Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Predictions for the 83rd Academy Awards

“Predictions for the 83rd Academy Awards”

The 83rd Academy Awards will be aired this coming Sunday, February 27, 2011 and it is appearing like The King's Speech will come out the most ahead. However, there are a few potential upsets I see coming, as The Social Network may take away a bit of thunder for a couple of the major categories. So here are my own predictions for who I think will take home the Oscars and my preferences for who I think should win.

Best Picture:

Nominees: 127 Hours, Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, The King’s Speech, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, True Grit and Winter’s Bone.

The smart money dictates, at this point, The King’s Speech will win since it has grabbed both of the major precursors that are the PGA and the Directors’ Guild Awards. If there is a dark horse upset, it will come from The Social Network, which seemed to take off as an instant awards favorite but then started to fade from memory as December rolled around. However, the last string of Best Picture winners has leaned on the heavy and sometimes rather depressing side as of late and I have a feeling they would like to choose more of a feel-good movie as the winner this time. Of course, I would go for the real best film of the year, Inception but the fact that it got egregiously snubbed on a Best Director nomination indicates that it is not one of the top contenders.

Prediction: The King’s Speech

Preference: Inception

Best Director:

Nominees: Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan; Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit; David Fincher, The Social Network; Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech; and David O. Russell, The Fighter.

The conventional wisdom says that Tom Hooper will follow up his surprise DGA victory to get the statuette on Oscar night. After all, Oscar has agreed with DGA 90 percent of the time. However, I have a feeling that David Fincher will be given the statuette because he gives off the strongest feeling of being long due. He is the only nominee who has a past nod but no actual Oscar and the Academy will likely feel that Tom Hooper can wait. Of course, that this category snubbed Christopher Nolan for Inception sticks out like a sore thumb for me but of the nominees, I would go for Darren Aronofsky for Black Swan. However, I think that the long-due card of Fincher will allow him to pull off an upset over Hooper here.

Prediction: David Fincher, The Social Network

Preference: Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan

Best Actor in a Leading Role:

Nominees: Javier Bardem, Biutiful; Jeff Bridges, True Grit; Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network; Colin Firth, The King’s Speech; and James Franco, 127 Hours.

Colin Firth, case closed. He is the most long due, the Academy loves British royalty and, you know what, he deserves it, too.

Prediction: Colin Firth, The King’s Speech

Preference: Colin Firth, The King’s Speech

Best Actress in a Leading Role:

Nominees: Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right; Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole; Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone; Natalie Portman, Black Swan; and Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine.

At one point, I thought there might be a strong possibility Annette Bening would gain some steam for The Kids Are All Right mainly because she is a veteran who has not won yet. While I still would not rule out that prospect, the precursors have been showing that is becoming less and less likely. Natalie Portman has been the favorite and she gave the kind of gutsy performance most people would instantly notice and Black Swan was all her show. I personally have great affection for Jennifer Lawrence’s work in Winter’s Bone and eagerly look forward to what she will do next. But this is Natalie Portman’s year and her physically and emotionally demanding work is due to be recognized on Oscar night.

Prediction: Natalie Portman, Black Swan

Preference: Natalie Portman, Black Swan

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Nominees: Christian Bale, The Fighter; John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone; Jeremy Renner, The Town; Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right; and Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech.

With the exception of Geoffrey Rush, everyone in this category is a first-time nominee. Rush has already won before though and, while it is plausible that the likely sweep of The King’s Speech may carry him along, that tends to happen less with supporting categories and particularly when there are others who have not won yet. Of the other four remaining, I think Christian Bale will take this one as he is the biggest star and it is the showiest performance. The precursors up until now also dictate that he will be the most likely winner, although I personally would let out a whoop if John Hawkes pulled off an upset for his strong, subtle performance in Winter’s Bone.

Prediction: Christian Bale, The Fighter

Preference: John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Nominees: Amy Adams, The Fighter; Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech; Melissa Leo, The Fighter; Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit; and Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom.

Two years ago, I really cheered for Melissa Leo to win Best Leading Actress for Frozen River because I thought she truly was the deserved underdog. This time, her self-campaign to win the Oscar for The Fighter whiffs of desperation and is getting a bit grating. I think, despite that she has won the Golden Globe and the SAG, the Academy will likely feel the same way, too. Add to the fact that she may also split votes with Amy Adams in The Fighter, that will leave room for Hailee Steinfeld to take home the prize here. It has been a while since an upset from a child actress like Anna Paquin from The Piano and many voters, I suspect, would recognize that Steinfeld is really a lead in True Grit and it will be a way to honor that film.

Prediction: Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit

Preference: Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit

Best Original Screenplay:

Nominees: Mike Leigh, Another Year; Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson and Keith Dorrington, The Fighter; Inception, Christopher Nolan; Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, The Kids Are All Right; and David Seidler, The King’s Speech.

There is little contest here that David Seidler will take home the prize for The King’s Speech here. It is the most verbal and thus the most noticeable of the nominees here. Of course, I would love for Christopher Nolan to win for his imaginative, ambitious screenplay of Inception but that will not happen.

Prediction: David Seidler, The King’s Speech

Preference: Christopher Nolan, Inception

Best Adapted Screenplay:

Nominees: Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, 127 Hours; Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network; Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich, Toy Story 3; Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit; and Debra Granik and Anne Rossellini, Winter’s Bone.

As I mentioned before, of the nominees in this category, there is only one I consider to be truly great. I would really let out a cheer if Debra Granik and Anne Rosselini won for Winter’s Bone but it will be Aaron Sorkin’s time to win for the verbal chess-like sparring of The Social Network. While I actually think he is a little bit overrated (for all his acerbic wit, his plotting frequently resorts to convenient shortcuts and telegraphing), most voters will feel that he should be recognized for his trademark style of verbal daggers.

Prediction: Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network

Preference: Debra Granik and Anne Rosselini, Winter’s Bone

Best Animated Feature:

Nominees: How to Train Your Dragon, The Illusionist and Toy Story 3.

No one at this point would bet against Toy Story 3 being the winner because it has the Best Picture nomination. I will refer you to my review of Toy Story 3 to see why I thought it was enjoyable but still derivative, but I personally feel the really outstanding choice here is The Illusionist, which was yet another quirky gem from Sylvain Chomet who also made The Triplets of Belleville. However, Toy Story 3 has this category down cold and it would be unwise to bet against it.

Prediction: Toy Story 3

Preference: The Illusionist

Predictions for the remaining categories:

Best Animated Short: Day & Night

Best Art Direction: Alice in Wonderland

Best Cinematography: Roger Deakins, True Grit (who is very long due)

Best Costume Design: The King’s Speech

Best Documentary, Features: Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job (his previous nomination for No End in Sight will help him here and the subject matter of the economic meltdown is very relevant)

Best Documentary, Short Subjects: Strangers No More

Best Film Editing: The Social Network

Best Foreign Language Film: In a Better World

Best Makeup: The Wolfman

Best Original Score: Alexandre Desplat, The King's Speech

Best Original Song: “If I Rise”, 127 Hours

Best Short Film: The Confession

Best Sound Editing: Inception

Best Sound Mixing: Inception

Best Visual Effects: Inception

Friday, January 28, 2011

Reactions to the 83rd Academy Award Nominations

“Reactions to the 83rd Academy Award Nominations”

Up to a few weeks ago, David Fincher’s The Social Network seemed to be the favorite to beat in this awards season. But that buzz tide has started to turn dramatically with The King’s Speech grabbing the Producers’ Guild Award for Best Picture and now leading the pack of the 83rd Academy Award nominations with a total of 12 nods. The Coens’ True Grit also came up as a strong contender with ten nominations while The Social Network scored eight nods. Inception also scored eight nods even with the snub of a major award that I will write about in a moment. Here are my general thoughts on the Academy Award nominations that were announced on January 25, 2011 by category.

Best Picture

Nominees: 127 Hours, Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, The King’s Speech, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, True Grit and Winter’s Bone.

The nominations for The Social Network and The King’s Speech were not at all surprising but now there will be a very tight race between the two to see who will take the big prize. Other nominees that appeared as expected are Inception, The Fighter, Black Swan and 127 Hours and the only one of those I take issue with is Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, which I thought was good but overshadowed by the more honest and effective Buried by Rodrigo Cortes, which gave a better sense of the claustrophobia in confined spaces.

Of course, the expansion of the number of nominees from 5 to 10 has allowed for fine commercial entertainments like Inception and Toy Story 3 to also join the pack, although I similarly think Toy Story 3 is a little overrated and simply falls in the good but not great category in the Pixar library. Two nominees that may have surprised some are The Kids Are All Right and True Grit, although both were picking up enough positive word of mouth in the awards season. One, however, that was indeed a pleasant and very deserving surprise for me was Winter’s Bone. I would have thought this tenth spot would have gone to The Town but I am glad that the Oscars showed more reach and imagination to give the spot to this great indie sleeper.

Best Director

Nominees: Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan; Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit; David Fincher, The Social Network; Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech; and David O. Russell, The Fighter.

The first thunderbolt that went off in my head as soon as I saw this list was: Where the heck is Christopher Nolan? He gets stiffed for The Dark Knight and now he gets stiffed yet again with Inception. His repeated snub is perhaps emblematic of one of the recurring issues with the Oscar voters. They typically shy away from the really daring, ambitious films and yet they do not want to seem too cave in too much with the mainstream and therefore you have a movie like Inception that does both being punished as a result. Shame on them for this ignorance…

Now that I have gotten that off my chest, I imagine the nominee they substituted for Nolan was the Coen Brothers. And after Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar last year, the field this year is back to being all men’s group this year despite that Debra Granik would have been a very worthy nominee for Winter's Bone. However, it is nice to see Darren Aronofsky at last get some recognition for his work. And the Academy has also caught up to David O. Russell albeit inevitably for the safer awards-baiting The Fighter when he really should have gotten recognition for Three Kings back in 1999.

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Nominees: Javier Bardem, Biutiful; Jeff Bridges, True Grit; Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network; Colin Firth, The King’s Speech; and James Franco, 127 Hours.

The only real surprise here is the inclusion of Javier Bardem because I did not think that enough voters would have seen Biutiful (and I have not seen it yet either). But Bardem is already very well respected and the buzz from his Cannes Best Actor prize probably got the attention of the Academy. He most likely took the spot over Ryan Gosling for Blue Valentine, as his awards buzz seemed to be on the rise. This category in general, however, has been pretty much all Colin Firth’s throughout the awards season and the remaining nominees should just be happy to be in his company. One interesting note is how James Franco is not only nominated but also hosting the Oscar ceremony this year with Anne Hathaway, which means that, unlike some past hosts, he will not be able to crack a joke about hosting being inferior to a nomination.

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Nominees: Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right; Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole; Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone; Natalie Portman, Black Swan; and Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine.

2010 was actually a very strong and eclectic year for great, female performances and the strength of this category shows this. There were no real surprises here, although it was heartening to see young Jennifer Lawrence get a nomination for her great work in Winter’s Bone and it is in line with the audience’s general anticipation for an actress with a bright career ahead of her. Kidman also gets some vindication for her strong talents after wobbling through a series of misguided projects since her Oscar in this category for The Hours. But I suspect this category’s central race will be between Bening and Portman.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Nominees: Christian Bale, The Fighter; John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone; Jeremy Renner, The Town; Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right; and Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech.

Supporting categories are where I most often get to say, “Finally!” for actors who built a great body of work before landing their first nomination and the ones whom I feel that way about from this category are Bale, Hawkes and Ruffalo. Hawkes, I am particularly nicely surprised by, as he really does not get enough attention as a character actor. It looks, at this point, Bale might be the favorite to win in this category as he has the biggest star power of the nominees but that is not as certain as Firth’s lock on the Lead Actor category.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Nominees: Amy Adams, The Fighter; Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech; Melissa Leo, The Fighter; Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit; and Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom.

Those who have not seen Animal Kingdom may be wondering, “Where is Mila Kunis from Black Swan?” but those who saw the movie would fully understand why Jacki Weaver got a nomination here. I personally do not think Kunis, while very good in Black Swan, would have been deserving of a spot more than any of the nominees here and the Academy has picked well. The one question I have is over the placement of newcomer, Hailee Steinfeld in this category instead of the lead in True Grit. But then, considering how strong the Best Leading Actress field is this year, putting her in this category probably boosts her chances of winning. I think that the final race will be a rather close one between her and Melissa Leo.

Best Original Screenplay

Nominees: Mike Leigh, Another Year; Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson and Keith Dorrington, The Fighter; Inception, Christopher Nolan; Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, The Kids Are All Right; and David Seidler, The King’s Speech.

Four of the nominees here are also up for Best Picture so they are unsurprising but Mike Leigh is the one that the Academy frequently picks out as as a wild card. Part of the consistent surprise that we get may be due to Leigh being famously known to not write his screenplays before filming but improvise with his actors to make the final product. He probably took the spot over the writers of Black Swan. And at least Nolan got recognition here for Inception.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Nominees: Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, 127 Hours; Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network; Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich, Toy Story 3; Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit; and Debra Granik and Anne Rossellini, Winter’s Bone.

With the exception of the surprise but deserved nomination for Winter’s Bone, overall I do not really think this is one of the stronger categories this year. Toy Story 3 was good but really recycled much of the same elements from its predecessors and the screenplay of 127 Hours did not entirely capture the claustrophobic mood it deserved (although it was more of the visuals that marred the mood). The Coen brothers did improve on the John Wayne Western so the nod is not that surprising. Aaron Sorkin will likely be the favorite here, however, for The Social Network, although personally even with that film, the slight issue I had was with the screenplay.

Other surprises and possible snubs

  • Along with the oversight of Nolan for Inception, one of the most egregious snubs was the exclusion for the editor of Inception, Lee Smith. That movie’s whole structure was really dependent on the editing and this oversight is totally foolish.
  • If there was one category that I thought the underwhelming Tron: Legacy might have a lock on, it was Best Visual Effects but it was completely shut out and perhaps Hereafter was substituted in instead.
  • In the Best Animated Film category, I was surprised to see Tangled miss a nod. I found it to be personally more enjoyable than either Toy Story 3 or How to Train Your Dragon, which were expected contenders but not really standouts in quality. However, Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist probably took the spot away from Tangled and with this film, I would not be so sure that Toy Story 3 has the strong lock on this category.
  • I was quite stunned to see that the entry from Greece, Dogtooth got a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. The movie, with its graphic content and the subject matter of incest, seemed like one the Academy would shy away from but perhaps the Academy is taking some more risks with the Foreign Language Film category.
The full list of nominees is available here from the Internet Movie Database and I will be putting another post with my personal Oscar predictions in select categories before the 83rd Academy Awards air on Sunday, February 27, 2011.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Best (and Worst) Movies of 2010

“The Best (and Worst) Movies of 2010”

Upon first reflection, I was thinking to myself that 2010 was not really a strong year for movies, with mainstream Hollywood churning out the usual dribble like The Bounty Hunter and Sex and the City 2 seemingly every other week. But once I thought back at the more artistic movies that I saw last year, I realized that, while there was not a plethora in quantity of great movies, the quality of cinematic efforts I saw was quite high. In addition, as I compiled the list, I saw how many very strong movies centered on true powerhouse lead performances by female actors. And there was even one bright spot in the mainstream when the best movie of the year turned out to be a big, exhilarating summer blockbuster that did combine cinematic art with commercialism and was widely seen (you can probably guess which one). So here are my picks for the best films of 2010 with the runners-up listed after in alphabetical order.

10. A Prophet – A brutal, messy and gut-wrenching gangster film of a high order, this movie, which won the Grand Prix in the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, chronicles the visceral arc of how a young, na├»ve French Arab outcast is turned into a deadly criminal entirely behind bars. This knowledge of prisons being far from reformatory grounds but rather breeding grounds for crime and animalistic struggle has been shown before. But rarely has it been delivered with such rich nuances of human behavior and characters like Malik (Tahar Rahim) and especially the prison mob kingpin, Cesar (Niels Arestrup), whose mere steely eyes make Don Corleone look like Mr. Rogers.

9. Winter’s Bone – Every one or two years, there is the Sundance breakout film that stands apart from the rest and wears its independent spirit more confidently to present its own seldom seen world with such truth and authenticity. In the year 2010, it was this movie that follows a teenager (astonishingly played by newcomer, Jennifer Lawrence) from the Ozarks who goes out into the dangerous woods to find her missing drug-dealing father while trying to hold her family together. And if that sounds like it could draw parallels to Little Red Riding Hood, the beauty of this film is that it fully respects that fairy tale tradition while adhering to its own gritty reality.

8. Black Swan – Most of the best films this year achieved their quality by portraying reality so well so it is nice that there was also one like Black Swan that leapt straight into fantasy and hysteria with unabashed and operatic abandon. Centering on a bold performance that should bring its lead actress, Natalie Portman a shower of accolades, director Darren Aronofsky sets this depiction of the pursuit of perfection pushed into very mad extremes elegantly and hauntingly within the world of ballet. It also crosses and masters the styles of past films on its subject and wrenches out the narcissistic soul underneath.

7. Restrepo – This factual journalistic account of one long year with an American military platoon in Afghanistan reminds us why documentaries exist. If 2009 had brought the fictionalized powerful take on the war in Iraq with The Hurt Locker, this movie brings the unadorned, surreal nature of modern warfare close to the bone. The movie avoids taking precise political sides. It just watches, as it wonders the increasingly insoluble dilemma how this current war can exactly be won.

6. Of Gods and Men – The winner of the Grand Prix at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, this movie by Xavier Beauvois, like Carlos Reygadas’ masterpiece, Silent Light, is a slow, meticulous piece that requires its audience to meet in the middle. However, this quietly potent film that depicts a community of Ciscercian monks in Algeria contemplating on how to act in the midst of an uprising of fundamentalist terrorists in the area is a brilliant example of immersive regional filmmaking that depicts a world we hardly know about.

5. Poetry – Few directors are better at bringing to focus the very fragile emotional states of socially marginalized people than Korean director Lee Chang-dong and his seventh film is one of his best. This time, he centers on a lonely 66-year old lady (played brilliantly by Korean veteran actress, Yoon Jung-hie) who tries to seek enough meaning in her life to write poetry amidst extremely dire circumstances. That story may seem trite on the page but at the hands of Lee where characters are X-rayed by the micrometer, it is a shattering effort that may not find an emotional lift but rather a sublime solace.

4. Exit Through the Gift Shop – This unusual documentary may be all real or all a hoax but unlike the other abysmal Joaquin Phoenix documentary, I’m Still Here, this movie’s central conundrum of reality or hoax is endlessly fascinating. The director, Banksy who takes the footage of a French man named Thierry Guetta who videotapes the graffiti artists may have the long speculation of whether Banksy and Guetta are one and the same person. But this kind of self-referential mosaic (and also very funny) approach only adds more brilliant intrigue to the central question of what constitutes true art and whether it really lies in the beholder when the beholder himself is in question.

3. The Secret in Their Eyes – This Argentinian film was the winner of the 2009 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and it was the most deserving win in many years of Academy history. It is also the most romantic movie I have seen all year, as a retired male legal counselor and a female judge are brought back together by a past unsolved, brutal crime and have much to lose or gain from the outcome of the case. The chemistry between these two vivid characters played by Ricardo Darin (a great actor who should be seen by more people in the US) and Soledad Vilamil reminded me of the classical romantic sparks generated by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in the 1940s.

2. Bedeviled – This Korean indie movie was not well seen over here in America and, for that matter, was hardly seen by its local audiences either. But if you ever wondered how an initial feminist revenge fantasy can transcend its own shock value with thoughtful characters and a proper moral complexity, this movie by first-time director, Jang Cheol-su proves how you can do it. There have been so many movies on brutal feminist retribution that have ranged from being gutless to just plain reprehensible and irresponsible. But this movie, which is anchored by another mesmerizing female performance from Seo Young-hie as the anti-heroine, Kim Bok-nam, provides not only a haunted portrait of a pained woman subjugated by everyone around her in a remote Korean rural village but a very complex moral universe that painfully depicts the tragic price of apathy.

1. Inception – The pick may seem a little superficial and obvious to some but honestly, this movie gets the top spot as it was the only film I saw in 2010 that I immediately wanted to see a second time as soon it was over. With every repeat viewing, I am again impressed with the intricately layered dream logic, the bravura editing and the astonishing cinematic sights like the city of Paris folding in half or the revolving hotel hallway fight scene, the latter of which ranks as the most dazzling scene of the year. And those who said that this film does not contain an emotional core missed the point, as it has one vibrating stronger than any previous effort by director Christopher Nolan. His turn of his exploration of obsession to romanticized idealism brings into clearer focus the themes he only hinted at in his previous films and makes the movie more than just a splashy action film. Movies like this provide hope that there are some filmmakers like Nolan still out there who are willing to use their commercial success to give us intelligent, artistic blockbusters and not just dumb ones like the Michael Bay films and their clones.

Runners-up: Another Year, Buried, Four Lions, The Ghost Writer, I Saw the Devil, The Kids Are All Right, The King’s Speech, Rabbit Hole, The Social Network, True Grit, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

Worst films of the year (in order of lousiness): Sex and the City 2, The Bounty Hunter, The Back-up Plan, Grown-Ups, Eat Pray Love, The Switch, Kick-Ass, From Paris with Love.

Remakes that did not need to be made: Death at a Funeral, The Karate Kid, Let Me In, A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Social Network

“The Social Network”

USA. 2010. Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay adapted by Aaron Sorkin. Based on the book, “The Accidental Billionaires” by Ben Mezrich. Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Max Minghella, Rooney Mara, Brenda Song, Josh Pence, Dennis Grayson, Joseph Mazzello, Patrick Mapel and Douglas Urbanski.

Rating: ★★★½

Perhaps only a brilliant genius who is simply utterly lacking in social etiquette or awareness could have created a computer program to reductively encapsulate all social connections like Facebook. As David Fincher’s The Social Network sees him, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook was a guy who viewed just about everything in black and white or 0s and 1s and found a way to apply that to social interactions. To those he knew in his own social circles, his constant 1 and 0 was that he is right and anyone else is wrong.

Quite refreshingly, the movie begins not with a typical shot that captures the movie’s setting but with a seven-minute long conversation in a bar between Mark (Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara). He praises the virtues of Harvard final clubs and his condescension towards her is almost unbearable to watch. He hardly allows her a chance to complete a responsive thought. She is finally fed up with his constant sense of territoriality in intelligence (“You will get to meet people you will not meet otherwise”) and an even harsher, licentious accusation that she promptly breaks up with him.

This sets the tone for the movie as a breathless series of conversations played like a chess game with verbal offenses. This is a stamp of screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, who specializes in dialogue between characters who throw words like daggers, but a bit surprising from director, David Fincher, who is an almost tightly wound, rigorous visual stylist. Their collaboration gels here though into a fascinating whole without one upstaging the other.

After the break-up, Mark goes back to his Harvard dorm, gets a little drunk and blogs defamatory remarks about his ex-girlfriend. He also creates a program called “Facemash,” which will hack in and find all photos of college females in the Harvard dorms, compare two of them at a time side by side, and allow the user to pick which one is hotter. To complete this, he gets the help of his roommate and best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who had previously invented an algorithm for ranking chess players. The program becomes such a sensation that it ultimately crashes the university servers.

This places Mark in a judicial board hearing but also draws the attention of the twins, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer) and Divya Narendra (Max Minghella), who propose to work with him on building a dating network site called Harvard connection. He does not have any interest in working with them but runs with the potential on his own and expands it beyond dating to create “The Facebook.” Eduardo, who is a business major, puts his own money in to back the site and works with Mark as CFO.

The movie tells the founding story in 2003 linearly but also in flashback from scenes interjected in between set in 2006 where Eduardo, the Winklevoss twins and Divya have all filed civil lawsuits against Mark. Eduardo is suing for being refused co-founder credit while the twins and Divya are suing for Mark stealing their own idea. There is also the involvement of the founder of Napster, Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) whose ideas and advice immediately click with Mark’s even if he leads a radically different, more carefree lifestyle.

With Sorkin’s razor-sharp dialogue, Fincher turns this story of personal, corporate and legal reversals into a very strong and confident actor’s movie. Jesse Eisenberg is, of course, built for this kind of arrogant, socially awkward genius role and, while some feel that he plays the same character all the time, I find him very watchable because he can inject a subtle sense of insecurity in his demeanor. Andrew Garfield, as the film’s conscience, also does a fine job at different emotional speeds of cocksure confidence and vulnerability and somehow making us see why he would be friends with Mark for a while. Also, in perhaps the trickiest role where Fincher also gets to show his technical wizardry, Armie Hammer plays his dual twin roles so invisibly that we instantly forget that it is the same actor creating two different characters.

The real surprise scene-stealer, however, is Justin Timberlake. He, of course, has shown he can act in the past, but here he gives an electric performance as the slyly intelligent Sean Parker. He has more dialogue than Eisenberg’s Mark in their scenes together and, as he becomes a suave social outlet for Mark’s ideas for a time, Timberlake never misses a beat in balancing his role between book smart and social smart, and also the hedonistic lifestyle that eventually bursts his bubble.

The movie is not quite perfect. For all the snap and verve of the first opening scene, the fictional character of Erica Albright is a bit too schematic when she serves as a kind of simplified character explanation for Mark to push on further with his Facebook. The film also does not quite have an ending and, while I know the story is not one that requires a resolution (since it does not contain a conventional dramatic arc), there should be more of a sense of closure to it all.

What is most accomplished, however, is how the movie cuts away from the line of most conventional factual character studies. Yes, it plays fast and loose with many facts, but it does so to support an unflattering portrait of its protagonist. Rather, in a way, nearly all of the likable characters are around him looking in and trying to make sense of him somehow. That drive of the story is what may also draw in those who do not normally like Jesse Eisenberg as an actor, as the goal of Fincher’s movie is to make his character far from admirable but not unsympathetic.

All of which brings us back to Mark Zuckerberg himself. As the movie portrays him, there is certainly a hint of Asperger’s syndrome as he incessantly imparts his intellectual knowledge well beyond the point of interest and/or caring of anyone else (which is much quicker than anyone else, as he does so in a patronizing fashion, too). And while he made just about everyone around him proceed to socially “un-like” him, he focused intently on his own permanent social foothold. He invented Facebook.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Let Me In

“Let Me In”

USA. 2010. Written for the screen and directed by Matt Reeves. Based on the source novel and screenplay by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chloe Moretz, Richard Jenkins, Cara Buono, Elias Koteas, Sasha Barrese, Dylan Kenin, Chris Browning, Ritchie Coster, Dylan Minette, Jimmy Pinchak and Nicolai Dorian.

Rating: ★★½

If I had not seen Tomas Alfredson’s original masterful 2008 Swedish movie, Let the Right One In, I may not necessarily see Matt Reeves’ American remake, Let Me In as unnecesary. But I cannot unsee the greatness of the original and the bottom line is that this new remake just suffers by comparison. Despite this remake's overall competence and attempt to recreate the mood and tone of the original, I cannot recommend to anyone to seek this new version when there is a greater telling of this story already made.

The general story outline is more or less the same, as adapted from the source novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist (who also penned the original’s screenplay). A 12-year old boy named Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) leads a desolate life where he is cruelly bullied at school and ignored by his divorced parents. A new pair of neighbors moves in next door: a young girl, Abby (Chloe Moretz, from Kick-Ass) and an older man (Richard Jenkins) who looks to be her father. The boy first grows a romantic interest in the girl until he finds that she is in reality a vampire but the two soon form a deep, symbiotic friendship.

There are a few small story changes. Besides the changed setting to 1983 New Mexico, we get the addition of a detective played by Elias Koteas investigating a series of grisly murders. There is also a flashback structure from one event that is chronologically in the middle and a few characters here and there are composited. But Reeves, who also said he felt the original was fantastic, simply cannot improve on the telling of the story.

One reason for that is this film reinterpretation lacks subtlety. Every character detail is spelled out such as Abby saying, “I am a lot stronger than you think I am” or bluntly stating, “I need blood to live.” And what was told with restrained ambiguity and implication in the original film about Abby’s father figure is made clear much too early in the story here. It also does not help that Reeves chooses to telegraph every single potential horror or suspense moment with a thumping bass score by the usually great Michael Giacchino and even “codes” the camaraderie scenes between Owen and Abby with light melodious music. This removes the element of surprise and does not allow the relationship between Owen and Abby to gain its power from what is unspoken as much as what is spoken.

That general on-the-nose approach also pervades to the depiction of violence and gore. While Alfredon’s original masterfully displayed his horrific moments at medium distance to increase its quiet, matter-of-fact realism, Reeves goes the much more conventional route of close-up blood and gore. Then there are the vampire attack scenes when Abby must lunge at several people to drink blood and is suddenly turned into a CGI creation that is about as convincing as Mighty Mouse. In addition, the monstrous figure she subsequently changes into is distractingly similar to one of the humanoid creatures from I Am Legend. And although Reeves stages one neat shot of a car crash entirely from the inside, the climactic pool scene that was so brilliantly staged in a single, almost hallucinogenic shot in the original is recreated more choppily and hastily here.

It is too bad that Reeves is not more restrained in his technique as he appears to have directed the actors to be more subdued. Kodi Smit-McPhee (who played Viggo Mortensen’s son in the film adaptation of The Road) and Chloe Moretz are actually pretty convincing in their low-key roles and that we do not feel their bond very strongly is not their fault (it is Reeves’ as his screenplay telegraphs most everything as mentioned). The ubiquitously reliable Richard Jenkins is also an inspired choice to play the “father” figure and he gets the best scene in the movie with Moretz (which is not in the original), as she gently touches his face to comfort him amidst the dire life he leads to “protect” her (and this scene crucially does not have any background score). There is also a nice touch in how the face of Cara Buono as Owen’s morose mother is never quite seen onscreen to symbolize her emotional distance from her son.

Would this movie play differently and effectively to viewers who have not seen the original film? Quite possibly, but I do not know and personally I cannot even try to guess even vicariously because the original looms so tall in my mind (you can refer to my review of the original film to see why). What I do know is that Jean-Luc Godard once said, “In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie.” If this were to apply to remakes, then it means that remakes should only be made for films that can actually be improved upon rather than to cater to those who still ignorantly refuse to read subtitles. Otherwise, the remake’s critique is already made and, in this case, Alfredson’s Let the Right One In (which is available on DVD) offers far better criticism of Reeves’ Let Me In than I can express.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Town

“The Town”

USA. 2010. Directed by Ben Affleck. Screenplay adapted by Peter Craig, Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard. Based on the 2004 novel, “Prince of Thieves” by Chuck Hogan. Starring: Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner, Blake Lively, Chris Cooper, Slaine, Owen Burke, Titus Welliver, Jon Hamm, Pete Postlethwaite, Dennis McLaughlin and Corena Chase.

Rating: ★★½

I am trying to figure out specifically why I feel rather insouciant towards Ben Affleck’s second directorial feature, The Town. The movie, on the surface, is well executed and well acted, and the intriguing elements from the source novel, Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan are there. Yet, in contrast to the many positive reviews this film has garnered, I walked away feeling the characters and story had never come to three dimensional life.

Part of the problem lies with the fact that the movie’s general story arc is much more familiar this time around compared to Affleck’s very fine 2007 directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone. We have seen the plot of the criminal wanting to leave his criminal roots after one final job and the anti-hero who finds unexpected love that gradually compels him to break out of his old ways. Hence, the story requires more life breathed into it to overcome its familiar elements and the movie ultimately never quite gets there.

The setting of The Town is the neighborhood of Charlestown in Boston about which the movie informs us that it produces more bank robbers than any other town in the world. The movie’s opening scene is a bank heist executed by longtime thief, Doug McRay (Ben Affleck) and his gang including his best friend and right-hand man, James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), Albert “Gloansy” Magloan (Slaine) and Desmond Elden (Owen Burke), all dressed in disguise. They also hold the bank manager, Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) at gunpoint to open the vault and then briefly take her hostage blindfolded amidst their getaway.

Though unharmed, Claire, who is not a native from Charlestown, is traumatized by the experience. An FBI agent, Adam Brawley (Jon Hamm from TV’s Mad Men) interviews her to see what she can remember but she cannot, as the gang had masked disguises and she was blindfolded while she was taken hostage. Meanwhile, the gang is anxious that she lives very close to their home and just might recognize them, particularly James, who shows some signs of sociopathic tendencies. While he seems to suggest that he should pay her a visit to most likely kill her, Doug, who is more reasonable and controlled, decides he will step into check that she cannot identify them. He introduces himself to her at a Laundromat and, against his expectations, starts to gradually fall for Claire, all while FBI agent Brawley is closing in to nab Doug and his gang.

The relationship between Doug and Claire is the crux of the story, especially since it builds to an impetus for him to break away from his life of crime and avoid ending up like his old father, Stephen (Chris Cooper) who is in jail for robbery and murder. However, as solid as Affleck and Hall are, their dialogue exchanges, which take up the movie’s first half, seem more workman-like and never ignite with any true spark or passion. The passion is particularly necessary, given the improbability of the actual romance and, while I believed it in the novel, I did not quite buy it in the movie. It also does not help that the scenes between Affleck and Hall often feel disjointed and episodic, as we leave a conversation just when it sounds like it could get interesting.

The other crucial aspect that is curiously missing in The Town, especially compared to Gone Baby Gone, is moments of privacy and individual reflection for the characters. Considering the story is about a man who attempts to balance between two greatly conflicting ways of life in his own criminally blurred conscience, the movie should have afforded scenes of Doug’s inner brooding in the turmoil. Yes, the homegrown factors that are holding him back to his criminal lifestyle are apparent, including his best friend, James and his runner, Fergus (Pete Postlethwaite), who gives the crew their assignments. However, the movie never makes us feel for Doug’s inner conflict enough to empathize with him to actively root for his escape from the surroundings.

What the movie does have going for it is the all-around fine performances from its cast, although the best of them come more from the supporting players. Jeremy Renner, following his Oscar-nominated work in The Hurt Locker, particularly stands out as the best friend who is a mass of hotheaded confusion and therefore quite unpredictable in what he will do next or even how to read what he is doing at the moment. Another strong turn comes from Blake Lively in a smaller but crucial role as a strung-out, promiscuous single mom who has a past with Affleck’s Doug (and is the Renner character's sister) and represents yet another symbolic factor pulling him down to stay in his corrupt lifestyle. The always lovely Rebecca Hall is also good as usual and she certainly makes you understand why Doug would instantly decide to fall for her from the beginning.

Affleck is also solid as a performer but perhaps he was too daunted to fully flesh out his story between his multiple duties as actor, director and co-writer with Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard as well as the more technical bank heist action scenes. The scenes of the robberies and shootouts in the beginning and the climax end up being the best part of the movie even if they more than take their cue from Michael Mann’s Heat. Affleck, as he also showed in Gone Baby Gone, shows that he knows how to hone in close to the action and build a real oppressive feel to it avoid glamorizing the resultant bloody violence. I only wish that the same care and attention had been given to the overall story.

So the movie, I think, is a slight come-down for Affleck as a director after Gone Baby Gone but he still shows real promise of a good directorial career ahead of him. He knows how to extract good performances out of his cast and displays the technical facility to build and mount individual scenes. If he can learn how to pace the scenes better and allow them more room to breathe, he can grow to be a stronger storyteller. And on the basis of his first two movies, perhaps when he directs, he should remain behind the camera so that he can have a more instinctive feel for the substance in his story.