‘The Social Network’ Remains an Unforgettable Statement on Where Society Is

So, why was this particular David Fincher film called “The Social Network” instead of just “Facebook” or “The Facebook Movie?” When going into the movie theater back in 2010, I figured this film would be all about how Facebook came into existence and of how its audience grew so quickly, but it was not just about that. Looking more closely at “The Social Network,” I think the title is meant to be intentionally ironic as it describes the key individuals who got it off the ground, particularly Max Zuckerberg, as they were more antisocial than they cared to realize. Max was clearly more comfortable being up close and personal with a computer screen than in interacting with real people. The Facebook phenomenon may have brought people closer together than ever before, but ten years later after this film’s release, we are reminded of how it also succeeded in keeping us further apart. And in the year 2020, this is more apparent than ever before.

The beginning of “The Social Network” quickly illustrates Max Zuckerberg’s (Jesse Eisenberg) antisocial behavior as we watch him talk with his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), and it quickly devolves into an increasingly awkward conversation to say the least. Max can’t look her in the eye, and he ends up insulting her without even realizing it. It looks as though his mind is moving at 100 miles a minute to where he never really slows down enough to take in the reactions coming his way. This is our first look at the young man who has long since become the youngest billionaire in America thanks to his bringing about the world’s most prolific social networking website, and he is proving to be anything but social. Erica makes her frustration with his one-track mind and insensitive nature perfectly. Max fears that unless he gets into one of Harvard’s exclusive clubs, he will never be taken seriously and will just be some techno nerd in everyone’s eyes. Erica, fed up with his attitude, tells him people will keep their distance from him because he is a jerk, not because he is exceptionally bright.

Well, love has a very strange effect on us all, and instead of trying to reconcile with Erica right then and there, Max instead heads straight back to his dorm room and creates a page along with his roommates called “Face Mash.” With this page, he allows students to pick which female students at Harvard are the prettiest by comparing them to one another. Of course, this is right after Max cruelly disses his now ex-girlfriend Erica in a number of ways which includes describing her bra size. “Face Mash” ends up bringing in so many viewers in one night to where Harvard’s computer network crashes completely, and Max becomes one of the most vilified individuals on campus, by girls mostly, as well as one of Harvard’s most ingenious students. In record time, he exploited the network’s vulnerability in a way Harvard never saw coming, and the university is quick to cover their own ass as a result.

This all leads to an invitation by identical twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer) along with their business partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) to program a new website they want to put together called “Harvard Connection.” The way they see it, it will be a great way for the students at Harvard to connect with one another. Later, Max meets up with his best, and only, friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and proposes putting together a website he calls “The Facebook,” an online social networking tool which would be exclusive to Harvard University students. Eduardo agrees to help finance the site, and thus begins a phenomenon which just about everyone has a profile on except for those who have long since had their fill of anything with the name Zuckerberg attached to it. But from there on out, battle lines are drawn and lawsuits are underway as the Winklevoss twins and Narendra claim Mark stole their idea, Eduardo ends up suing Max for cutting him out of the whole thing even though he was a co-founder, and friends and acquaintances soon become the most bitter of enemies.

“The Social Network” jumps back and forth between different perspectives of what actually happened. We watch events progress as Max gets “The Facebook” up and running, and of the reaction his supposed business partners have when their friends set up profiles on it. You never know exactly where the film is going as it goes from one event to a litigation between an annoyed Zuckerberg and the infuriated Winklevoss twins and the deeply bitter Divya Narendra. It goes even further to another lawsuit Eduardo files against Max which illustrates how this endeavor forever terminated their friendship. Even if you know everything there is to know about the creation of Facebook, this film succeeds in intensifying the hurt feelings of everyone involved ever so vividly. We know this house of cards will soon collapse on all the main people involved, but you just don’t know how hard the hits will affect you and everyone else.

Now Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin working together might not sound like a match made in heaven, and it’s easier to expect them trying to strangle one another in the process of making “The Social Network.” But together, they make cinematic magic as Fincher’s razor-sharp direction more than complements Sorkin’s brilliant dialogue and story construction. This represents some of their best work, and there is nary a false note to be found here. The visual elements never upstage the script and vice versa. It’s a perfect marriage of sights and sounds in a story of friendship, power and betrayal.

Ever since Sorkin’s unforgettable work on “A Few Good Men” and “The American President,” he has mostly worked in television where he was best known for “The West Wing,” my big brother’s favorite TV show. But his screenplay for “The Social Network,” which was adapted from Ben Mezrich’s non-fiction book “The Accidental Billionaires,” is full of some of the most creative dialogue I have heard in any film I have ever seen. One standout scene comes when the Winklevoss twins meet up with Harvard President Larry Summers (Douglas Urbanski) to discuss their desire to sue Max. Watching Summers dryly dismissing their accusations and politely tearing them a new one as if they had no reason to bother him in the first place is so indelibly clever to where the exchange merits a whole play unto itself.

But much of the credit for “The Social Network’s” success belongs to the actors, all of whom were perfectly cast. At the top of the list is Eisenberg who, as Max Zuckerberg, is never afraid to make his character less than likable, and I admired how he and the filmmakers were never looking to whitewash him for the sake of good press. Eisenberg makes you see how fast Max’s mind is moving and of how his single-mindedness keeps him from realizing who he is as a person. You do find yourself admiring Max in spite of himself, and Eisenberg really succeeds in creating a believable sense of empathy for him. It’s this empathy which makes us all want to follow along with this alienated genius all the way to the very end. It’s a tough role, but Eisenberg nails it perfectly while delivering Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue without missing a beat.

Rooney Mara only appears in a couple of scenes as Erica Albright, but her presence on the screen is quite powerful as she wounds Max for all he is worth. This proved to be a stronger showcase for Mara’s talents as opposed to her appearance in the remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and it made me all the more excited to see her performance as Lisbeth Salander in Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” The fact her performance as Lisbeth was so brilliant was hinted at in her work here.

Then you have Andrew Garfield who, at the time, was more well-known for the role he was cast in as Peter Parker and his alter-ego in “The Amazing Spider-Man.” In many ways, Garfield gives this film’s best performance as the most well-meaning guy of the bunch who becomes the biggest victim of all. As we watch him lose control over something he helped create, Garfield makes us feel Eduardo’s vulnerability and pain of being so thoughtlessly cut out of this internet juggernaut all the more vivid and wrenching to witness. We relate to Eduardo’s situation as we have all been duped once or twice. This could have been a performance which might have come across as hopelessly melodramatic and manipulative, but Andrews makes his character so achingly real to where there is no forgetting him once the film has ended.

With Justin Timberlake, “The Social Network” proved there could be no denial of his acting talents with his revelatory performance as Sean Parker, founder of Napster. Fincher made Timberlake screen test for this role a dozen times, and it looks like all those times he hosted “Saturday Night Live” are giving him dividends he truly deserves. Yes, he gave terrific performances in “Alpha Dog” and “Black Snake Moan” beforehand, but his performance here feels all the more astonishing as he seduces not just Max Zuckerberg, but the audience as well. Timberlake slyly turns Sean into the guy who gets inside your skin to effortlessly take advantage of you as he can clearly see what your soul cries out for. Sean makes you believe that the world can be yours and that anything and everything is possible for you and only you. Timberlake is exquisite in Sean seem all the more appealing to be around while making you completely forget he is a back stabbing snake looking to get Eduardo Saverin out of the way.

A lot of praise is also in store for Armie Hammer who portrays the Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler. It helps that Fincher chose an actor most people were not familiar with at the time because, for a while, I honestly thought it was two different actors playing these roles. Seeing an actor playing twins is nothing new, but it hasn’t been done this well since Nicolas Cage played two sides of Charlie Kaufman in “Adaptation.” Hammer nails all the specific nuances of each brother down perfectly to where you can easily tell them apart, and credit also needs to be given to Josh Pence who was a stand in for Hammer. You never catch yourself witnessing special effects whenever Hammer is onscreen, and this makes his work all the more impressive.

Seriously, even the smallest of roles in “The Social Network” are acted with the upmost skill, and no character could ever be mistaken as an easy throwaway. Actors like Max Minghella, Joseph Mazzello, Brenda Song, and Douglas Urbanski all make great use of their time onscreen, and each leaves their mark on our minds.

Trent Reznor composed the score for “The Social Network” along with Atticus Ross, and their music captures how the world around the characters becomes more and more mediatized as the world keeps turning and technology keeps advancing. The electronic sound Reznor is best known for serves to also illustrate the divisions which emerge among everyone here and of how their emotions end up being drained through anger and hurt feelings which may never be fully repaired. Fincher was convinced Fincher and Ross would not receive an Oscar nomination for their work, but they did and eventually won the Oscar for Best Original Score in a way the filmmaker did not see coming. This would lead to a remarkably creative working relationship between these three as they have composed to other Fincher films including the deliciously twisted “Gone Girl.”

“The Social Network” is not meant to be the definitive story of who is truly responsible for the creation of Facebook. Indeed, no one will ever fully know what went on other than the main people involved, and while hefty settlements were made out of court, there does not seem to be a consensus as to what truly happened. Clearly, neither Fincher or Sorkin were interested in getting down to the truth as much as they were in observing the effect this behemoth of a website had on everyone and of how Facebook came to make an inescapable mark in the realm of social media.

Frankly, I don’t give a damn if the movie is completely accurate as there is always a good dose of dramatization in movies dealing with non-fiction stories. What does matter to me is this all makes for a highly dramatic experience which holds our attention from the start to the very end. There are no gun fights or car chases to be found in “The Social Network,” but the emotionally damage inflicted feels every bit as visceral and brutal as any action picture.

The film’s last scene with Max Zuckerberg sitting alone in an office in front of his laptop computer pretty much defines what we have all become in the past decade; a slave to technology and the world wide web. It makes you wonder if we will ever be able to live without such technology as it has long become an inescapable part of our lives. Can we even remember what the world was like before the internet? These days, we are more comfortable being up front and close with our computers than we are with other people, and this was the case before the current global pandemic. Still, there is still a part of us yearning for human contact which we all need, and the fact we are more removed from it than usual is a sad statement on humanity.

* * * * out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: David Cronenberg’s ‘eXistenZ,’ a Cerebral Version of ‘The Matrix’

David Cronenberg’s “eXistenZ” is a film I like to describe as being the cerebral version of “The Matrix.” It gets you to question the reality the characters are in all throughout the movie, and it continues Cronenberg’s exploration of the blurring line between reality and fantasy. With “The Matrix,” it was clear what was real and what was not. But with “eXistenZ,” you can never be sure what is truly real, and its ending will leave you guessing for a very long time. But to quote the title of a certain U2 song, one has to wonder if everyone here has found something which is even better than the real thing.

“eXistenZ” stars the always awesome Jennifer Jason Leigh as Allegra Geller, a well-known game programmer who we first see about to try out her latest game which is said to be like no other. While most new game consoles come in these big metal boxes, Allegra’s box is more of an organic creation as it looks like a sizable piece of human skin which looks to be living and breathing when activated. To play the game, you have to hook a cord, one which looks eerily like an umbilical cord, into a port in your back which connects the game to your spine. Like many a Cronenberg movie, “eXistenZ” deals with the degradation of the human body as well as the human soul.

In the course of testing out the game to an excited crowd, Allegra is nearly assassinated by a man who is intent on eliminating what he sees as a threat to reality. From there, it becomes clear a war has begun between those who want to preserve reality by destroying the gaming industry, and those who want to preserve games and see them be taken to another level of advancement. Allegra is forced to go on the run, and coming along with her is a young marketing trainee, a shy nerd of a man named Ted Pikul. Pikul is played by Jude Law, and it is a role no one could probably see him playing these days. Ever since he showed off his tanned body on the sunny shores in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” he has become a sexy god to so many. There’s nothing sexy to this character he plays here or, at least, not right away.

In the course of the attack, Allegra’s gaming pod is damaged, so she has to play the game to see what needs to be fixed. She encourages Ted to play it with her, but he is not terribly enthusiastic about doing so as he is a virgin to these kinds of games. He has never played them before, and he does not have a bioport in his back which is essential to playing the game. Moreover, he does not like things like bioports or needles being inserted into his body. But Allegra eventually encourages him to play along, and he does get a bioport jack hammered into his back courtesy of Gas (the always reliable Willem Dafoe). From there on out, Allegra’s and Ted’s voyage through the game will challenge their perceptions, and it has them wondering where they really are in all of this.

I remember seeing “eXistenZ” at an art house movie theater in Orange County when it was first released. Along with the characters, I was ever so eager to experience what they were experiencing when they played this game. While it felt like it took forever to get to their game experience, it turned out to be nothing like I could have ever expected.

With our infinite advancements in technology, the story is now far more frightening than ever before. Cronenberg is questioning how far we will go in our pursuit of the high which is virtual reality. Once we have experienced the game, will we even want to leave it? Will it make our “normal” reality feel more unreal? Everyone seems to be stuck in jobs they hate but have to work at, and they always dream of a better life for themselves which they constantly wait for instead of making it actually happen. Could this be accomplished through a game? Maybe not, but with the way technology continues to advance, anything is possible.

The other fascinating thing about “eXistenZ” is how it looks at the moral boundaries these characters cross. The games we play on the latest PlayStation or Xbox console seem to have this effect, but we can easily see we are indulging in a fantasy which makes everything okay. But as the line between reality and fantasy blurs all the more, the consequences seem all the more brutal and fiercer, and these characters end up crossing a line they can never undo. When we cannot tell reality from fantasy, how can we justify the horrible things we do to others?

Cronenberg’s movies have a look all their own, and “eXistenZ” has his signature touch throughout. What other director could come with an organic pod for game playing, or with a gun made out of animal bones with teeth used as bullets? Even in the game the characters are playing, the violence is still pretty vicious, and no death ever looks pretty. This is also typical with Cronenberg’s movies as we see faces blown off to where certain people look like Harvey “Two Face” Dent from “The Dark Knight.

Leigh and Law are always terrific in just about everything they do, and their work in “eXistenZ” is no exception. Leigh, who usually plays characters who are anything but pretty, is an alluring presence throughout as she not only manages to seduce Law, something which cannot be all that hard to do, but she also succeeds in seducing the audience into the world her character inhabits. This is what her performance needed to accomplish in order to make this film work, and it should make one admire her acting skills all the more.

If “eXistenZ” were made today, I’m not sure we would be seeing Law in this role as he would probably seem too cool to play such an awkwardly social character. People get used to seeing you in a certain way, and it can get to where no one wants to see you as anything else. It’s a shame because Law truly is a great actor, and seeing him go against type here as a man who has to overcome his phobias and aversions in order to play the game and help Allegra is endlessly enthralling. The effect it has on him is immense as it unlocks unconscious desires which quickly rise to the surface. Law portrays this evolution of his character very effectively, and he has great chemistry with Leigh from start to finish. Heck, is it possible for Law to not have good chemistry with any actress?

The ending of “eXistenZ” will leave you with more questions than answers. This may frustrate a lot of audiences, but Cronenberg has not always been one to give you conclusions which tell you all you need to know. You come out of his movies thinking about what you have just witnessed, and this makes his work stay with you long after the end credits have concluded. It is not an action-packed film like “The Matrix,” and you won’t see a lot of actors wearing skin clad leather costumes and wearing cool sunglasses here, but this movie stands on its own as an examination of where technology is taking us. Like “Videodrome,” it threatens to be a very prophetic film as we head further and further into the new millennium with technological discoveries which put us into the action and other realities more than ever before.

We are still all on a search for something which is even better than the real thing, and it’s never gonna stop. But after watching “eXistenZ,” I am reminded of the need for limits on things as many, especially in America, continue to act like children instead of being the adults they have been for some time. Facts should be indisputable, but a reality other than our own is always far more appealing than what our current existence resembles.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: Alan Parker’s ‘Birdy’ Starring Nicolas Cage and Matthew Modine

Birdy” is a great movie and a deeply felt character study about two young men who grow up together, and who are forever changed by the war they are drafted into. The movie is based on a book by William Wharton which chronicles two characters who are thrown into World War II. For the film, it was changed to Vietnam as the screenwriters, Sandy Kroopf and Jack Behr, wanted to work with their own youthful experiences. The story starts out with the two main characters who are now out of the Vietnam War, but who are forever scared by it permanently. In the end, they see all they have is each other.

Events move back and forth in time as we first see Nicolas Cage’s character of Alfonso “Al” Columbato coming out of the hospital following a bomb explosion which seriously disfigured his face. Bandaged like a Frankenstein creation, or like Michael Myers at the beginning of “Halloween 4,” he is no longer the ladies’ man we see getting to first base in scenes from his past. From there, Al travels to another army hospital where Birdy (Matthew Modine) is holed up in a cell not saying a word. After the damage the war has done to him, Birdy (we never learn his real name) has seemingly accomplished what he has set out to do – to become a bird in his own mind.

“Birdy” then shifts to their high school years in Philadelphia when Al and Birdy first met. While they initially seem like complete opposites, we come to see they want the same thing in life: to fly away from their problems. With Al, he has an abusive father to deal with who thinks nothing of smacking his son around when he screws up, and being on the high school wrestling team helps him deal with his utter frustration of not being able to stand up to him. With Birdy, he has a tough as nails father who is nowhere as sympathetic and understanding as his janitor father, and who is always taking away the baseballs that the kids unintentionally keep batting into her yard. Both Al and Birdy keep coming up with schemes to make money while hoping for an escape from their meager existence. But when it comes to flying away, Birdy is a far more literal about it.

Al really represents Birdy’s strongest link to the outside world as he falls deeper and deeper into his obsession with birds and in wanting to fly like one. He never shows much interest in anything you expect teenagers to indulge themselves in like girlfriends, making out, or being normal. One of the funniest expressions Birdy has is when he talks about how bad he feels for women as they have to have breasts which they just have to carry around and how they flop all over the place. I can’t think of anyone else who would make such a ridiculous argument, man or woman.

The scenes in which Birdy spends time with a beautiful yellow canary he gets and names Perta are some of the most memorable to found here. This is not just some National Geographic special you are watching as we see him studying birds ever so closely, almost making love to them. There is one amazing sequence where he dreams he is flying like a bird and director Alan Parker shoots the scene from a bird’s eye view as we go around people and fly over cars and then way up into the sky above. All this done to the instrumental version of Peter Gabriel’s “Not One of Us,” and this is one first movies to make use of the Skycam which is used to incredible effect.

While all this may make this movie sound like a nostalgic journey to the past, it is really a very hard-hitting movie which has its funny and nostalgic moments and also many awkward and painful ones. Seeing Birdy going to a prom, only because his mom threatens to get rid of his birds if he doesn’t, is painful in terms of how much we know he doesn’t want to be there, and you feel for his date who has the biggest crush on him. Hell, I would have killed to date the girl he goes out with! And seeing at the start how these guys are now at living in a time where they are forever changed, we know they are on an emotional descent which may permanently rob them of what is left of their humanity.

Seeing these two actors early on in their careers reminds you of just how talented they are. Cage’s role of Al is one of my favorites of his as we see him as a fun-loving guy, and then as a frightened war veteran who is terribly uncertain of what lies ahead for him. Having to spend so much of this movie in bandages could seem so limiting to many actors, but not to Mr. Cage. Before production began, it was said he had his wisdom teeth removed and without Novocaine. Learning this really made my mouth hurt! Talk about suffering for your art! Still, it did make his performance feel rawer and more genuine, and I still look forward to seeing more work from him like this even as he continues to dwell in the direct to video realm.

Modine has an especially hard role to play because he could have played it far too broadly, but he makes Birdy’s love for birds seem so real to where it is perfectly understandable why he has since withdrawn from reality. When we see him at the hospital, he is almost completely speechless and has to convey how he feels through his eyes, something actors need to learn if they want to be great at their job. This is one his best performances as well, and it led him to a career where he has played many different roles, and he continues to do so.

This is one of Parker’s best movies, and it stands alongside his strongest efforts including “Midnight Express” and “Mississippi Burning.” With “Birdy,” he has not just made some simple antiwar movie about how unnecessary and brutal war is, but of the bond of friendship and how it can never be completely broken, especially when you are in need. In essence, the scars, both physically and mentally, which have been inflicted on these two men bring them together because it seems like no one else can ever truly understand them. The heart of this movie is in the way these two men lean on each other, and how they recognize each other’s strengths. Parker gets this and makes it the main thrust of this excellent motion picture. In the end, most of his movies deal with people in a place which seems so alien and unwelcome to them, and of the rough and tumble journey to get back to the land of the living.

And, of course, I cannot complete this interview without mentioning Peter Gabriel’s film score as it has provided me with a soundtrack I never get sick of listening to. While it may seem weird to compose music to a period movie with electronic instruments, his music fits perfectly into the themes Parker deals with here. Like the characters, it is in its own world and dwells in both the beauty and pain of life. The music is cribbed from a lot of Gabriel’s other albums (which he has he freely admitted to many times), and it would have been interesting if he did include some of the lyrics to the songs used here like “Wallflower” as they illustrate the mental health obstacles these two men have to overcome.

Seriously, I love “Birdy,” and when the name Alan Parker comes up, this is one of the first movies of his I think of. It also contains one of the best endings of any movie I have ever seen, and you have to watch “Birdy” all the way through to the end in order to fully appreciate it. Trust me, it is worth the trouble, and it makes this Grand Prix Spécial du Jury prize winner from the Cannes Film Festival all the more unforgettable.

* * * * out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: Jonathan Glazer’s ‘Under the Skin’

Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” is, in a word, hypnotic. Shot in a clinical fashion which would have made Stanley Kubrick proud, it puts us in the shoes of a nameless and mysterious young woman, played by Scarlett Johansson, who spends her days driving around Scotland and seducing lonely men for what seems like a night of much needed sex. But we eventually discover she is not of this world as she lures these oblivious men to a dark void where their bodies are sucked into a deep dark abyss of liquid. From there, their bodies are consumed and sent off to a bright red light which I can assume represents the alien world she originates from. But while she may seem like an evil parasite, her travels on Earth result in her going through a process of self-discovery she was never meant to experience, and it leads to an endlessly fascinating motion picture which has stayed with me ever since I first watched it in 2014.

I was amazed at how Glazer almost fashioned this as a silent film. There is dialogue here, but not much of it. Johansson doesn’t speak until she finds a lonely male walking the streets all by his lonesome, and it is then that she shows us just how good her Scottish accent really is. It is also surprising to learn that most of the characters we see here are portrayed by non-actors who more or less improvised their dialogue. This gives “Under the Skin” a down to earth feel which helps to make Johansson’s character (we never do learn her name) seem all the more out of her element.

Visually, the movie has a strange beauty in its depiction of darkness and light, and there’s a scene in particular where we see what happens to the bodies of the men Johansson seduces which proves to be both eerily beautiful and simultaneously shocking. While many people might look at Glazer as if he is just totally ripping off Kubrick, he really has given this whole movie a unique feel as I still find it hard to compare it to others of its genre.

“Under the Skin” may end up frustrating a lot of viewers as it does not provide much in the way of answers. Glazer has opted to leave a lot of what we see to our imaginations, and I am always excited when a filmmaker challenges his audience to think about what they are seeing. Not every image we see necessarily deserves a straightforward explanation, and we live in a time when people are desperate for others to give them a definitive answer without thinking critically about what just took place.

Johansson is mesmerizing to watch from start to finish. Her character is a very tricky one to play as she has to come off as emotionally cold, but she eventually finds herself in a state of self-discovery where she experiences a number of things for the very first time. This is where she really could have gone overboard with moments which could have screamed out, “nominate me for an Oscar!” But her performance here ranks among her finest to date, and her reactions to experiences her character is put through are enthralling to witness.

Another thing which really stands out is the amazingly original music score composed by Mica Levi, better known by her stage name of Micachu. She composes mostly experimental music, and her soundscapes and bizarre musical design perfectly meshes with Glazer’s haunting visuals. I haven’t heard a film score quite this unique since Jonny Greenwood worked his musical magic on Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.” I did not even hesitate to buy the soundtrack once I left the theater.

Glazer burst onto the scene with his feature film debut “Sexy Beast” in which Ben Kingsley gave us one of the most frightening, and unhappy, gangsters on the planet, but he was absent from cinema since his follow-up film “Birth.” It turns out he started working on his adaptation of “Under the Skin” back in 2004, and it took him a decade to get his vision onto the silver screen. It was great to have him back behind the camera as he has an amazing visual style which just sucked me right in.

“Under the Skin” is filled with so many haunting images which have stayed with me for a long, long time. The black void where Johansson’s character lures her male victims to, the white void where she dresses in another person’s clothes, a man racing his motorcycle through a lot of hazardous weather at an alarming speed, Johansson’s character reacting to the piece of cake she has just eaten, etc. This film absorbed me in a way few other movies did back in 2014, and it was great to see something so cinematically daring as. The fact it got made feels like a miracle.

Yes, it did prove to be divisive among moviegoers who were easily bored by its languid pace, and perhaps they were instead yearning for the latest bombastic action spectacle from Michael Bay. Regardless, I’m really glad that “Under the Skin” has provoked such passionate responses because it takes chances and doesn’t conform to the Hollywood norm which filmmakers cannot always escape from. It provides one of the more unique experiences I have had at the movies, and it was great to see Jonathan Glazer back behind the camera after a surprisingly long hiatus.

Besides, Scarlett Johansson, Black Widow herself, stars in this, and she is currently the highest paid actor working in movies. Shouldn’t that be enough of a reason to watch this striking piece of cinema?

* * * * out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: Michael Haneke’s Shot-For-Shot Remake of ‘Funny Games’

There is no in between with a film like this. You will either like or hate it with a fervent passion. Reviews for “Funny Games” have gone all over the place from praise to vicious hatred. Some will describe it as a completely immoral piece of work which revels in what it despises. Others will look at as very strong suspense film which does not hide from the ugly reality of violence. After seeing this film, I can’t help but think this is what director Michael Haneke wanted. Alfred Hitchcock was once quoted as saying, “I love playing the audience like a piano.” So does Haneke.

Truth be told, Haneke must be reveling in getting us into such an emotional state as he did the same exact thing in the past. “Funny Games” is a shot-for-shot remake of his original suspense thriller of the same name from 1997. I actually did not realize it was a remake until around the time it arrived in theaters. But since this is a virtual duplication of another film, I’m not sure how necessary it will be to see the original.

Haneke wanted to remake “Funny Games” for an American audience because he felt it was in essence an American story in which he sees its citizens being giddily in love with violence onscreen and in the media. While there is something rather condescending about him thinking this, he does have a point. Every once in a while, we need a film which reminds us of the brutality of violence. While we may fiend for gun battles on the big screen, violence in real life is scary and something we should be eager to avoid. “Funny Games” was the first ironically titled and truly polarizing movie of 2008. It is anything but entertaining, and in the end, it is not meant to be. Some movies are made to be experienced, and this is one of them.

“Funny Games” revolves around the married couple of Ann and George Farber (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) whom we first see driving down the highway with their son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) and their sailboat in tow. When they finally arrive at their destination, they are met by two young men, Paul (William Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet), both of whom look like well-bred preppies equipped with very nice manners. Brady’s character comes to borrow eggs to give which Watts gives him kindly. But on the way out, he accidentally drops them and won’t leave until he gets some more. Soon, both husband and wife are trying to throw these two guys out, and then the two show their true intentions when they take a golf club and smash one of George’s kneecaps.

With the family held hostage, Paul and Peter reveal their heinous plan; they bet that in 12 hours, the whole family will be dead. From there, it becomes a game of survival for the family as the games these two force them to play get increasingly dangerous. One of the major criticisms I have heard leveled at the killers is they have no motive. Sometimes not knowing why people do the things they do makes things much scarier. When “Silence of The Lambs” was first released in theaters, we were never told why Hannibal Lecter was a cannibal. But here, these two evil schmucks do have a motive which is senseless and viciously cold: they are torturing this family for the thrill of it and for what one of them calls “the importance of entertainment.” The director has given us two psychos whose motives, as he puts it are not “easily explained by societal factors.” They look to enjoy the power they have over this helpless family.

This phenomenon of people getting a high off of violence and torture feels like it is growing at a horrifying rate. There have been movies like “Henry – Portrait of A Serial Killer” and “Menace 2 Society” that have moments where the characters commit violent acts which have been intentionally or unintentionally videotaped. We later see these same characters watching their hideous acts over and over. There was an episode of “Homicide: Life on The Street” which featured a scene with one man filming his friend as he goes over to a nearby bus stop and shoots an old lady to death. No reason is given, other than the fact they find the visual so incredibly entertaining.

Like those characters, Paul and Peter are utterly repellent individuals. But the thing is, you should be repelled at what these guys are doing. They are without morals, and the rules of society are nonexistent to them which makes them all the more threatening and dangerous. The comfortable conventions of the normal suspense thriller are thrown out here. If they are employed here, then it is only for us to see them overturned when we least expect them to be. Unlike other Hollywood thrillers, the violence here feels much more real than you would expect it to be.

Another interesting thing is while this is technically an ultra-violent movie, there is actually not a lot of violence shown onscreen. Most of the violence is committed offscreen, making it all the more terrifying. There’s another moment where Ann is forced to disrobe completely, but you never see her from below the neck. It’s a moment where Haneke dares you to wonder why the camera isn’t showing us more here. You may end up hating him for that, but you cannot deny your mind went down to that dark and dirty place.

Like “Cache,” Haneke likes to film shots in long takes. This succeeds in trapping the viewer in with this family as we wait to see if they can escape their fate. One shot lasts a good five minutes or so as Ann desperately tries to break free of the tape which binds her hands behind her back. There are a lot of static shots here which are free of overly clever camera moves, and they suck us in to the action while generating strong suspense. There are points where we are not sure when these two psychos threaten to strike next.

Haneke goes even further by having Paul break the fourth wall between the characters and the audience watching this movie. Many found this device to be annoying, but I wasn’t bothered by it because it made the movie seem even creepier than it already was. It probably would have been an unnecessary device had it been overused, but the director uses it sparingly and to a powerful effect.

There is also a moment a rewind of events is employed. It is as brilliant a move as it is done to completely frustrate the viewer as it completely eschews the formula of movies like these. Haneke doesn’t hesitate to subvert our expectations, and trap us into a reaction we cannot hide.

Whatever you think of the movie, there is no denying the superb work done by the cast here. Tim Roth does strong work, and I can’t remember the last actor who made the pain of broken bones feel so vivid. I also don’t want to forget Devon Gearhart who plays Georgie Jr. as he has a very unenviable role as a child caught up in the worst of situations. He is asked to do things we would rather not see a child actor do, and he makes his sheer terror seem all the more horrifyingly real.

Michael Pitt makes Paul into such a cleverly cold character to where some have compared Paul to Alex in “A Clockwork Orange.” This is a young actor who has made a strong impression in movies like “The Dreamers” and “Bully” among others. He excels in roles like this which play on his charm to an incredibly unsympathetic effect. Brady Corbett plays the seemingly Peter, and he also has done memorable work in “Thirteen” and “Mysterious Skin.”

But in the end, this movie really belongs to Naomi Watts who has long since proven to be one of the bravest actresses working today. She has portrayed characters so naked in their vulnerabilities onscreen to where I constantly wonder how she gets through these roles without having a nervous breakdown. Her performance in “Funny Games” is no exception as she puts herself in situations so difficult to make seem real, but she succeeds here in making us believe just how terrifying her ordeal is.

“Funny Games” is one of those movies which make me want to ready everyone’s reaction to it. Like I said, this is without a doubt a very polarizing motion picture which people will either admire or despise. The again, if many did not have a negative reaction, then Haneke would have failed in his mission to completely unnerve us. No, it is not an enjoyable movie, but it is an experience which cannot easily be ignored as you walk out of the theater. It is a thought-provoking as it in no way allows for a neutral opinion. For my money, it is a very strong exercise in suspense which never lets up throughout its two-hour running time.

While it is not the most disturbing movie I have ever watched in a theater (“Requiem for A Dream” takes the cake there), it sure does come close. The violence presented here is of a real kind, and it does not offer the typical feeling of escapist entertainment. The best advice I can give you is if you don’t want to subject yourself to a very disturbing cinematic experience, then don’t see “Funny Games.” You have been warned, so take the R-rating seriously.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘MacGruber’ – The Best SNL Movie in Years

MacGruber movie poster final high resolution

When I went to see “MacGruber” at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood back in 2010, I actually saw Jason Sudeikis while standing in line to buy a ticket. His impersonation of Joe Biden is a still a big hit with fans of the show, and he seemed like a very down to earth guy as he blended in with the crowd and talked with others.

Anyway, enough about him. Let’s get on with my review of this particular SNL sketch turned movie called “MacGruber.” About a decade before this one, movies from the long running comedy show were being released all the time, and many proved to be nowhere as funny as the sketches which inspired them. “The Ladies Man,” “Superstar,” or “A Night at the Roxbury” appeared to underwhelm audiences, and I wondered why none of them could come close to matching up with “Wayne’s World” or “The Blues Brothers.”

Now keep in mind, those movies were based on sketches which lasted 3 to 5 minutes on the average SNL episode. With “MacGruber,” we have a movie based on a sketch which typically lasts for a minute at most. We all know from watching this obvious spoof of “MacGyver” that they all end in the same way, with MacGruber failing to diffuse the bomb and it going off, blowing him and his whole team to smithereens. So therein lies the fascination of this movie; Can MacGruber keep himself from blowing up and killing everyone around him for more than a minute? Can he sustain a full-length motion picture when he can barely sustain himself in every control room known to man?

Well, it turns out he can and for around 99 minutes. Before it was released, “MacGruber” was bursting all over with reviews calling it the best SNL movie since “Wayne’s World.” I find this praise to be completely justified as it is consistently hilarious and filled with moments which had me laughing harder than anything I saw in the remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and that was supposed to be horrific and serious. But while the jinx on SNL movies finally came to an end with “MacGruber,” this same jinx has unfortunately not been broken at the box office. It ended up grossing only $9.3 million worldwide against a budget of $10 million, but it has since become a cult classic. Trust me, “MacGruber” is great fun and contains many gut-busting laughs, and it deserved a much bigger audience than it initially got back in 2010.

Like “Hot Shots Part Deux,” the movie opens with MacGruber (Will Forte) living a post-Rambo type existence in a monastery where he finds peace from all things explosive. But Col. Jim Faith (the late Powers Boothe) brings him back into service when it is discovered his old nemesis, Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer gone wild), has acquired the X-5 nuclear missile and threatens to use it on a highly valuable target primed for utter destruction. Dieter also turns out to be the same man responsible for killing MacGruber’s fiancé, Casey (Maya Rudolph). To say this is all personal for MacGruber is pointing out the obvious. But seriously, what doesn’t this Inspector Clouseau of bomb experts not take personally? If you piss him off, please make sure he doesn’t memorize your license plate.

Forte never does quite convinces us that MacGruber is this great war hero, but that is part of the joke. He does, however, more than make us believe this character he has won more than a dozen purple hearts (how he earned all those is another story). No longer constricted by the dreaded FCC on network television, Forte really lets it loose here, getting away with stuff which would have had NBC and Lorne Michaels drop kicking him out of 30 Rockefeller Plaza if he pulled this off on live television. He also co-wrote the script, and he takes advantage of every opportunity for his character to make a supreme ass of himself while still remaining one you want to root for.

Plus, Forte does sex scenes here like no one else does in movies today, and I am certain no one has tried to match his acting in bed ever since.

Ryan Phillippe co-stars as MacGruber’s right hand man, Lt. Dixon Piper, a dedicated soldier who is of course infinitely brighter than him, and this causes a lot of violent resentment between the two of them. Phillippe does great work in playing the straight man to Forte’s idiotic lunatic. Had he tried to outdo Forte in terms of getting laughs, this pairing never would have worked. Lord knows MacGruber needs a partner, but he would never admit this unless he became incredibly desperate (and he does, so watch out). He also perfects that stony stare you get from some NFL star turned actor, and his funniest moments come when he reacts honestly to just how stupid this Miata-driving explosive expert truly is. Other actors would have overplayed this role, but Phillippe doesn’t thank goodness.

Kristin Wiig reprises her role as MacGruber’s assistant, Vicki St. Elmo. She is great as always, and MacGruber keeps stupidly putting her in such thoughtless situations where her life is in constant mortal danger. The scene in the coffee shop where she is disguised as MacGruber is nothing short of hilarious as she shivers in utter terror, having no clue what to do if things go bad. Still, you want to see Vicki get together with this clueless idiot because giving up this line of work for her music doesn’t make much sense, and this is especially the case when you listen to the songs she wrote.

Then you have Val Kilmer on board as the evil Dieter Von Cunth , and he gets to act all unhinged and crazy in a way he has not for some time. We know the only way MacGruber can defeat Cunth is through sheer luck, and Kilmer’s rubs in his character’s smug intelligence which he has in spades over this heroic douche bag. This represented a comeback for the actor, but it was sadly cut short due to his continuing battle against throat cancer.

“MacGruber” was directed by Jorma Taccone, one third of the Lonely Island comedy troupe which is responsible for all the “SNL Digital Shorts.” I was also surprised to learn he is actually the son of Tony Taccone, the former Artistic Director of Berkeley Repertory Theater. If you are ever in Northern California, be sure to check out a show there as they continue to challenge their audiences as much as entertain them. Anyway, Jorma keeps the proceedings going at a good pace, and he never lets the movie drag during its running time. While he doesn’t do anything groundbreaking with this movie or its formula driven plot, he does succeed in making this kind of satire feel fresh again. This genre has been so burnt out that we’re lucky if anything works as well as it does here.

The audience I saw “MacGruber” with at Grauman’s Chinese treated the whole thing like a rock concert, cheering when the title character first appeared on screen. It was a great crowd to experience this movie with, so it was surprising and depressing it got such a lackluster reception during its opening weekend. Even with competition from “Robin Hood,” “Iron Man 2,” and even “Shrek Forever After,” I figured it would still make a sizable dent at the box office. Still, it did eventually find its audience years later.

“MacGruber” is by no means a classic, and it is far from original, but it is certainly above average for this kind of movie. Saying it is the best SNL movie in years is faint praise. If you’re looking for a terrific comedy which emanated from the classic late-night show, then this is one you should check out. Even if you never laughed much at the skit on SNL, this movie will give you several belly laughs which we all live for. Just be sure not to eat any celery before you see it.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: The Interrupters – Trying to Stop Violence in America

“The Interrupters” is a truly brilliant documentary which explores violence in America, and of a group of people working desperately to stop it. It covers a period of a year in South Side Chicago, but the events we see could be happening in any other city where violence has long since engulfed its citizens. At its center is the non-profit group CeaseFire (now known today as Cure Violence) which treats violence like an infectious disease, and those employed by it work to stop the violence before it happens. While the description of this documentary sounds bleak, it is full of hope and redemption that most fiction movies can only dream of portraying honestly.

What makes CeaseFire an especially unique group is the workers have been on the wrong side of the law in the past. These are not just citizens wanting to live peacefully, but those who were once as bad as those gang members they are working with and trying to help. They are well-meaning and working to find redemption for their wicked pasts which could easily have destroyed their lives. Among them is Ameena Matthews, whose father, Jeff Fort, was a notorious gang leader. Through finding peace in her Muslim faith and having children, she turned her life around and started helping those who are travelling down the same path she once did.

The most compelling moments in “The Interrupters” involve the workers of CeaseFire themselves. We watch as Ameena struggles desperately to get through to a deeply troubled teenage girl who seems stuck in between going into a life of crime and seriously trying to find a way out of it. Seeing Ameena working with her is understandably exhausting emotionally; we all want the best for this person, but there is only so much that can be done.

Next there’s Cobe Williams who spent much of his years in and out of prison before joining CeaseFire. Cobe manages to get some footing with the toughest of people through his genuinely good nature and disarming sense of humor. Then we have Eddie Bocanegra, who served 14 years in prison for a murder which haunts him to this very day. His attempts in teaching art to children show how sincere he is in his efforts to help them avoid the mistakes he made, some of which can never be undone.

Directing “The Interrupters” is Steven James, the same filmmaker who is responsible for one of the greatest documentaries ever made, “Hoop Dreams.” Not once does Steven try to beat us over the head with statistics showing us how bad things are. We can tell the situation is bleaker than many of us could ever imagine. In capturing the memorials of those slain (most in their teens or early 20’s), we feel the innocence cruelly deprived just by looking at the names listed underneath them.

But perhaps the most powerful scene to be found here comes when a former gang member, now released from prison, visits the barbershop he robbed with friends to apologize for what he did. It is an amazing moment, and one I do not often expect to see (but certainly hope to). You can feel the raw emotions of the employees as they respond to this most unexpected of visits, and if this does not make you believe in the power of redemption, you have a heart made of stone.

“The Interrupters” is a must-see documentary which captures moments that cannot be found elsewhere, let alone in many Hollywood movies which boast about being “based on a true story.” This is real life being shown here, and it is the kind many of us do not see up close. The hope and redemption it captures is completely genuine, and it is a one of a kind cinematic experience in this or any other year. This is a must see!

* * * * out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: Safe – Directed by Todd Haynes and Starring Julianne Moore

I am thankful I live near New Beverly Cinema as it has long since proven to be a great film school for movie buffs like me, and it has allowed me to watch movies I might otherwise not have bothered to watch when they were first released. Case in point is the 1995 movie “Safe” which marked a huge breakthrough for its director Todd Haynes and lead actress Julianne Moore. I do remember when it was first released and of film critics like Roger Ebert singing its praises, and it came out during a time when movies like these played in cities far from where I lived, and getting out to see them was impossible. Even with a driver’s license, certain cinematic events were too far away for me to attend.

Anyway, Moore plays Carol White, a suburban homemaker who is comfortably married to Greg (Xander Berkeley), and she spends her days either doing things around the house, going to her local aerobics class, or having lunch with friends. But one day after driving down Olympic Boulevard, she finds herself coughing uncontrollably after traveling behind a big rig truck whose exhaust seeps right into her air conditioning system. This marks the beginning of an acute sensitivity to just about every chemical known to the human race, and things just get worse and worse for her from there. In addition to coughing uncontrollably, she later finds herself suffering from nose bleeds, she develops asthma-like symptoms, and she ends up convulsing at the local dry cleaners.

Carol is said to have developed multiple chemical sensitivity, otherwise known as MCS or the “Twentieth-Century Disease.” This is still seen as a very controversial diagnosis which remains unrecognized by the American Medical Association. “Safe,” however, is not out to prove if MCS is a real threat to us all or not. Instead, it looks at how a disease can forever change the way we look at ourselves and of how we view the world around us.

“Safe” also gets deep into that anxiety-ridden place in our psyche which goes haywire when our safety zone gets violated by forces beyond our control. We feel Carol’s agony throughout because we all collectively fear getting a disease which has no clear diagnosis or an immediate cure. When you end up going through lord only knows how many doctor’s appointments where it feels like nothing’s working, it really wears you and your loved ones down to the point of sheer desperation.

Things get even more horrifying from there when Carol travels to a resort in the New Mexico desert called Wrenwood. Designed to help those afflicted with MCS, it really seems more like a cult. Instead of finding ways to deal with this condition to where people can function normally in their daily lives, its leader Peter Dunning (the excellent Peter Friedman) subtly enforces his fear of the chemical world on his dutiful followers. Peter comes in the guise of a very friendly person with the best of intentions, but we all know where good intentions lead.

Haynes, working with a minimal budget, makes “Safe” feel all the more real as he portrays suburban life in the San Fernando Valley in ways which never come across as corny or the least bit campy. All the characters are complex and the kind we recognize from our own lives, and the agitation they experience feels unnervingly vivid. Adding to this sense of dread is an excellent ambient score by Ed Tomney which deftly illustrates the growing anxiety of the film’s main character. Haynes brings out the best in each of the actors, and he lets them become their characters instead of just playing them.

Moore’s performance in “Safe” proved to be a revelation as she sucks us right into her character’s dilemma, and we can never take our eyes off her as Carol turns further inward and isolates herself from the world at large. The whole movie rests on her shoulders, and she shows no vanity in her portrayal of Carol. She literally becomes the character before our very eyes to where she looks frighteningly emaciated and close to being completely incapacitated. It’s a deeply affecting performance which made me want to reach out and hug her, and I say this even though it would probably not be enough to save her character.

“Safe” ends on an ambiguous note, leaving it up to the audience to guess what will become of Carol White. This will drive a lot of the mainstream audience members crazy as they demand to have things explained in full detail, but a movie like this cannot and should not offer easy solutions. How can it? I got so caught up in Carol’s ordeal to where I felt I was in her shoes. Personally, I hope she finds a way to overcome her circumstances, but that may just be wishful thinking.

I am really glad I finally got to see “Safe,” and I hope more people take the time to check it out. It stays with you in a way few movies do. It also leaves us with a haunting image of a certain character seen from a distance, completely covered with clothing to where they are hiding every part of their body from the world at large. Arcade Fire may sing about the body being a cage, but what happens when we put another cage over it? This all reminds me of a lyric from a song by Peter Gabriel:

“The more we are protected, the more we’re trapped within.”

* * * * out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: When I first saw “Safe” at New Beverly Cinema, it had been out of print on DVD and VHS for several years. The Criterion Collection, however, has since released a special edition of it on DVD and Blu-ray, and I could not recommend it more highly. Click here to find out more about this special edition.

Underseen Movie: Harry Brown in Which Michael Caine Gets His Own Version of Death Wish

Back in 2010, I was trying to remember the last time I saw Sir Michael Caine play the lead in a motion picture. Looking back, I think it was “The Quiet American” in which he gave what he thought, and I agree with him, was one of his very best performances ever. Since then, he has been the supporting actor of choice in movies like “The Dark Knight” and “Inception.” The big joke around Hollywood was if you can’t get Morgan Freeman for your movie, get Caine. Those two guys are in just about every other movie being made. Still, we need a reminder every so often of how truly great an actor Caine is. There are a number of good reasons why his career has lasted several decades after having survived critical disasters like “Jaws: The Revenge.”

But in 2009, Caine did get indeed get the lead in a movie many still have not seen, “Harry Brown.” I saw it as a double feature at the New Beverly Cinema along with a classic movie Caine starred in called “Get Carter.” Both these films have him playing characters where violence plays or has played a big part in their lives. With “Get Carter,” he played a professional killer who was almost completely amoral, and yet you couldn’t help but like him. It’s almost tempting to look at “Harry Brown” as kind of a sequel to “Get Carter” as it makes you wonder what Jack Carter would have been like had he grown up long enough to become a senior citizen. Even if he managed to put his past behind him, it is always bound to catch up with him as only so many bad deeds go unpunished.

From its trailer, “Harry Brown” certainly does look like the British version of “Death Wish,” one of the most unforgettable movies about vigilante justice. But you could also look at it as being to Caine what “Gran Torino” was to Clint Eastwood. Each movie involves a character so uncomfortable with the changes going on around them, and they are resistant, as is everyone, to any kind of change. There’s even a good dose of Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” thrown in for good measure as you wonder how deeply Harry was shaped by his experiences as a military officer.

Either way you look at it, “Harry Brown” takes the overused concept of a regular person who loses someone close to them, forcing them to take matters into their own hands when the police fail to help, and turns it into a very effective thriller which is truly unrelenting in the intensity it generates. Seriously, this is a very bleak movie which puts you into the main character’s mindset and never lets you go. It also takes place in a an environment which is all too real to those who live in it, and the consequences hit you like a swift kick to the gut. You may look at Brown’s surroundings and say to yourself no one could pay me enough to live in this environment, but we are stuck there for 103 minutes, and there’s no easy way out.

Caine plays the title character, a widowed North Ireland military veteran who finds his training coming back to him as he comes to confront those who murdered his best friend, Leonard (David Bradley) in such a cold and callous way. Following this, it becomes clear to Harry his days of being indifferent to the horrible goings on now are at an end, and he threatens to become even more lethal than those gang members he stealthily pursues. In the process, his training as a soldier is reawakened, and he uses it to his advantage. The way Harry sees it, he and his men fought for something important, but these kids today are instead fighting for their own depressing amusement.

Caine continues to make screen acting look effortless for him, and even the moments where he doesn’t speak a single word speaks volumes of what is going through his mind. We feel Harry’s pain over becoming so lonely without a soul to rely on, and we experience his state of mind completely thanks to Caine’s incredible performance. We have seen this kind of character a lot in movies, but Caine imbues Harry with a wounded humanity which keeps him for becoming completely cold blooded. Even as he descends into violent acts of raw vengeance, we can’t help but sympathize with Harry as we come to wonder what we would do if we unlucky enough to be in this situation. We never catch Caine playing on the clichés other actors would likely fall into, and it makes you wonder if there is another actor who could have played this role as well as him.

“Harry Brown” marks the feature length directorial debut of Daniel Barber whose only other project was the Oscar nominated short film “The Tonto Woman.” Filming at a council estate in South London, he creates an unrelentingly bleak atmosphere which feels even darker than anything David Fincher came up with in “Alien 3” or “Seven.” Just taking in the atmosphere which surrounds Harry and his fellow neighbors drains the soul pretty quick. Instead of prettying anything up, Barber captures the hopelessness of a people stuck in a crime ridden area so far out of their control, and of the frustration which drives the main character into action.

It is clear from the start that this will not be your average Hollywood vigilante flick, and the violence featured here is very brutal. The movie’s opening sequence features a very realistically staged gang initiation sequence where a new recruit is made to do drugs and then gets beaten up to within an inch of his life. This is later followed up by a highly unnerving scene where two gang members are riding along on a motorbike while filming their escapades, and one of them ends up shooting a young mother while she is pushing her baby in a stroller. From that point on, you never feel safe while watching this movie. You feel the gunshots when they go off here, and it all becomes a race to see how much longer Harry can stay alive.

Barber also proves to be masterful in setting up highly suspenseful scenes which are brimming over with excruciating tension. The best example of this comes when Harry meets with two young men to buy a gun, and both are clearly high on their own supply to where they are hopelessly paranoid. You feel like things could explode at any second, and I have to give a lot of credit to the two actors, Sean Harris and Joseph Gilgun, here as they make their drugged-up characters all the more frightening than they already were in the screenplay. Seriously, the scene between them and Caine is one of the most unnerving I have seen in a long time, and I will never be able to shake it.

There is also a very nice supporting performance here from the lovely Emily Mortimer who previously stole my heart in “Lars and the Real Girl” opposite Ryan Gosling. She plays Detective Inspector Alice Frampton who is at times empathetic to the suffering around her, and at other times very serious about the work she does. It’s not your typical tough as nails cop on display here, and I found this to be quite interesting. Frampton almost looks out of her league, but she quickly shows us how she keeps an open mind and considers every possibility without singling out anything based on preconceptions or stereotypes. Of course, being the smartest cop in the movie, no one listens to or takes her seriously enough. Then again, if they had, the running length of this film would be equivalent to that of “The Tonto Woman.”

“Harry Brown” is truly one of the bleakest movies I have ever seen, and while the trailers make you think we are traveling into familiar “Death Wish” territory, this is not the case in the slightest. All these years later, I still can’t get it out of my head as it affected me more than I anticipated. I was expecting a solid B-movie at most, but there was much more to the story than what I saw at first glance. It marks a very impressive debut for Barber, and it allows Caine to give us yet another great character and unforgettable performance to a resume which is overflowing with them.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Steven Soderbergh Looks Back at King of the Hill

WRITER’S NOTE: The following article is about a screening which took place back in 2011.

In the midst of promoting “Contagion” in Los Angeles, California, filmmaker Steven Soderbergh dropped by the Silent Movie Theater where Cinefamily was screening one of his earlier and most underrated features, “King of the Hill.” Not to be confused with the Fox animated series, the film follows 12-year-old Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford) who is forced to fend for himself in Depression era America after his parents leave him alone at the Empire Hotel in St. Louis. Aaron is forced to grow up a lot faster than any kid should ever have to, and he desperately searches for ways to avoid eviction from the family’s apartment. Soderbergh thanked the sold-out crowd for coming to the theater, and he started off by saying, “Why aren’t you guys going to see ‘Contagion’? This film is never going into profit!”

“King of the Hill” was Soderbergh’s third film after “Sex, Lies & Videotape” and “Kafka,” and it was released back in 1993. Based on the memoir of the same name by A.E. Hotchner, it was given to him as a gift by a friend. At the time he was looking for something different than “Sex, Lies & Videotape,” and he found Hotchner’s story to be just what he needed. He did, however, describe it as a “tricky adaptation” since he only had a budget of $8 million and 48 days to shoot the film, and it was a period piece. On the upside, though, he said Universal Pictures, which released the movie through its Gramercy Pictures division, was “hands off” during the production.

Watching it again, Soderbergh described it as the one movie of his he might change aesthetically. He felt the prettiness of the picture would help counteract the harsher parts of the story, but now finds the film to be “almost too pretty.” Most of the conversation he had in pre-production involved the overall palette color which he and cinematographer Elliot Davis wanted to remain within a certain range. Were he to film it today, Soderbergh said he would go out of his way to make it “less commercial.”

Soderbergh recalled doing three preview screenings of his movie, none of which went well. When finished with the project, he admitted feeling somewhat dissatisfied as the movie’s ending did not seem entirely satisfactory to him. Whatever problems he had, they did not stop him from trying to adapt Hotchner’s follow up memoir “Looking for Miracles” which focused on the writer’s relationship with his brother. Sadly, Soderbergh’s hopes were quickly dashed when “King of the Hill” did not find an audience upon its release.

Regardless of his feelings, the audience was in agreement that “King of the Hill” is a great film, and it truly is one of Soderbergh’s best works. The director also found a big fan in Sid Sheinberg, the famous entertainment executive, who, soon after seeing it, introduced him to Lew Wasserman. It also made Soderbergh how that he didn’t enjoy writing as much as he thought, but he did continue writing screenplays for his films “The Underneath,” “Schizopolis,” and his remake of “Solaris.” This was one of five films he did after “Sex, Lies & Videotape” which he openly admitted “did no business,” but perhaps they will eventually.

“King of the Hill” is not currently available on DVD (not in America anyway) or Blu-ray, nor is it available to stream on Netflix. Soderbergh remarked this is because “cult flicks are not marketable right now” and that “no one buys DVD’s anymore.” But with this director being so highly regarded in Hollywood, hopefully this third film of his will get the digital release it deserves so fans can discover it for the great movie it is.

UPDATE: “King of the Hill” has since been released by the Criterion Collection in a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack. It features a new restored 2K digital film transfer, interviews with Soderbergh and Hotchner, movie trailers, and Soderbergh’s fourth film “The Underneath.” To find out more about this release, click here.