Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Review: The Social Network

The '90s saw the growth of the Internet, but it wasn't until the 2000s, when Web 2.0 started becoming the norm, did the Internet really explode and fill every facet of our life.  Forget the Dot-Com bubble, the true makers and shapers of the Interet didn't come until the early part of the new millennium (or the late part of the old).  Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube (now Google), these pillars are surprisingly new and enormously massive in their explosive growth.  The simple fact remains that one or all of these companies permeates our lives and defines a part of each one of us.  It's rare that someone doesn't have a Facebook account, or doesn't watch videos on YouTube, or doesn't use Google's search engine (or any other of its many manifestations.  Plenty of people have Android phones, write on Blogger, use Google Translate, use Google Maps/Earth, pray for Google broadbrand, etc.)  The Internet has morphed from a simple communication network and is now rapidly defining all of our relationships and connections.

Let's get to the movie.  Based off Ben Mezrich's The Accidental Billionaires, The Social Network is about the founding of Facebook.  Jesse Eisenberg stars as Facebook's driving force and (co)founder, Mark Zuckerberg.  The film starts with him breaking up with his girlfriend, and being driven out of spite to write nasty things about her on his blog, then create a site called FaceMash, which allows sophomoric Harvard students to rank undergrad girls by their looks (all done in one night while drunk.)  The site gets so many hits that it causes Harvard's network to crash and Eisenberg's/Zuckerberg's antics get him some disciplinary action and earn him the scorn and hatred of every girl on campus, but it also draws the attention of the Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer) and their friend/business partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella.)  They pitch the idea for HarvardConnect, an exclusive social network for Harvard students to have profiles and share things like pictures and such.  Zuckerberg duly agrees, but then goes on to make his own site thefacebook with some start up cash from his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield.)  The site takes off, earning Zuckerberg the ire of the Winklevosses, but the admiration of everyone else.  Soon, Sean Parker, played by Justin Timberlake, takes notice and wants in on it, bringing in big name connections and start up money.  Minghella has his reservations about Timberlake, but hardly anyone can keep up since the site is expanding so rapidly.  The film switches between the past and Zuckerberg's two depositions (one where he is being sued by the Winklevosses and one where he is being sued by Eduardo.)
I have to say, this is hands down the best movie of 2010 (I expect it to wrap up Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Soundtrack at the Oscars.)  Eisenberg plays the perfect anti-hero in Zuckerberg; he's a someone who is driven by the envy and jealousy of being denied into exclusive clubs.  His drive is to become the exclusivity, for everyone to look up at him and admire and admit their mistakes and wrongs in not acknowledging his genius in the first place.  Money isn't the important thing, respect is.  Timberlake's Parker is more of a Rasputin character, whispering into Zuckerberg's ear and bending him to his will, while Zuckerberg is increasingly antagonistic to his former friends.  The film is tight, brilliantly acted, extremely hilarious, beautifully shot, and incredibly scored.  The music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross enhances the atmosphere and plays beautifully.
The bottom line is, The Social Network is the best movie of 2010, and a wonderful piece of art. 

Score: A  (See this movie soon.  I don't care, shell out the $8 if you must to see it in the theaters.)

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Review: Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps

The first Wall Street was one in a fairly long string of excellent Oliver Stone movies (Platoon still ranks in the very top (3?) of the best war movies of all time.)  Wall Street gave us Gordon Gekko and a perfect allegory for the '80s' banker.  The film was sharp, has memorable lines (many a businessman has put "Greed—for lack of a better word—is good" on his Facebook page) and was an accurate depiction of the workings of Wall Street.
The sequel is another matter.  Set around 2008, right before the shit hits the fan for the financial crises, Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps resurrects Michael Douglas as the infamous Gordon Gekko and brings in Shia LaBeouf as his soon-to-be son-in-law/protégé.  Douglas leaves prison after an eight-year stint (plus six in court) and tries to redeem himself by penning a book aptly name Is Greed Good? and going on a lecture circuit of how the economy is heading for the shitter and it's everyone's fault.  LaBeouf plays a successful young trader trying to keep investment inside his baby, a company attempting fusion.  His girlfriend, playing Gekko's estranged daughter, is Carey Mulligan, who also runs an up-and-coming liberal news site.  They get engaged, but not before LaBeouf's mentor throws himself under a subway train because his faulting investment bank won't be bailed out by a consortium of the Federal Reserve and other banks, led by the new villain played by Josh Brolin.  The rest of the film revolves around LaBeouf trying to stick it to Brolin, and trying to enlist Douglas to help him (for the cost of causing a reconciliation between father and daughter.)
In short, Money Never Sleeps isn't half as smart as the original.  It's essentially a polemic and pseudo-documentary of the current crisis, trying to show Americans how stupid everyone has been and how the guys at the top were the dumbest of all.  (Susan Sharandon plays LaBeouf's mother, a real estate agent, who clings to the idea that she can sell her oversized, overpriced mansions in a few weeks.  LaBeouf repeatedly gives her large sums of cash, for which she pleads like a pathetic junky.)  Most of the characters go on long tirades that seem like they were ripped from The Wall Street Journal or something Michael Lewis wrote for Vanity Fair.
Besides that, the actual quality of the film is pretty low.  There are a plethora of entirely unnecessary cut-scenes, crappy CGI, and plenty of graphics that annoy rather than enhance.  It's like Stone has forgotten how to direct and reverted to some eighteen-year-old with a Final Cut Pro mindset.  The attempts at being smart with the graphics goes the way of George Lucas, in that they interfere with the story rather than enhance it.  According to Wikipedia, Carey Mulligan talked Stone into augmenting Winnie Gekko's role, a mistake that Stone should have shut down when it was first suggested.
Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps only partially succeeds in what it set out to do.  Most of all, it's just like it's title: a cast off bit of dialogue from the original.

Score: C

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Review: Get Him To The Greek

For those of you who have come to expect that Apatow films are the best comedies that Hollywood now has to offer, here's a new treat for you.  Get Him to the Greek is a spin-off of the earlier film Forgetting Sarah Marshall, where Russell Brand plays the same character as rockstar Aldous Snow and Jonah Hill plays the same character he always has: a fat whiny Jew.

The movie starts with Brand releasing a new Album, African Child, which turns out to be a huge flops and essentially ends his career.  He goes into a tailspin of drugs and abuse for a few years and loses his son and girlfriend—played by Rose Byrne.  Meanwhile, Hill works for a record company run by Sean Combs (who is obviously channeling Chris Rock for the part) and lives with his doctor-to-be girlfriend, Elisabeth Moss.  Hill pitches the idea that Brand has a concert at the Greek Theatre in LA on the tenth-year anniversary of a particularly memorable show.  Brand and Combs agree, Hill is dispatched to London to bring Brand back (to be his nanny.)  On their way to LA, Brand and Hill get into all sorts of hijinks together.
Get Him to the Greek is a film that provides some easy laughs without much substance.  The film is typical Apatow-fare, with plenty of drinking, sex, drugs, and crazy misdeeds, but also love, redemption, finding strength, finding a way, and self-discovery.  While there are some truly hilarious parts and lines from this film, it doesn't really stand out as a particularly great flick.  Much of the humor revolves around substance abuse and alcohol consumption (Oh, look, they're drinking absinthe and then jumping around ecstatically.)  The film could have done with a little more work, a little more fine-tuning.  I must admit though, the best parts of this film are the two music videos released by Rose Byrne's character, Jackie Q (view them on YouTube.)

Score: C+

Review: Sunshine

Although Sunshine came out in 2007, I feel compelled to write about it, because: A) I watched it just recently and B) It has largely (and undeservedly) been ignored.  Danny Boyle's other works (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting, 28 Days/Weeks Later) have all been watched by everyone who has listed 'Watching movies' in their activities section on their facebook pages.  Sunshine was largely forgotten.

My personal view on Boyle's work is that he is the spiritual brother of Darren Aronofsky.  Beyond their wonderfully detailed and shot films, both directors have the ability to get their actors to rip out their humanity and place it in front of the audience.  No one walks away from theaters complaining about bad acting or poor characters.  Usually they walk away in a daze after the visual assault they just endured.

Sunshine isn't a particularly original movie in the strictest sense.  The plot follows a crew of eight about a spaceship, the Icarus II, headed to the sun.  The sun is dying and their mission is to drop off a massive bomb to re-ignite it.  They are the second ship charged with this mission, since the first went missing seven years earlier.  The Icarus II passes Mercury, when they pick up the distress signal of the Icarus I.  Mishaps ensue.  Not exactly the most original plot line in the Sci-Fi genre, but neither was 28 Days Later.  When boiled down, 28 Days Later was just another zombie movie; but instead of focusing of gross-out effects and creepiness, 28 Days Later was artfully shot and focused on basic movie points like acting, character development, and a plot that actually went somewhere.  Same with Sunshine.
While the plot may seem to borrow from films like Event Horizon and Alien the film is wonderfully shot, has a atmosphere, and brings Sci-Fi out from the ComCons and to the mainstream.  The ensemble cast includes (but not limited to) Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh, and Chris Evans—most known for his work in The Fantastic Four as the flaming dude.  Everyone gives amazing performances, which is notable in a genre that usually ranks only above horror in acting skills.  Think about it, when was the last time you really watched a horror flick in which everyone gave outstanding performances (The Silence of the Lambs?)
I must admit that one of my hobbies is watching crime shows (whodunit-types) and finding flaws in the science that they present.  Now, I don't know too much about astrophysics, so I couldn't really pick out a lot of scientific flaws in the film that irked some others.  But that's not the reason to watch it.  What gives Sunshine its weight, its tension, its grip on the viewer, is the way it creates the atmosphere of being in space.  In space, you are confined in a small space with the same people all the time and tensions rise.  Not only that, if you make the slightest mistake or miscalculation, you're pretty much done for.  There's no rescue mission coming to chopper in and pull you out; there are two ways to die: by fire or ice.  When faced with calamity, you're probably going to have to face the music and say, "Game over, man!"

Score:  B+

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Review: Salt

More and more action movies, especially those involving spies and government assassins, are taking pages from the Bourne series.  Salt is no exception, trying to break the mold for action movies that was so impenetrably cast by films such as the Mission Impossible and James Bond franchises (i.e. ultra-unrealistic and hackneyed action, special effects up the wazoo, plot and character development are secondary considerations.)

There is a certain brand of movies (Taken, Ninja Assassin, Salt) that are best watched in places like airplanes or on long car trips.  Maybe it's because intercontinental airline travel is so devoid of stimulation beyond the snoring fat lady next to you and the constant roar of the engines that make these movies perfect for watching aboard an eight-hour flight.  They are so fantastical, so laughable and fun, such an escape from the darkened cabin.  I couldn't imagine watching them elsewhere (although, I did watch Salt in my living room.)  An environment such as an airplane makes you so crave mindless entertainment that you'll excuse the gigantic plot holes, the half-assed acting, and the over-used special effects.

Angelina Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA spook who, of course, specializes in everything from kicking ass to taking names.  Her superior, Ted Winter (played by Liv Schreiber), is a hurly burly who puts his upmost faith in her and tries to pull her back onto the reservation.  The film doesn't take any time wasting around with backstory (that's filled in slightly throughout the film by way of flashback), and plunges straight into the midst of it.  Jolie is saved from a North Korean prison at the behest of her future husband, August Deihl.  Years later (on her anniversary), a man walks comes into the CIA claiming to be a Russian spy.  During his debriefing, he says he's Vassily Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski), and is dying of cancer, then claims that Jolie is actually a Russian sleeper spy and there's a huge Russian ploy to bring back the Soviet Union and bring down the United States.  Chiwetel Ejiofor, a counter-intelligence office wants to learn more and keep Jolie under lock and key.  Jolie takes off with the CIA host (and her former boss) in hot pursuit.
Salt is essentially a gigantic chase scene interspersed with some flashbacks and rest, but it grabs ahold and doesn't let go.  It's action-packed and full of Angelina Jolie looking sexy as she beats the shit out faceless G-men (she actually, no lie, takes off her panties to throw over a security camera, then blows some fuckers away.)
Returning to an earlier point, Salt might be fun to watch, but don't watch it expecting a smart, clever movie.  While the acting is almost half-way decent, the plot is pretty much absurd.  The film is quickly paced, always keeping the viewed on the edge of his seat, guessing as to who Jolie is, what her real motives are, and who everyone else is as well.  There are twists and turns, but each time a new character is introduced or a new plot twist is revealed, it's almost hilariously bad (numerous times I yelled out loud (laughing) "WHAT?!  This is ridiculous!!!")  You might ask yourself why so many trained operatives are so slow to react when Jolie pistol whips them; or why the police don't bring helicopters to help chase her; or why the Russians would think that a crazy, convoluted plan, years in the making, would ever work—but don't.  That takes away half the fun.  But then again, you ought to be watching this because Angelina Jolie is looking fit and thin thrashing her way though loads of armed men.  Now, next time you are on a cross-country trip, you have something to keep you occupied for few hours.

Score: C+

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Review: Dorian Gray

There's this thing about Colin Firth that cuts him out to be so perfect for Oscar Wilde's work.  Not only is he the highlight of the new film Dorian Gray, but he was also masterful in 2002's rendition of The Importance of Being Ernest.  Firth may not have much leeway in his choice of roles, but the way he slips out Wilde's witticisms makes one believe that he was made for it. 
Dorian Gray is an adaptation of Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Ben Barnes takes on the titular role of Dorian Gray, a young man who inherits a fortune and townhouse in England.  He's young, innocent, and naive.  He befriends painter, Basil Hallword, played by Ben Chaplin, but falls under the influence of Lord Henry Wotton (Colin Firth.)  Wotton's philosophy in life is to give into every temptation on pleasure; basically he preaches to give into every sort of vice and Barnes eats it up.  Chaplin, meanwhile, paints a stunningly realistic portrait of Gray, which takes on Gray's soul (Chaplin also harbors romantic feelings for Barnes, which puts him at odds with Firth.)  Barnes falls in and out of love with the young actress, Sybil Vane (Rachel Hurd-Wood), who kills herself after Barnes' character leaves her jilted.  But soon, under Firth's guidance, Gray overcomes his grief and indulges in all of life's pleasures.  About ninety minutes of softcore erotica starts as Gray has his way with every woman (and man) that he can while consuming copious amounts of alcohol and drugs.  All the while, the portrait takes on Gray's sins, becoming deformed and hideous while Gray himself stays youthful and beautiful.
Overall, Dorian Gray is a very dark comedy.  The film itself tries a little too hard to be artistic, which isn't too bad since it's fitting to the genre.  Fans of Wilde's dry wit will appreciate the quips and the asides, while simultaneously feeling slightly disappointed that there aren't more of them.  Barnes starts off weak, but works into his role later into the film, while Firth is definitely the reason to watch at all.  For a culture that rapidly lowers the lowest common denominator for entertainment and comedy, Wilde's re-entrance (no matter how weak) to the arena is welcomed; now if only it were done a little better.

Score: C

Review: Defamation

I rarely watch documentaries.  It's not that I am against them totally, it's that I find most of them are one-sided hack affairs that offer little insight and are truly biased.  There are a few gems (No End in Sight, March of the Penguins, An Inconvenient Truth, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) that I found insightful and worth a watch and rumination afterward, but I am always leery in basing my opinion off something I saw in a documentary.

Enter Defamation, Israeli film maker, Yoav Shamir's, attempt to explore and explain antisemitism (especially in the US.)  Shamir is embedded in the ADL as they go around Europe; he accompanies a group of Israeli teenagers as they tour concentration camps in Poland; he interviews a variety of talking heads, ranging from professors to rabbis to everyday people (Jews and Gentiles).
Shamir is not afraid to get his hands dirty and confront a person's perspective or ask penetrating questions and facts, but he doesn't wholly judge.  What comes out is an interesting and certainly eye-opening experience.  The dichotomy of a knife-wielding manic's attack on a synagogue (whose adherents later stated that they faced no antisemitism in their society) to Israeli teenagers having a run-in with some old Polish men (who were asking the innocent question, whether the teenagers were Israeli, while the teenagers quickly assumed that the men were calling them donkeys.)  Shamir puts up a comparison of observant Jews versus secular; he gives pro-Israel and Israel critics equal weight; and he puts it out there that perhaps the whole issue of antisemitism could be minimized if everyone put down their banners and really held a conversation.

Score: B