the 500 million-user Internet hookup phenomenon Facebook (or at least their version of it) -- has definitely become this year's hot thing in award-caliber, critic-certified, "must-see" movies. Lately, it's been winning end-of-year film prizes like mad, one after the other: from New York, Chicago, L.A., Boston, the National Society of Film Critics. And it's the primo generator right now, of Oscar buzz, a critical super-hit compared to classics from Shakespeare to Citizen Kane.
Like Shakespeare? Like Kane? Actually, it's not.
But all that buzz is fine with me. This is the kind of movie they actually should be spending those ultra-million dollars or so to make in Hollywood. It's a brainy, jazzy, cool, impudent, contemporary-hip, ultra-savvy, wired-in, high-velocity show that races you through the beginnings of Facebook (hatched in a Harvard dorm by an angry sophomore named Mark Zuckerberg), through its mushroom-like growth on the web and resulting big-bucks corporatization, through all the human eggs you had to break to make this computer-hit omelet, and finally (via actual court transcripts), into the flurry of law suits, Rashomon-ish multiple viewpoints and bitter recriminations that almost inevitably exploded when its net worth hit the billions, and there was loot to be grabbed, and lawyers to pay.
The Social Network is almost wickedly entertaining, and it does something most movies don't these days. It celebrates smartness. It gives us protagonists who are phenoms and prodigies of brain power rather than of sexiness, guts or toughness. (That's part of why so many critics like it so much.) The Mark Zuckerberg of the movie -- whose real-life model apparently, and understandably, doesn't like what he saw here -- is a perpetually frowning, utterly irreverent, empathy-challenged, hoodie-clad techno-geek of nearly nonexistent social skills and a nearly bankrupt couth account -- a low-conscience, unrepentantly mean number-cruncher and people-user who arrogantly believes he's smarter than almost everyone else around him, and whose only saving grace may be that he's actually, maybe, sort of right.
Then again, what's "smart"? Brains, intellect, or genius, maybe should be defined as a bit more than hatching a lucrative concept, writing a great computer program, and putting a billion in your bank account. (The source for Sorkin's screenplay is a Ben Mezrich book, written almost concurrently, called The Accidental Billionaires. ) Genius may actually be involved with something more scientific, artistic, mystical: with perceiving the ultimate, penetrating the great mysteries of life, reaching the multitudes, touching the soul of the happy few, or even improving the lot of humankind. Shakespeare. Citizen Kane.
But, in the top fillip of The Social Network's many, many ironies, we see that maybe Mark and his fellow web movers and shakers -- and the whole new social-communal wrinkle that they've been chosen to dramatically represent -- don't really "need" things like empathy, sympathy, what we'd call humanity. This guy's got something more tangible: a dynamite idea, a way to hook up 500 million Facebook "friends," and get advertisers to cough up truckloads of cash. Ironically (of course), all this is accomplished by a super-dweeb who alienates everybody in person, including his date and the guy who used to be his best friend.
Social Network starts with its very best scene: a fictional encounter in a Cambridge bar between glaring, fast-talking, self-aggrandizing Mark (played to perfection by modern movie geek-in-excelsis Jesse Eisenberg) and an ironic (naturally), knowing brain-babe named (fictitiously but appropriately) Erica Albright (Rooney Mara). Mark is trying to impress Erica, his current serial-date, with his IQ, his talk-back panache and his possible impending campus social triumphs, maybe election to the "final club." He wants to wow her with sheer words-a-minute. In the dim, chatty little bar where it looks like so many quick hot fucks have been hatched, he keeps trying to drown her in verbiage, lashing back at her parries, pulling out his stud credentials and his coitus curriculum vita.
Her scathing response is to tell him that he may think she's rejecting and breaking up with him now because he's a geek, but it's actually because he's an asshole.
Incensed, he stalks out of the bar, and back to his dorm room -- shared with fellow geeks Dustin and Chris (Joseph Mazzello and Patrick Maple) -- and hurls himself into a classic miffed geek's techno-revenge. Mark disses Erica online, hacks into the Harvard dorm files, appropriates the student photos and sets up a nasty little website called FaceMash, in which horny losers or sex bullies or just plain lonely guys like himself get to ogle the photos and rate who's hot and who's not. This site proves so popular, it crashes the university's computer system. Hot stuff? Actually, it's not.
The exploit also draws flak from the university, as well as the attention of two well-connected Harvard student society, twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss -- played by the very well-connected 6'5" actor Armie Hammer, with the help of Fincher's digital aces and actor/body double Josh Pence. The Winklevosses, and their business guy Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) want Mark to create a Harvard variant on other popular student computer social networks of the day at other colleges. He agrees, then joins with his best (maybe only) friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), to start planning and programming what eventually became, without the Winklevosses, The Facebook.
Not so fast. The Winklevosses sued. Others sued. Eventually, even best buddy Eduardo sued -- after he got slicked out of his top CEO slot upon the arrival of just the kind of snazzy techno-stud who'd appeal to a jilted geek like Mark: Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the guy behind Napster, bringing with him a promise of dough, babes, lines of coke, incredible success and magnums of champagne (not necessarily in that order) and luring Mark to Palo Alto. The real Sean Parker apparently doesn't like his portrayal here either. A shame. He seems like a mix of the best of Mother Theresa, Elvis, Warren Buffet and Spider-Man. (Actually, he's not.)
All that suggests the litigious format in which we get most of the rest of the story: flashback-laced dramatizations of the college and court hearings spouting up around the various suits, charges and counter-charges ignited by all that rancor and all that moola. Who's lying? Who's right? Who knows? Who cares? The Social Network often uses actual court transcripts as its dialogue source, which means we may be hearing actual lies -- or actual truth. The important thing though, is that it's all actually entertaining.
With Sorkin's dialogue and transcripts crackling like His Girl Friday on fire, and the revelations (true or made-up) popping like a private eye's unvarnished notes, and with every scene steeped in director Fincher's trademark fancy menacing noir moodiness, the rest of Social Network proves definitively that you don't have to pull a gun to thrill an audience.
It's never quite as entertaining though, as that first, terrific, entirely fictional kiss-off scene in the bar.
Watching The Social Network and reading the sometimes extravagant comparisons it's generated to Citizen Kane and Shakespeare, not to mention Paddy Chayefsky and John Hughes, I began to wonder if the current movie strategy of presenting every fact-derived movie drama, fictionalized or not, with the real names of real people -- like Shakespeare's Holinshed-fed historical plays, but not like Kane, which turned William Randolph Hearst into Charles Foster Kane, Marion Davies into Susan Alexander, and mixed Hearst's history promiscuously with Welles' own -- isn't actually more trouble than it's worth.
We know, by now, that most docudramas mix fact with fiction, memoir with fantasy, and we're aware that a movie like The Social Network is not the evening news -- though actually, it's probably more accurate, clear-eyed and less biased than Fox. So why not adopt Kane's tactics?
I guess it's because Zuckerberg is a star, and Facebook is a big brand name, and that's part of how you sell movies. But I actually expected something more Kane-ian than what I got -- expected to see Sorkin and Fincher mix more of the speed, snap and fact-drenched format of the Internet with their classic rapid-fire Hollywood social-dramatic storytelling. Maybe a quick bio of every character, a brisk lowdown on every new situation, lots of background, lots of updates, lots of zipping back and forth. Whiz. Bang. But though The Social Network does some of that, it's pleasantly old-fashioned in some ways. Happiest of all is its dependence on Sorkin's dialogue, and on the high quality acting of its absolutely zero-cool cast.
Eisenberg makes Mark both pathetic and scary, never more so than in the show's first scene and last shots -- and he also makes the guy believably brilliant, a convincing innovator. Mara comes up with one of the 10 greatest squelch scenes in movie history. (Unhappily she sort of vanishes from the movie afterwards, and so does Mark's sex life, a mistake.)
Garfield makes you feel for a CEO, quite an achievement these days. I nominate Timberlake for "Bad Influence of the Year" honors. Hammer pulls off a tour de force of digital twinnery. Doug Urbanski is believably mean and revoltingly snobbish, as then-Harvard president Larry Summers. As Eduardo's girlfriend Christy, Brenda Song is a song, and so is Dakota Johnson as Amelia.
Network director David Fincher seemed to give vent to almost every surrealist, artsy, fantastic impulse he had, when he put Brad Pitt, in Benjamin Button, in reverse-rewind -- and he's been plunging us into psychological dread and horror ever since 1992's Alien3. Fincher is a real movie stylist, and Fight Club and Benjamin Button are both about as well-visualized as a modern movie can be. But here, Fincher takes a step back, lets Sorkin and the script and actors take over more. It shows how much easier it makes a director's job when he has good material.
Something bothers me about Social Network, though, and I'm not just trying to be perverse, and pick on a favorite. Social Network deserves its plaudits, deserves all these prose-poems of aesthetic orgasm it's been getting. It's a hell of a show. But Mark needs more of a back-story, especially a family back-story. Family and class count heavy in many success stories, as Armie Hammer would be the first to tell you. I think it's wrong to put Mark on his own. Also, the payoff doesn't seem as exciting to me as the buildup, the climax less of a knockout than I wanted.
The Internet has changed us, though, and one of the major alterations of consciousness is that these screens and their communications make us feel we're not alone, when we are -- and then realize that actually, we're never alone. Ideas and words keep us going; all the ideas, and all the people out there are a great pool in which we can all swim.
The Social Network, almost a great movie, tells us that people and society have been changed by the computer age, in those ways and others -- and also that, in some destructive ways, they're still the same. It tells us implicitly that empathy matters more than millions of friends. But though that conclusion edifies and entertains, it doesn't really dazzle us, or blind us with the light.
I can't help feeling that a lot of the audience may still misinterpret Mark the way an older audience misread and made a hero of Wall Street's "Greed is good" huckster prince Gordon Gekko -- that they'll make more of a hero than an anti-hero of Mark, because he's smart, because he's rich. Sorkin actually was offered and turned down the Wall Street Money Never Sleeps assignment, and maybe he was worried by that possibility of Gekko taking over again. In a society that worships moola as much as ours, it's an occupational hazard.
This movie doesn't entirely escape the pitfalls of success, and the perception of success, though it certainly tries to. For some, Social Network will be a cool show about a kid who made a billion. Actually, it's not.
The Social Network, almost a great movie, tells us that people and society have been changed by the computer age -- and also that, in some destructive ways, they're still the same. It tells us implicitly that empathy matters more than millions of friends. But though that conclusion edifies and entertains, it doesn't really dazzle us, or blind us with the light. (Extras: commentaries by Fincher, and by Sorkin and the cast.)
Mexico; Guillermo del Toro, 1994, Criterion
Cronos, a vampire movie for aficionados, was the first feature film by 28-year-old Mexican moviemaker Guillermo del Toro -- and it's the fulfillment of a longtime dream. Where a lot of del Toro's classmates at film school in Mexico probably wanted to make films like the great Italian cineastes Fellini and Antonioni, makers of the classics La Dolce Vita and L'Avventura, del Toro -- whose views of life and cinema were a little darker, more sinister, more stylishly loony -- wanted to make movies like the great Italian horror-meisters Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Lucio Fulce, makers of Suspiria, Black Sunday and Zombie.
He did. The irony is that del Toro achieved his dream and has already surpassed all of his masters -- especially with his modern 2006 horror/art classic Pan's Labyrinth -- whereas our chances of seeing a Mexican 8 1/2 or Blow-up seem still distant.
Cronos, del Toro's first feature -- which came out in 1993 and won the Cannes Festival International Critics Prize and a flock of Ariels (Mexican Oscars), including Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Director -- is a vampire movie of unusual style and subtlety, with a superb cast, deeper-than-usual characterizations, brilliant twists on the usual horror movie clichés, and horrific images that brand themselves on your brain.
The star of Cronos is the legendary Argentine leading man Federico Luppi, here playing a good-hearted and brainy Mexican antique dealer, Jesus Gris, who runs across an ancient device in his dusty shop -- a sort of golden watch with wicked pincers -- that grants you sort-of-eternal life, with the downside that it turns you into a vampire and requires you to drink blood. Harassing Jesus are Ron Perlman and Claudio Brook as two particularly malevolent heavies, Angel and de la Guardia; aiding him is his little granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath), who tends his coffin.(Among the movie's unforgettable images: Jesus in the coffin -- and, in another scene, desperate, deliriously dropping to the floor by a sink in a seemingly empty men's room and lapping up blood.)
Del Toro lavishes on this bloody fairytale, a sensibility and artistry -- and a beauty and tenderness -- that almost seems too much. But sensibility, beauty and artistry deserve understanding and/or applause wherever we see them. In English and Spanish, with English subtitles. (Extras: commentaries by del Toro and his Cronos producers; del Toro's previously unreleased 1987 horror short Geometria; del Toro's video tour of his offices, Welcome to Bleak House; interviews with del Toro, Luppi, Perlman and Navarro; trailer; stills gallery; booklet with del Toro's notes for Cronos, and an essay by Maitland McDonagh.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
On Faith and Reason (A-)
U.S.; Mark Ganguzza, Sally Roy, 2006, Athena
Bill Moyers is kidded by some as the Mr. Goody Two Shoes super-liberal ringmaster of PBS, but I think he's an excellent interviewer, very civilized and perceptive. And these dialogues -- focusing on religious belief and conducted with a wide variety of writers, of different faiths, at a PEN conference -- is engrossing and illuminating.
My favorites were Moyers' talks with The Satanic Verses author, target and one-time worldwide fugitive Salman Rushdie (everyone should hear this), and novelists Margaret Atwood and Martin Amis. The other conversations, all interesting and worthwhile, were with novelist Mary Gordon, philosopher Colin McGinn, writers Jeanette Winterson, David Grossman, Anne Provoost, Pema Chodron and Richard Rodriquez, climatologist John Houghton, and playwright/rapper Will Power.
Good Neighbor Sam (B-)
U.S.; David Swift, 1964, Sony
One of Jack Lemmon's biggest '60s hits, now almost forgotten, was this romantic comedy about a straight-arrow suburban advertising graphics family man, chosen to head up a key campaign, because the client (Edward G. Robinson) is another prude. Lemmon's Sam then has to pretend that his wife (Dorothy Provine's) best friend next door (Romy Schneider at the peak of her European stardom) is actually his wife and that Romy's separated husband (Mike Connors) is Dorothy's spouse. Fun, ridiculous and very '60s TV-ish. (The gags include a parody of the old Hertz "Put you in the driver's seat" ads, complete with the Hi Los.)
Robinson Crusoe on Mars (B)
U.S.; Byron Haskin, 1964, Criterion
The special effects are pretty cheesy -- lovably so -- but this engrossing, sometimes touching red planet translation of Daniel Defoe's castaway classic, by director Byron (The War of the Worlds) Haskin and writer Ib (The Angry Red Planet) Melchoir, is one of the more science-savvy and smart of the pre-2001 science fiction epics.
Paul Mantee stalwartly plays Commander Kit Draper, who crash-lands on mars with Mona the monkey and faces worse problems than Crusoe, including the seeming lack of oxygen and water and the presence of marauding spaceships. Adam (Batman) West has a scary scene as Kit's co-pilot, Dan McReady, and Vic Lundin is this movie's Friday, a spaceman slave who looks like an Inca warrior from the TV Star Trek. Shot in Death Valley and on soundstages, it nevertheless looks great -- except for those damn attacking spaceships. (Extras: Commentary by screenwriter Ib Melchoir, Mantee and others; audio interview with Haskin; featurettes, screenplay excerpts, music video, trailer.)
Le Combat de l'Ile (A-)
France: Alain Cavalier, 1961, Zeitgeist
In the politically volatile Paris of the early '60s, a divided nation run by De Gaulle and embroiled in the Algerian conflict, a wealthy industrialist's son and right-wing extremist named Clement (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, of Z and The Conformist) is assigned the job of assassinating a left-wing deputy, supervised by an older gang member, a longtime reactionary terrorist.
When the job is bungled and the conspiracy exposed, Clement goes on the run with his beautiful young ex-stage-actress wife Anne (Romy Schneider), hiding out at the home of his old school friend Paul (Henry Serre, the Jim of Truffaut's Jules and Jim) -- who is now a left-wing pacifist, unaware of Clement's extremism. There is a betrayal, another death plot -- and, the main key to all the emotions we witness, a passionate triangle between Clement, Anne and Paul, climaxing in the "combat de l'ile" of the title.
In the early '60s the worldwide success of Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless and Francois Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player was part of a real post-Rififi French explosion of film noir wanabes among young and emerging moviemakers. Combat de l'Ile, almost unknown in the U.S. but admired in France, was the first film of a writer-director you wouldn't normally associate with noir at all: Alain Cavalier, who made the austere, tender, brilliant religious film Therese, a Cannes Jury Prize awardee, and multiple French Oscar winner, in 1986.
Scripted by Cavalier, with dialogue by Jean-Paul Rappeneau (director of the Gerard Depardieu-starring Cyrano de Bergerac), it's also the first "serious feature" of the superb cinematographer Pierre Lhomme, who later shot such legendary French films as Chris Marker's Le Joli Mai, Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore, and the Jean Pierre Melville World War II Resistance drama Army of Shadows.
It's marvelous-looking, oddly poetic, laced with anguish. Cavalier's film may lack the grim punch, cynical milieu and salty characters of great French noirs, like Rififi, The Wages of Fear and Second Breath. But Combat compensates with a pure, unabashed romanticism that reminds you of Out of the Past or Nick Ray's They Live by Night.
It also has a wonderful cast, headed by Trintignant, with his sinister calm, Serre with his dreamy romantic certitude, and, most important, the ravishing catlike, but sadly self-destructive beauty Romy Schneider, here breaking hearts and sipping too much wine, just as she did in life. In French, with English subtitles. (Extras: Cavalier's 2010 short France 1961, about the making of Le Combat de l'Ile; photos from Louis Malle archive; booklet with essays by Lhomme and Elliott Stein.)