Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Social Network (2010) Re-visited

Back in 2007, when I was in film school, I enrolled in a course on the films of David Cronenberg. It was the final course that I needed to complete in order to earn the credits to graduate, and since it was offered in the summer, the long class periods allowed us to immerse ourselves in lengthy discussions about the films. Even after screening nearly all of Cronenberg's filmography (excepting maybe two or three minor works), the film that made the greatest impression on me was his prophetic 1983 science fiction thriller, Videodrome, which certainly gave me much to think about in terms of the film's prescient views of the ways in which humans interact with technology.

A comparison can be made between the ways in which Cronenberg depicts his characters' relationship with television, and the relationship between Internet users and social media sites today. I was especially intrigued by the character of the McLuhan-esque media theorist, who only appears "on television" -- that is, via a televised image. His representation in the form of a video image is accepted as "real" by the flesh-and-blood characters, but when Max Renn tries to meet the professor in person, he learns that he has recently passed away, and "lives on" only through pre-recorded videotapes, which are naturally limited in terms of the experiences and interactions they can provide.

In watching the film, I was struck by the similarities to the depiction of the professor's video representation being accepted as reality, and the digital representations of users on social networking sites like Facebook that come to create an illusion of reality of their own, which are accepted by other users, but are similarly limited in terms of the experiences and relationships it can provide.

Because of this fascination with thinking about these ideas in relation to social media, I have also been interested in thinking about them in relation to The Social Network, the 2010 film -- written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by David Fincher -- about the creation and rise of the popular social networking site. I had avoided the film when it premiered at the New York Film Festival in 2010, as well as on its theatrical run, perhaps because I was concerned that the critical enthusiasm surrounding it was a misplaced excitement for the website itself, and that the film would turn out to be little more than a ride on the wave of Facebook's growing popularity.

When I finally caught up with the film last December, I was struck by just what a good film it is in many ways, and by just how much it "got right" from the vantage point of 2010, when the site was hardly in its infancy, but when its future seemed a lot less certain in terms of what directions it might take. As a biographical drama, it succeeds in creating a vivid portrayal of the historical moment in which the website appeared, and the factors that contributed to its longevity and success where other similar sites of the period failed.

It seems to me that the trick in writing a film about any social phenomenon is to avoid falling into the trap of becoming instantly dated, of creating something that quickly becomes the target of camp condescension for its laughably inaccurate predictions of the future. If Facebook had gone the way of MySpace or Friendster, say, in the intervening years since the film's release, it would no doubt look very different today.

It is difficult to fathom how incredibly important Facebook has become to the lives of many of its users in those intervening years. And, I think, where the film is most effective is in how neatly it explores the seductive ways in which the site becomes accepted as a substitute for real interaction, through book-ending scenes depicting opposing moments in the life of its creator: from the early popularity-seeking and competitive self-comparisons of the college years, to the wistful reflection on the people with whom connections have been broken over the years, and the (false) hope of re-kindling those connections through digital representations.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Berberian Sound Studio (2013)

An intriguing little thriller about a meek, sheltered English sound engineer who accepts a job working on an especially disturbing Italian horror film, an experience which gradually begins to alter his perception of reality as he loses himself in the work of creating the soundtrack for the film's brutal, violent images.

The plot is a model of economy, conjuring up a real sense of dread and isolation in the claustrophobic little dubbing studio in which most of the action takes place. Unfortunately, after a strong first half, the interesting premise loses direction toward the end, which feels both protracted and rather confused. The fine character actor Toby Jones perfectly embodies the awkward, withdrawn sound man, who finds himself something of a stranger in a strange land, and slowly reveals aspects of his character, including hints of suppressed rage, that are at turns pathetic and sinister. Despite the problems with the ending, director Peter Strickland creates a thoughtful, dark character study made with a real attention to period detail and the genre conventions of the film-within-the-film, which should be especially appealing to fans of Italian giallo cinema.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Scream (1996)

When Wes Craven passed away earlier this year, and as I read several of the tributes to the director and his career, it occurred to me that -- as much as his work had been a major part of the pop cultural landscape during my childhood and teen years -- I had seen surprisingly little of his films. In fact, outside of Last House on the Left, I couldn't swear to it that I had seen any of his films at all (not even the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise).

I was 12 when Scream was released, and although I did not see it then, there were few films at that time that I recall creating more excitement among my peers, who talked endlessly about it. So by the time I finally got around to seeing the film 19 years later, there weren't too many surprises. I was already familiar with the premise (a girl is stalked by a serial killer on the anniversary of her mother's murder), its clever approach to the genre (a post-modern, self-aware take on the slasher film), its much-publicized casting gimmick (Drew Barrymore's character is killed off in the first ten minutes), and of course its now-iconic "ghost face" serial killer character.

Scream is still not the kind of film I typically care for, but Craven is clearly committed to the material and has fun with the self-aware approach to the genre that he had made such an indelible mark on, and it is to his credit that it actually works, rather than just serving as a glossary of the genre's tropes, or name-dropping famous movies or scenes for their own sake, as lesser films might have.

There's something else about this film that I enjoyed immensely, and that was the performance of Matthew Lillard. Whatever happened to him? He emerged as one of the most interesting, offbeat character actors of the 1990s, thanks to his roles in John Waters' Serial MomHackers, and a fine starring turn in the indie black comedy Dead Man's Curve, but I have not seen him in anything since 2004's Without a Paddle (an otherwise forgettable comedy). His performance in Scream was a highlight of the film for me, and reminder of just what a unique and immensely talented actor he is.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Werewolf Triple Feature

With Halloween right around the corner, I recently had the opportunity to attend a triple feature screening of "Werewolf" movies at the historic Loew's Jersey theater in Jersey City. For any film enthusiast who has not had the pleasure of seeing a movie in this gorgeous 1929 movie palace, you owe it to yourself to check it out if you're ever in the New York City area. Each Halloween, the Loew's puts on a great program of classic horror films (in years past I've seen such favorites as Nosferatu, The Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein there).

This year's program included a trio of "werewolf" movies that provide a neat evolution of the genre:

Werewolf of London (1935)
Universal's first attempt at creating a "werewolf" franchise as part of its horror cycle, it's clear why this film failed to take off with audiences in the way the studio's earlier efforts had. The single biggest problem is the rather unremarkable performance of stage actor Henry Hull in the title role. Hull lacked the larger-than-life presence and charisma that had made the performances of Lugosi and Karloff instantly iconic. Apparently, Hull objected to makeup man Jack Pierce's proposed makeup design, as he felt it obscured too much of his face, an attitude which exemplifies the problems with Hull's performance here. Additionally, director Stuart Walker was not a visual stylist on the level of Tod Browning or James Whale, and as a result, the film's look is flat and uninspired. Perhaps the best way to describe the film is "forgettable". It's not bad; it just fails to make much of an impact at all.

The Wolfman (1941)
Everything the studio got wrong in Werewolf of London, it got right in The Wolfman, starting with the inspired casting of Lon Chaney Jr. in the title role. He manages to create a great deal of sympathy in his portrayal of a good-natured everyman who becomes tortured by guilt after committing acts of killing that he cannot control. Director George Waggner was a reliable craftsman who made full use of the studio's resources to create the highly evocative atmosphere that the earlier film lacked. Makeup man Jack Pierce was also allowed to use his original makeup design for the Wolfman, which is far more effective than the compromised look he was forced to settle on before. I had forgotten what a really great supporting cast the film has, too, including Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, Warren William, Maria Ouspenskaya, and even Bela Lugosi in a brief but memorable appearance, plus the usual array of great character types who populated the world of the Universal horror film. If the Universal horror cycle was beginning to run out of steam by the early '40s, this film proves that the studio was still capable of turning out a really first-rate, genre-defining classic.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)
John Landis remains one of the most critically-neglected American filmmakers of the post-'70s/New Hollywood era. Perhaps that's because he works in highly commercial genres and directs hit crowd-pleasers, such as Animal House and The Blues Brothers, which -- like the work of his contemporary Steven Spielberg -- can be easy to take for granted. But as a filmmaker, he has a distinct and unique sensibility that provides him with the quite rare gift of being able to make a film that spans the genres of comedy and horror without ever compromising either the laughs or the scares (most recently evidenced by his very funny, and grossly underrated, Burke and Hare). An American Werewolf in London is perhaps his best film, filled with self-aware irony and humor while simultaneously creating a modern "werewolf" classic for a new generation.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Martian (2015)

Note: As this is a current release still in theaters, I am issuing a spoiler warning with this review as it deals with key plot points of the story.

I'm not normally a fan of science fiction, and tend to prefer those films in the genre that deal with larger existential questions about our place in the universe or the attraction of exploration and wondering "what's out there?", such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Contact, along with a few others. When I first learned the premise of The Martian -- based on a hit novel by Andy Weir, which I have not yet read -- about a botanist (played by Matt Damon) stranded on Mars and his ingenious efforts to survive until a rescue mission can arrive, I had hoped that the film would follow in the vein of the aforementioned films in tackling the larger existential themes with which the situation would seem to be ripe.

Because of that, I was mildly disappointed with The Martian upon initial viewing, but after giving it more thought, I realized that I was unfair in my reaction, which amounted to expecting the film to be something it is not. What it is is an solid adventure film, expertly directed with characteristic skill and polish by Ridley Scott, whose earlier Alien and Blade Runner remain two of the most highly influential entries in the genre of the past half century. Compared to those two films, The Martian is decidedly lighter fare. There's none of the dark, brooding tone of Blade Runner, or the horror elements of Alien. Indeed, there's little suspense at all for that matter, as there's never any real doubt that the astronaut will make it safely back to Earth.

A large part of the appeal seems to be the sheer likability of Damon's unflappable astronaut, whose reaction to realizing that he has been abandoned on Mars and left for dead by his crewmates is to make sarcastic comments into his computer's video diary log, more like a smarmy YouTube vlogger rather than a man who has just found himself utterly alone on a foreign planet. To be sure, the incessant dialogue lacks poetry and avoids dealing with the existential implications of the situation, but Damon is undeniably likable in the role, and portrays just the kind of hero the script calls for -- an everyman who also happens to possess nearly superhuman resourcefulness and intelligence.

Perhaps more frustrating are the long stretches of screen time spent back on Earth, where the team at NASA is running a race against the clock to bring the astronaut home before he runs out of food. These scenes are all perfectly well-handled, helped by such fine performers as Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiorfor and Kristen Wiig, but they can't help feeling a little dull compared to the scenes detailing Damon's ingenious methods of survival, which seem rushed and glossed over in comparison.

Similarly, the scenes on board the spaceship, with Damon's loyal crewmates deciding to take matters into their own hands to attempt a risky rescue procedure, are weakened by being a little too pat in their handling of the complexities between the characters' responsibilities to their families and their original mission, and their sense of duty toward a fellow astronaut. Rather than delving deeper into these conflicts, Scott pads the rescue scenes out with the expected eleventh-hour complications and repeated shots of large crowds across the world, gathered in recognizable locations and watching with bated breath as the rescue mission plays out live on TV.

But to harp on these weaknesses is to ignore where the film really succeeds, which is on the strength of its brash, rich images (especially stunning when seen in the 3-D presentation), its vivid evocation of Mars, and above all, in telling a splendid, escapist adventure story about an intrepid individual trapped in a most unusual situation, and the people dedicated to bringing him home safely.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Spielberg is in top form with this Cold War-era political drama about a Brooklyn attorney (Tom Hanks) who is recruited by the CIA to negotiate the return of an imprisoned Soviet spy (Mark Rylance) in exchange for a captured American pilot. The plot itself is fairly predictable and familiar, which works against the dramatic potential of key scenes, but Spielberg's skillful handling of the material is typically assured, involved, and exceptionally well-paced, even if the writing (by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers) and performances are a bit too mannered at times. There really aren't any surprises here, but it's always worth seeing Spielberg at the top of his game.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

1941 (1979)

A rare comic effort from Steven Spielberg, 1941 is also one of the director's rare misfires. A big, loud spectacle that recalls an earlier generation of comedy epics like It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and The Great Race, 1941 unevenly combines the broad physical gags of those films with the equally broad satire of wartime paranoia in films such as The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! The premise involves a Japanese sub that surfaces off the coast of California shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, inspiring mass hysteria among the citizens.

The ensemble cast includes such names as Tim Matheson and Nancy Allen as the nominal romantic leads whose amorous escapades in a runaway airplane over Los Angeles precipitate a hysterical reaction from the military and townspeople, John Belushi as crazed fighter pilot Wild Bill Kelso, Dan Aykroyd as no-nonsense Sgt. Frank Tree, Ned Beatty as a meek family man whose backyard is commandeered as the site of anti-aircraft gun, Lorraine Gary as his long-suffering wife, Toshiro Mifune as the Japanese sub commander, Christopher Lee as the German officer, Murray Hamilton and Eddie Deezen as a couple of goofy civilians put on guard duty atop a Ferris wheel, Slim Pickens as the unsuspecting hick who discovers the Japanese sub, and in one of the film's most inspired bits of casting, Robert Stack as Major General Stilwell, who would rather take care of more important business like watching Disney's Dumbo than deal with distractions such as the pending invasion of Los Angeles and riots in the streets. As with his performance in the following year's Airplane!, Stack's stoical, straight man characterization is the perfect complement to the zany goings-on around him.

Unfortunately, none of the performers are ever really on-screen long enough, or given enough to do individually, to make much of an impression. Because of the structure of the script -- by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale (who also wrote the story along with John Milius) -- the zany situations piled on top of one another don't add up to much of anything, since the escalating comic chaos is never given much of a chance to build naturally. Instead, it's one forced, manic set-piece after another, with gratuitous slapstick violence that eventually just begins to drag the pace down and feel repetitive. The plane chase scenes through LA are undoubtedly impressively-staged, and are a remarkable achievement for their scale and execution. But as comedy, it quickly begins to feel like overkill.

Spielberg's direction feels unsure and even uncomfortable working with the broad comedy material, which was certainly never his forte in any case. It's difficult to pinpoint just where his direction goes wrong here, but perhaps it is simply too heavy-handed, which works against the lightning-paced cartoon antics called for by the script and even dilutes the effectiveness of the satire due to the total lack of subtlety. John Landis, or the team of Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker, would have been ideal choices for this material, since they could have perhaps reigned in some of the more extravagant excesses that tend to swamp the comedy (even the non-stop parade of sight gags in Airplane! are handled in such a way that the viewer is rewarded for paying attention to the kinds of small jokes which are virtually non-existent here).

As one of our greatest filmmakers, even a lesser Spielberg effort like 1941 is still of interest, if only for an example of the director working outside his comfort zone, exploring new material and trying something different. Even if the result is ultimately a failure, it is an interesting failure.