Sunday, November 28, 2010

Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Where was the audience when this movie came out in August? For some reason, people stayed away from it in droves, thereby missing out on one of the most hilarious, creative, and original movie in years. There has never been anything quite like it in the world of film, and for that reason alone it would be worth seeing.
Scott Pilgrim is a young college graduate living in Toronto with a roommate, trying not to think what he ought to do with his life. He starts the movie dating a high school girl named Knives Chau, but soon loses his heart to the girl of his dreams, Ramona Flowers, an exotic beauty from New York. Problems ensue. Namely, Scott has to attempt to juggle two girls, while Ramona’s Seven Evil Exes attempt to kill him at every opportunity, obliging him to engage in numerous video-game-style battles to the death (death in this movie consists of popping out of existence, leaving a pile of coins in one’s wake). If that sounds complicated, it is, but it doesn’t feel that way while watching the movie. Events whip by so fast your head might spin, but you will certainly never be bored.
The comedy in this movie comes from everywhere (the characters, the situation, the environment, the story), in every form (verbal wit, slapstick physicality, general goofiness), using every trick in a director’s book (musical cues, special effects, sound effects, cinematography, and editing). This bewildering barrage of humor might be unprecedented if it did not come from Edgar Wright, director of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. His style was apparent from the first film, and he has only broadened and honed it since. It is worth noting that over half the gags come straight from the sources comics by Brian Lee O’Malley, but their transference into film is still remarkable and unique. Many effects have never been seen in a live-action film before, though quite a few will be familiar to fans of Japanese anime, and various Asian B-movies. Wright manages to appropriate techniques from video games, comic books, music videos, and animation, without every making us feel we are not watching a movie. This is experimental cinema masquerading as mainstream blockbuster.

Scott’s world consists entirely of teenagers and 20-somethings--no older or younger people exist. This makes the film’s scope limited perhaps (and probably limits its audience--I doubt many people over 40 would be interested), but then Wright and O’Malley are not trying to distill all life, just embody a certain brief period in the lives of the Millennial generation. This they do extremely well. Unlike The Social Network, though, which attempts to analyze its era in depth, Scott Pilgrim exemplifies life in the 21st century by playing with our collective fantasies and entertainments, swirling it all up in a colorful mix easily digestible to our miniscule attention spans. First, they get the culture right. The old John Hughes eighties rules of cheerleaders, jocks, math geeks, and screw-ups no longer apply. Scott Pilgrim’s world is populated by gamers, geeks, jocks, hipsters, slackers, indie rockers, celebrities, and Asians. If the story took place in an American city, there would no doubt be more minority representation, but this is Toronto. (An example of the new melting pot: Knives comes from an immigrant Chinese family, but goes to a Catholic high school.) Scott himself embodies several of these categories--he is a gamer, a geek, and a mild rocker--but he is mostly a slacker. The story is not a celebration of this slacking, though, but a call to resist it, put it behind one, and grow up. Scott’s growth is clear over the course of the film: he must learn to take responsibility for his actions, become proactive instead of passive, and put others before himself. Cera plays the part deftly, alternating from dumb to sweet to heroic with ease. He has taken criticism for always playing the same character, but with his last couple movies he is proving these critics wrong by expanding his range in several directions.

The weak point in the movie may be its female characters. They are everywhere, but most get little screen time, and we never really understand them, especially Ramona’s inexplicable attraction to Scott. This is not the fault of the actors involved--every single one of them is perfect, and I wish I could single all of them out for individual praise. The graphic novels, of which there are six, allow much more time for the relationship to develop and have scenes which focus on characters other than Scott. If you felt a little lost in the story or just wanted more of it all, I highly recommend the comics. They give needed back story and definitely added to my appreciation of the movie. In the end, though, I think I prefer the movie. It really does a fantastic job of packing everything in the comics into 112 minutes--the entire first book is in there mostly word-for-word--and the jokes are often funnier onscreen than on the page--adding color and sound helps a lot. As for character development: We see everything from Scott’s perspective, and he doesn’t understand the girls around him at all, so how are we supposed to understand them? He spends most of the movie being remarkably selfish--his journey is about learning to appreciate others as separate individuals in their own right. I think the movie accomplishes that.
With this film, Edgar Wright has surpassed previous genre parodists like Mel Brooks, and become a true auteur of the cinema. It was always obvious that his movies were better than the average Scary Movie clone, but now it is clear that his only peers among current directors are Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers. The older generation might never get him, but I think his works will become classics to be watched for years to come.

Another good review which says most of what I just did better can be found here. And lots of other great reviews and perceptive comments can be found here.

Rating: 10/10 Stars

Friday, November 26, 2010

Review/Thoughts on The Social Network

The Social Network is a movie so teeming with life and ideas that it is difficult to know where to begin. It is an unapologetically ambitious film, boldly dashing from subject to subject, touching on everything from websites to lawsuits to college life to social hierarchies to human relationships to business ethics, all in the midst of a surprisingly thrilling narrative. It is quite possibly the film of the year.
The movie, as everyone will have heard by now, is about the founding of Facebook. It covers a couple of year’s time, from when Harvard undergrad Mark Zuckerberg first gains notoriety by inventing a prank website called Facemash through his development of Facebook into a billion dollar company and the lawsuits he is hit with by old friends and associates angry at him for various reasons. Whether these reasons are legitimate or not is one of the main subjects of the film. Zuckerberg is played terrifically by Jesse Eisenberg, before now often referred to as a poor man’s Michael Cera. Here, however, he rises far beyond Cera, commanding the screen with arrogance, wit, and intensity. He is ably assisted by many other young actors, including Andrew Garfield as Zuckerberg’s best/only friend Eduardo Saverin, Rooney Mara as the girl who dumps him in the first scene, and Armie Hammer in a hilarious dual performance as the Winklevoss twins, wealthy jocks who sue Mark for stealing their idea. Justin Timberlake is perfectly cast as Sean Parker, flamboyant, hard-partying inventor of Napster, sometimes known as the “homeless rock star of Silicon Valley.” Every actor has to deliver a great deal of high-speed dialogue filled with large words, while conveying roiling emotions just under the surface, and they pull it off beautifully.
David Fincher is a director who has occasionally flirted with greatness (Fight Club, Zodiac), and often missed it through seriousness and obviousness (Se7en, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). Here, he nimbly cuts through the clutter of a highly complicated storyline, never lingering too long or oppressing us with too much atmosphere. While many of his contemporary directors are also writers whose work is easily seen as of-a-piece (Tarantino, PT Anderson, Wes Anderson, Christopher Nolan), Fincher always works from the scripts of others. This means his body of work is eclectic, but often uneven--he never seems able to completely rise above the level of the screenplay. When the script is good, the film is good; but when the script makes poor decisions or starts to fall apart, Fincher goes right along with it, filming bad scenes and weak plot twists as well as they can be filmed, but never excising or changing things to make it work. Here he is blessed with a perfectly structured script from Aaron Sorkin that is witty and eloquent and has been praised to the high heavens as the most brilliant Hollywood script in decades. Actually, it is fairly obvious in places, occasionally so on-the-nose that it makes you wince--or would, if Fincher were not deft enough to take all the punch out of the obvious points and keep everything on a light and equal footing. The film comes off as a disparate bunch of suggestions and conjectures about Zuckerburg and modern society, but by never attempting to hammer them home it achieves an ambiguity and thoughtfulness it might otherwise have lacked. This is Fincher’s doing, and he deserves credit for it.

Mark Zuckerburg is presented as a brilliant student, ambitious and driven, but also arrogant and thin-skinned. His need for success will drive him to ruthlessly establish an internet empire, but end up alienating his closest friends along the way. The credits sequence can be taken as a metaphor for the entire film: Mark, clad in hoodie and backpack, jogs silently through the streets of Boston, staring straight ahead and ignoring those to either side of him, while Trent Reznor’s gorgeous, unsettling score plays on the soundtrack. Mark is socially awkward and sometimes cruel, and the picture is certainly not one the real Zuckerburg would expected to be happy with, but it is not unsympathetic. It is quite clear, for instance, that the Winklevoss twins have no real grounds to sue him. He blew them off after saying he would work with them, but he did not steal their idea, he came up with a better one. With MySpace and Friendster already online (plus and eHarmony), it’s not like the concept of connected personal webpages was the copyrighted property of two undergrads at Harvard. And while his treatment of Eduardo is undoubtedly cruel, it is also clear that Mark was the brains of the operation from the beginning. Eduardo is an intelligent kid who looks up to Mark--watch the way he quickly says “you’re right” immediately after offering an objection--but he is not ready to run a billion dollar company, and when he gets left behind one can see it as a necessary sacrifice. Whatever else he may be, when it comes to matters of computer code and business strategy, Mark is always right.
In the end, Mark is left sitting at a conference table, endlessly refreshing a Facebook page, alone with his creation. This is a Rosebud moment that can be taken--wrongly--as a full explanation: He just wanted to impress a girl. I initially took it as an awkward and on-the-nose ending that undercut rest of the movie. Like the original Rosebud, though, it offers only one more clue in the puzzle of a rich and powerful man. This is just one moment of his life, after a string of legal depositions dragged every ugly secret of the last couple years into the light, and he is feeling lonely and depressed. At this moment, he decides to reach out to a person he wishes he hadn’t screwed up with--the one person who broke with him, not the other way around. It’s probably hopeless, but it makes him feel better. Surely we can’t begrudge him that.

A great deal has already been written about the film, with many varying interpretations and analytical angles. Jim Emerson sees the film as being essentially about codes, both social and technological, while Richard Brody sees it as a story of Jewish success and assimilation, and Roger Ebert sees it as the story of a lone genius who saw the big picture even though he lacked basic social skills, not unlike Bobby Fischer or John Nash. Matt Zoller Seitz sees it as a horror film. Dozens more interpretations can be found here. I do not have a grand interpretive theory, so, as a college student in the new millennium whose life has been utterly changed by the internet, I will offer a personal response to the film’s portrayal of my generation.
Mark’s habitual costume of a hooded sweatshirt and flip-flops is a trademark of the real man, but it is certainly not out of place on a college campus (a corporate business office is another matter). Even a scene of him stumbling in the snow in flip-flops is not an exaggeration--I have seen others do the same. The depiction of college partying may seem over the top, but it is not necessarily. The party shown in the film is the first party of the semester thrown by a Final Club, a fraternity-like group which makes a tradition of this kind of thing. They bus in girls from other schools--something that did in fact happen at Harvard, though not exactly as depicted--and proceed to have a wild booze-fueled party, complete with underwear dancing and lesbian kissing. Certainly most college parties are not this wild, and few dissolve into wild orgies, but none of these things are unheard of. Alcohol, of course, is ubiquitous, and girl on girl kissing is something of a fad at the moment, done mostly for the amusement of the boys. Drugs are easily available if one knows where to look, though hard drugs are pretty rare--marijuana and its many forms are by far the most popular. This is all most popular at large state schools, but it is not confined to poor students or frat houses. It is possible in a modern university to discuss your plans for getting a PhD one minute and where you can get cheap drugs the next. I hasten to add, however, that it is also possible to get an excellent education while avoiding these parties altogether. When you move in different circle, at college, it’s possible to be completely unaware of what’s happening in other circles.
Computers have had as great--perhaps greater--impact on our day-to-day lives than any new technology since television, and telephones before that. Facebook has become an integral part of our internet experience. Relationship status is all-important--as shown in the film--and it can and does destroy relationships regularly. We are connected more than ever online, but we are so often oblivious to the people in front of us because we are texting or updating our status on our smart phones. (Facebook has become so ubiquitous that I saw a TV commercial the other day where a person talked about “updating their status” without ever mentioning the word Facebook--it was understood.) IPods are everywhere, and we wear earbuds when walking down the street or the hall, with people all around us. Loneliness has not been eliminated by all this new connectivity; it’s just found new ways to incarnate itself. Facebook itself has created dozens of new ways to hurt and exclude--just look here.
Millennials want to change the world but we’re still immature. This movie shows what happens when we take power prematurely. Zuckerburg’s conflict with the Winklevii is not so much a Jew vs. WASP grudge match (though anti-Jewish jokes are not uncommon--”dude, that’s so jewish!”--real anti-semitic feeling is very rare), as it is a continuation of the Nerds/Geeks vs. Jocks battle from the ‘80s. The Geeks have been winning since Bill Gates, though, and the Jocks are on the ropes. It also continues the never-ending battle between Old Money and the Nouveau Riche, only now the Old Money fights with lawsuits when it can’t get its way.
In other words, I find The Social Network a highly accurate and critical depiction of my generation and the state of the world at this moment. I do wonder, though, whether it will age well. What if Facebook is suddenly overtaken by other technology in three years. Twenty-five years from now, will we look back on this film as one that captures and defines its moment for posterity, or one that seems a strange relic of a backwards era, goofy in its delusions? Only time will tell.

  • Random: Wasn't the boat race sequence sweet? With In the Hall of the Mounatin King on the soundtrack and the shift tilt photography that makes everything look like models, it was like nothing else in the entire movie, and it was glorious.
  • I said this before, but the supporting cast in this movie is terrific. Andrew Garfield gives an Oscar-worthy performance, and Armie Hammer isn't far behind. Hammer's is mostly comedic, but he somehow has perfect comic timing while playing two characters at once, bouncing off himself! If that isn't award-worthy, I don't know what is. And Justin Timberlake is pretty much spectacular, full of charisma and sleaziness. He may be playing a version of himself, but he does it very very well, and the fear and distress that show up in him at the end are totally believable.
  • I think the trailer is one of the finest I have seen. So much complexity and ambivalence conveyed just by the choice of music: Radiohead's "Creep" sung by a Swedish choir over close-up shots of Facebook profiles, suggesting alienation and a longing for friendship at the heart of the Facebook phenomenon.

  • I think this little video is terrific, too. It conveys why I think Mark is worth rooting for, even if he's not really admirable. Because he's right.

Rating: 10/10 Stars

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Review: The American

The American is a European-style art film that happens to star one of the biggest movie stars in the world. The previews understandably played up the action to draw a crowd, but the crowd did not get what it came for. Consequently, the film won it’s opening weekend in box office, but experienced a harsh backlash from audiences. In the showing I attended, people around me started complaining as soon as the film ended (screen to black--immediately, two rows back: “Awful! Just awful!”). If you attend with the proper expectations, however, you might find a beautifully shot and fascinating, if flawed, character study well worth your attention.
George Clooney plays a master assassin generally known as Jack. This is not his real name, but no real name is ever given. He is no secret hero, or a killer with a conscience who only takes out bad guys, but a real assassin who will kill absolutely anyone to survive. After a deal goes bad and other killers are sent after him, his handler, known as Pavel, sends him to hide out in the Italian countryside. There he is given a job by a mysterious female assassin to build a gun for her, and carries on a torrid but low-key romance with a prostitute. And that is basically the entire plot.

Jack leads a highly disciplined, ascetic life. He rises at dawn, stretches, exercises, and reads ornithological guides while sitting in a coffee shop. When building a weapon, he works carefully and cleanly, intent on his work, a true craftsman in his element. Clooney plays him with careful restraint, doling out emotional details in small hand movements and eye-flicks. This is one of his finest performances. The director, Anton Corbijn, focuses on these little details, allowing them to gather import and emotion. He spent most of his career as a landscape photographer, and that comes through clearly here in a movie that is often breathtakingly beautiful, yet sterile and cold. He frames each shot with precision, the aloof compositions reflecting the personality of his protagonist.

Jack’s cold aloofness is a facade, though. He has grown old, and his hardness is leaving him. He begins to dream of escape and perhaps redemption. His asceticism is broken by talks with a local priest and repeated visits (shown in passionate and not completely necessary detail) with a prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido). His desire for human connection leads him to gradually invest in these relationships, though he never reveals details of his work. The drama comes from his internal struggle with purpose and motivation as we wait for his enemies to discover him.

The most fascinating scenes are between Jack and the priest (Paolo Bonacelli). The priest is jowly and at first seems naive, but gradually reveals himself as a shrewd judge of character. He knows the American is hiding something, and suggests that Jack does not have to be what he is, that salvation is possible with God. Jack tries to deflect the questions, dismissing the idea of redemption for himself, but cannot shake that idea of being something else, of having some other job and life. Irritated by the way the priest gets under his skin--and desiring to see his own sin in everyone else--Jack noses into his private life and accuses him of hypocrisy. The priest, however, admits it easily enough, owning his actions and repenting from them. He is a sinner, not a hypocrite. His past actions still give him pain, but they also led to joy, and wisdom. Two possibilities of redemption (or at least escape) are presented to Jack: that of religion, and that of love of a woman. There is little doubt which one a man like him will choose.

The film is not without its logical problems. There are shootouts in the street that never bring any police, and character motivations that seem forced. Most grievously, the use of guns in the film is apparently hopelessly flawed (see here). This is a serious error, as the film is very specific in its gun details and presents Jack as an expert beyond experts. There is also a great deal of nudity, not all of which is warranted, though some contributes useful character and plot detail.

He is known to the locals as the American. I do not believe this is political, as some have suggested. Rather, it is reflective of his lack of personal detail and connection; he is known only by his nationality. Within, however, he is full of a pain that has been building up for years. When it finally boils over, and he hits the steering wheel in frustration, it is a moment of hopeless self-recrimination reminiscent of Jake Lamotta pounding the prison wall in Raging Bull. I left the theater shaken.

Rating: 7.5/10 Stars