Film of the Week: The Social Network (2010)

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David Fincher directs Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield and Justin Timberlake in this hopefully heavily fictionalised look at the creators of Facebook.

Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin bring their impeccable talent to the tale of a dick. Poor Jesse Eisenberg. His take on Mark Zuckerberg is a career making role and he inhabits it so clearly, definitely and is so beautifully detestable that he could be cast as the Dalai Lama yet the impact of his performance here would mean you’d walk out of Kundun 2 thinking the Dalai Lama was a bit of a dick. It is that iconic a performance, nothing he will do will ever override it. Poor Mark Zuckerberg. He could donate (nearly) all his money to charity and based on Sorkin, Fincher and Eisenberg’s expert character assassination work, he will still be the dick to the majority of the Facebook using public as portrayed here. They aren’t the only dicks. The Social Network is awash with dicks. Poor Armie Hammer as both the Winklevoss twins, he/they both lost to a dick… Making him/them even more pitiable – satisfyingly so given their old world money bought arrogance. Andrew Garfield, in the most sympathetic and likeable role, puts his own dickishness perfectly when he explains he was a CFO of the multi million dollar valued company who did not get his contracts checked by his own lawyers. The utter dick. And as for Justin Timberlake’s Napster founding, underage sex loving, Iago with hair gel, Sean Parker… Well… you can only guess. It all makes The Social Network a sharply funny look at a community of social rejects at war with each other over new technology, massive stakes and underdeveloped maturities. Fincher manages to perfectly capture a point in time where the world changed, a period film set less than six years ago. Browns and golds melt seductively into our eyes as the echoing piano of Trent Reznor’s score strokes our hair. The autumn of modernity captured just as the moment passes? Sorkin gets the satire exactly right, the barbed dialogue is like ping pong rallies. The dicks all win riches and lose their relationships. How is that for a moral of our times?

10

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How I Spent My Summer Vacation (2012)

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Adrian Grunberg directs Mel Gibson, Peter Stomare and Kevin Hernandez in the south of border prison thriller.

Before he publicly exploded, Mel (Max, Riggs, Maverick) used to churn out a neat little action thriller like this or two a year. It could easily be a spiritual sequel to the fun Payback (in fact there is very little evidence to the contrary). If you like that, then you’ll like this. It’s a nasty, foul mouthed, Mel outsmarts everyone in a some gun toting brinkmanship, bit of spectacle. He’s still got it even if no one is currently buying.

7

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

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Jack Arnold directs Grant Williams, Randy Stuart and April Kent in this domestic set sci fi thriller.

The performance and effect work are very much of their time, charming rather than ropey, but the action becomes so involving you ignore the seams apparent in the spectacle. Good writing and strong vision make this a very easy prospect to just enjoy the ride. Narratively lean but with quite admirable existential ambitions this is an intelligently made treat. In a small but significant role as a circus midget happy with her lot, April Kent impresses. Sadly a quick Google suggest this was the peak of a short career. Shame really as she adds a little extra heart to this sharp tale of bloodless body horror and one man’s survival against a rapidly changing world.

8

 

Now and Then (1995)

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Lesli Linka Glatter directs Christina Ricci, Gaby Hoffmann and Thora Birch in the 70s set coming of age drama with big star modern day bookends.

A sweet little film that is not really focussed, funny, authentic or emotionally satisfying enough to compete with its clear inspiration: Stand By Me. The cast make it more than an interesting curio though and I’m not talking about Demi Moore, Rosie O’Donnell, Brendan Fraser or Hank Azaria in extended cameos. Ricci, Hoffmann and Birch were all impressive child stars who despite interesting work in their late teens have not managed to keep their momentum going. Now and Then stands as a testament to their charm and currently untapped potential.

5

Man of Steel (2013)

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Zack Snyder directs Henry Cavill, Amy Adams and Micheal Shannon in this modernisation on the Superman origins myth.

Perhaps the most frustrating blockbuster ever made – the first 90 minutes is a 5 star classic look at Superman embracing his destiny. From an eye popping last day on Krypton right up to being outed to the world as an alien saviour among us, this is exciting stuff. Then we have a relentless hour of overwhelming, effects obese set pieces that numb the audience into submission unraveling all that good work. You can even see what two of the four action chunks could be easily cut out; attack of nanotentacles & 15 minutes of Supes and Zod playing pinball with other against and through the architecture of Metropolis. Snip those two plate spinners off unto the cutting room floor and the narrative is unaffected, the running time manageable and that rumble in Smallville and the stop World Engine from destroying humanity skit would be a more than satisfying one-two knockout. There’s lot to love in that start though – Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner shine as Kal-El and Clark Kent’s respective fathers, the smaller scale action as hobo Clark hitchhikes across an accident prone America rocks, the glimpses of his alien eyeview of childhood disturbs, Amy Adam’s Lois Lane is given meaty more to do than wait for the boy in blue to save her, the production design is lavish and Hans Zimmer composes possibly the greatest movie score since… well… Richard Donner’s Superman. OK, it’s not all solely the overlong conclusions fault… Cavill, Adams and Shannon do not have much chemistry with each other or the source material which is a shame (especially considering what talents the last two are). And the big name mega ensemble may add the sheen of quality but also means we get to have a completely unnecessary Perry White action sequence (at 2 hours 15 minutes in, no-one cares about Jenny the Intern, even if it is Laurence Fishburne saving her). Still any film where you get to see Gladiator fly a space dragon and Kevin Costner teach life lessons in the visual equivalent of a Bruce Springsteen album is worth a punt and you can always switch off once the CGI overpowers the hope.

6

The Red Shoes (1948)

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Powell and Pressburger direct Anton Walbrook, Moira Shearer and Marius Goring in this technicolor look at life in the ballet.

An absolute classic – one of those film that on the surface seems some bright, light and chocolate box confection but swirls with grim undercurrents about artistic comittment, authorial control and poisonous infatuation. Walbrook is fantastic as the ballet director whose ideals for his art (and those talented enough to meet his exacting standards) are as unbending as his affection for those he moulds into greats. Shearer burns up the screen in her debut role – both her dancing and her allure are captivating. As for the central ballet performance, like the film itself, it is vibrantly and imaginatively filmed but its apparent whimsy barely conceals a dark, disturbingly unavoidable conclusion. Jack Cardiff’s cinematography is masterful, in fact all technical elements are hard to find any fault with.

10

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

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Sergio Leone directs Clint Eastwood, Gian Maria Volnte and Jose Calvo in this violent revisionist western.

1964: Hollywood had all but given up on the Western, consigned them to mere TV serials. Then came the foreigners to perform a much needed red paint blood transfusion. These gritty, nihilistic and tightly plotted Spaghetti Westerns pumped new life into the cowboy flicks big screen prospects. Life that kept them viable for a decade further. A star making turn from Clint helps – the anti hero happy to put himself in genuine harms way to get closer to his goal. Sure… he is brutal, rugged and fast on the draw but also smarter and willing to go further than anyone he comes up against. This is not John Wayne or Alan Ladd’s assumed strength and assumed righteousness take on manifest destiny. Clint’s evolution of the stock gun for hire lead adds an almost supernatural element to the mix in his ability to just about survive or just about out shoot the impossible. Leone knows how to make his dirty hero even more mythic. That close and far framing, mastery of the desolate landscape setting, lengthy shots of those calm detached eyes taking it all in. The supporting casts hyper, sweaty, dubbed performances in contrast to our quiet lead. Fistful is a load of simple satisfying fun but more importantly the revolutionary template for the icon Eastwood would become and the essential grubbing up the western genre needed to take to survive.

9

High Rise (2016)

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Ben Wheatly directs Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller and Jeremy Irons in this 1970s filtered vision of a sci-fi dystopia.

My great expectations for High Rise were both met and warped on viewing. Ben Wheatly is the most exciting director currently making movies and this lurch towards a higher profile cast, source material and budget had the feel of a nexus point for British cinema. The most exciting since Trainspotting potentially. Now what we actually get is not quite as accessible as Trainspotting. Not quite as accessible as a rave culture influenced look at working class Scottish heroin junkies ruining their lives. High Rise is a tough film that ignores its apocalyptic-thriller-in-an-enclosed-space trappings and instead focuses on the symptoms of the society in collapse rather than any causes or cures. If you have come looking for action or heroics then Wheatly pointedly disappoints. He is far more interested in showing the man freefalling from the 30th floor than any attempts to save him or even what happens to the body. What we are left with is a colourful, moving puzzle that stylishly throws up lurid flashes and mysterious blanks, knowing your mind will imagine far worse trying to recognise and fills in what you have and have not glimpsed. We essentially live too long with an ensemble violently falling apart, even Tom Hiddleston nominal hero succumbs to the addictive madness of the tower society. A cold fish role, he enters impeccably suited with his life compartmentalised in boxes marked Fiction and Non Fiction, boxes he never opens, a suit he is reluctant to take off even when all vestiges of community and respectability are lost. Surrounding him are great bits of hysterical acting from Luke Evans (going the full Oliver Reed as a macho working class libertine), Elisabeth Moss (the closest we got to a Madonna figure who still casts off her children and wedding fling for a good fuck), James Purefoy and Dan Renton Skinner (snobs turned into a leisurewear clad death squad) plus Jeremy Irons and Keeley Hawes (excellent as the penthouse flat couple with a love / hate relationship and a beautifully incongruous  white horse). Unsatisfying as the genre experience it has been sold as yet for a immaculately detailed and performed walk on the wild side this joins 1984, Fahrenheit 451 and A Clockwork Orange as a perfect cerebral, literary sci-fi adaptation for those of us who like getting lost in a world. And we are in no way the worst neighbours to share a level with.

9

Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Zack Snyder directs Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill and Amy Adams in a big screen battle of comic books’ biggest titans. 

I rushed to the big screen this morning to catch the earliest 35mm screening. I know you probably haven’t seen it just yet so have tried to keep my review relatively spoiler free. If it’s not hinted at in the trailer and a genuine surprise I have avoided discussing it. If that’s still potentially too much info for you please stop reading… but basically: Go see Batman Vs Superman, it is a behemoth of a film well worth catching on the big screen.

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Here we go… I refused to get excited about this. Snyder always gives far better trailer than his finished product, and BvS’s direct predecessor Man of Steel was overlong and flawed under his own hand… Nothing in the marketing this time around had suggested that supertanker was about turn around to change from that course. We are $400 million bucks in studio spend further down the line, which is tons to carry even with essentially the biggest, baddest comic book movie ever promised.

But here is what we actually get.

A new, hard edged (it feels R rated) Batman movie. And where does that hard edge come from? The very comics I grew up on and love. Frank Miller’s right wing Neo-Conservative take on Bats and Supes permeates this in design, plotting and philosophy. But there are also the horror elements and definitive take on Alfred reflecting Scott “No relation” Snyder’s current run, plus a healthy dollop of Dan Jurgens work on Superman in there too. Forget how you feel about Zack Snyder’s bombast, volume and hubris for at long last he has directed the most loyal and faithful comic book adaptation yet. This feels how a comic book fan selects and interprets Batman… not how a Nolan or a Burton used him as jumping of point for their own vision. 7 films in, and the boy Snyder, a director with all the enthusiasm and restraint of a toddler scribbling on a A1 sheet,  has finally done good. Loyalty to source is the film’s true strength and as a DC fan BvS sated me in surprising ways.

Not that this strength will do much for your casual viewer. Given the key text (The Dark Knight Returns) the film is unavoidably and often horrendously right wing. I am not a particularly PC person but you just ask in your head automatically “Why has parent murdering Joe Chill been made darker skinned than his usual pale junkie look?” The big government subplot about trying to sanction the Superman is directionless and thankfully put to bed at the midway point. And this psychotically violent, Nietzscheian interpretations of the joint title characters comes straight out of 80’s Miller and is not in anyway really suited to a 21st century family flick. If you flinched when Kal-El killed Zod last time round, then this multiple life taking, villian branding take on the Batman will give you a convulsive fit. Burton and Nolan may have taken the material off to rewarding new places that made their blockbusters palatable to the uninitiated viewer looking for a good night out, whereas Snyder has produced a punching and kicking conservative manifesto, setting out in stone the real politick of the two capes’ darkest urges, action and motivations. This will be an unsettling ride for those who enjoy the bland and unchallenging Marvel adaptations that are so popular at the moment.

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Fealty and ideology (no matter how disagreeable… it’s nice a film this expensive has one) aside, what are BvS strengths? Ben Affleck for starters, mains and desserts. His take on Batman may add nothing new to the dark knight in action, but his Bruce Wayne is a revelation. The most interesting interpretation of the billionaire orphan since Michael Keaton’s ying yang mixture of intensity and slightly stoned spaced out-ness. Affleck is suave yet battered, committed yet broken. In fact whenever he is without cowl the film is at its most involving.

After getting the standard cinema alleyway / mugging / pearls murder of the Waynes out of the way while we are still finding our seats, Affleck and Snyder launch us into the best sequence of the film entire. Bruce Wayne races through the finale of Man of Steel saving lives on the ground level as chaos pours down. We have had set pieces synchronised to previous films set pieces before in Back to the Future 2 and Terminator Genisys but here it feels the boldest and most necessary, yet without a time travel machine in sight. We need to see Bruce introduced as heroic because what unfurls for the next two hours is a hard drinking, chaos hating man trying to burn his stamp on a world out of control. In any other film, Bats would easily be the villian given his actions and plot developments. It is testament to Affleck and our own long built up love of the Caped Crusader that his vendetta against the invincible alien saviour never loses our sympathy.

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You may have noticed there has not been much word count given to Clark Kent so far. As before, Cavill looks great as Superman and is a fine actor, but equally still gets so few opportunities to charm us as his bumbling alter ego. There is not really room, nor any intention, to give tribute to Christopher Reeve’s definitive performance here and that is fine, understandable even,  but then nothing really juicy takes its place. His romance with Lois is given short shrift again (5 hours of Nu-Superman screentime now and we’ve never seen them happy). A wasted Amy Adams is sent off on a pointless sub plot until the finale. Supes should be the heart of this world. Here again – he’s just a decorative shell to be worshipped and looked up to.

Man of Steel was rushed into production so Warner Brothers would not lose the character rights, BvS superseded the production of that film’s sequel as a movie universe launching gambit. No further Superman solo adventures are planned. The studio clearly didn’t and don’t want to see old Red Blue and Gold in his own adventure unless their hand is forced and such treatment of the character as a mere commodity still protrudes and chafes away at our viewing pleasure even here.

Batman’s name comes first on the title for a reason. He sells more tickets, is worth the investment of casting an established star as and all interaction between characters, even those solely within the limits of Metropolis and Smallville seem subservient to his brand. (Amy Adams pointlessly investigating a bullet excepted)  I wonder if the film would pass a warped version of the Bechdel Test. Do two characters ever have a conversation that does not involve or further the Batman’s agenda? It leaves Superman feeling like a MacGuffin rather than a character. And further into the action as an end of level boss to be beaten, not pointedly, even an end of game boss either.

As for other characters introduced…

Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman impresses with just over a dozen lines and a few scenes. She proves essential in the finale, setting a tone for future team ups and adding to the concept of a world where there’ll be challenges that B&S cannot face merely on their own or even together. Her inclusion feels like an essential step in the right direction for WB’s future franchise plans and even if BvS struggles to make the astronimcal amount it needs to break even, having a Wonder Woman release already scheduled is the DC Universe’s strongest looking lifeline currently. I’ll be there on opening night.

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Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luther is a mannered freak who feels more like a mouthy agent of chaos a la The Joker than the businessman who can outsmart gods. His motivations are muddy and too often he stands a bit too close to the deadly traps he sets in motion than is believably sensible. Still I found him a fun and modern take on a character that the unchallengeable Gene Hackman has owned since I was born. Given the strange direction and potential poisoned chalice, Eisenberg owns it. A moment where he flicks Polaroids at Superman’s face is a boo-hiss highlight. The scamp.

As for all the other superheroes hinted at… They get a little interlude with no real bearing on the plot. Echoes from a potential future that don’t hang around long enough to clog up the 150 minute of vigilante versus alien action you have bought a ticket for. A relief.

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Storytelling wise the film has the same pluses and minuses as Man of Steel. It is a film of fine moments that build and give way to lengthy punch ups of ridiculous scale by the end.  Hans Zimmer’s score is not quite as persuasive but has a nice callback to Led Zepellin’s The Immigrant Song when Wonder Woman and Superman team up. Zack Snyder produces some amazing frames that have very little bearing on the plot, then some very messy CGI moments in the last hour at troubling volume. If he does direct the Justice League films there should be a golden rule that Superman can only be thrown or throw someone into a building once… And that is once a film. No matter how long the film is.

Yet it is a marked improvement on Man of Steel. Batman, and Affleck, bring a focus to the entire endeavour missing from the last film. He’s just a more reactive and engaging protagonist, especially when cast as well as he has been. And even when we fall into the inevitable final overload of effect heavy set pieces, the stakes and the solutions are far more clearly spelled out. You are not passively waiting for a neck to snap, there is teamwork needed to get all the elements in place… creating that much needed ally of action. Tension.

You’ll still feel battered and exhausted by the final credits. But entertained by a story well told. With all the crayons available to one of cinema’s biggest and most enthusiastic scribblers.

Blockbuster Predictions

2016’s Summer Blockbuster Season starts early tonight so I thought I’d arrange this year’s big releases in order of how satisfying a night out I’ll think they will be. An absolute blind stab based on trailers or previous work by the talent.

The Sure Things

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The Nice Guys
The Conjuring 2
The BFG
X Men Apocalypse

imageThe Purge: Election Year
Looking Good

Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice
Independence Day : Resurgence
Now You See Me 2
Captain America: Civil War
Ben-Hur

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Fingers Crossed

Suicide Squad
The Legend of Tarzan
The Huntsman: Winter’s War
Star Trek Beyond
Warcraft
Approach with Caution

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Finding Dory
Ghostbusters
Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children
The Jungle Book

 
Not for me Thanks
Ice Age: Collision Course
Alice Through the Looking Glass
Zootropolis
TMNT: Out of the Shadows