‘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 * * * *

Ten Years Later, ‘The Town’ Remains a Riveting Crime Thriller

I saw this film with a friend of mine who grew up around the area it takes place in, and he declared this to be the “best Boston movie ever.” Now I am not in a position to verify this as fact because while I visited Boston when I was a kid, I have never lived there. But with this coming from someone who spent his childhood growing up in this neighborhood and made hundreds of visits to Fenway Park, this is very high praise which cannot be ignored or easily dismissed.

With “The Town,” an adaptation of Chuck Hogan’s novel “Prince of Thieves,” Ben Affleck proves what should have been clear to us after his directorial debut “Gone Baby Gone;” he is truly an excellent filmmaker. Moreover, he has a strong understanding of Boston and the surrounding areas. Affleck also succeeds in giving us one of his very best performances while surrounding himself with a strong cast of talented actors. Upon this film’s release, many were out for his blood as he was making one terrible movie after another with “Gigli,” “Reindeer Games” and “Surviving Christmas,” but “The Town” showed us that his career deserved a second act.

Affleck stars as Doug MacRay who, with his lifelong group of friends, commits robberies on banks and armored cars. One such robbery has them kidnapping a beautiful bank manager named Claire whom they let go after they have successfully made their getaway. But after looking over her driver’s license, they realize she lives only a block or two away from where they reside. Fearful that she might recognize them, Doug volunteers to check her out to see if she knows anything. In the process, he falls madly in love with her, and she is quick to return his feelings. Now this could mean one of two things; crime truly makes you stupid, or love conquers all. This leads the team of robbers to get even more paranoid than they already are as they are about to pull off one last heist, and we all know what happens on that “last job.”

While Boston plays a big part in this film, the setting of “The Town” is actually Charlestown, home of the Bunker Hill Monument which is prominently featured throughout. In the opening titles, it is said Charlestown has more than 500 robberies in a year and is known as a place which breeds a strong criminal element. It all reminds me of what Bono sang about in the U2 song “Dirty Day:”

“If you need someone to blame, throw a rock in the air. You’ll hit someone guilty.”

Now “The Town” is more than likely to earn a lot of comparison with Michael Mann’s “Heat” as both share plot and thematic similarities. But while “Heat” was truly an epic motion picture, “The Town” is far more intimate in its scope and characters. Much of the attention is paid to the criminals themselves than to the police or FBI agents who are obsessively pursuing them. It also surrounds you in an authentic Boston atmosphere and makes you wonder if the characters who were born and raised there will ever be able to survive outside of it, let alone leave it without the threat of death hanging over their heads.

Along with screenwriters Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard, Affleck takes the most familiar elements of your average heist movie and reinvigorates them to create an exciting motion picture which is as big on character as it is on action. Clearly, Affleck’s attention is more acutely focused on the characters and the circumstances which surround them all. As for the action, it has some of the best staged robbery sequences I have seen in recent films, and there is also a brilliantly staged car chase through the narrow streets which makes you wonder if the thieves could ever possibly escape as the police are not always the bumbling idiots they are made out to be on the silver screen.

Then there is Affleck the actor, and a lot of my friends still cannot stand him. Truth be told, I never thought he was a bad actor, and as Doug MacRay he gives one of his best performances to date. I totally believed him as a hardened criminal who looks to find another path in life, and he holds his own against a cast of exceptional actors who give him so much to work off of.

Another big standout performance in “The Town” comes from Jeremy Renner who was on a roll after his Oscar-nominated performance in “The Hurt Locker.” As James “Jem” Coughlin, Renner portrays the most unstable and drug addicted member of the gang, and its most heedless one as well. Coughlin is like a coiled snake waiting to strike and it is easy to see he will be the master of his own downfall, but Renner gives him a wounded soul as well. Having served nine years in prison rather than rat on his best friend Doug, James constantly feels like he is on the verge of being betrayed and feels, as Lars Ulrich once said, “so disrespected.” Other actors would just play up the hothead aspects of this character, but Renner gets at James’ heart and of how his feelings end up dictating his actions.

Jon Hamm is also on board as Special Agent Adam Frawley. But while he looks to be one of your obsessive law enforcement characters in a heist movie, Hamm actually subverts this to show us an FBI agent who proves to be as ruthless as the criminals he is chasing. In certain scenes, he proves more than willing to ruin another character’s life if it means gaining evidence and capturing criminals who are always one step ahead of the law. That Don Draper coolness rubs off on Adam as he almost effortlessly wiggles his way past another person’s defenses and then dives in for the kill.

The actresses cast do remarkable work here, holding their own against a dominantly male cast. Rebecca Hall is Claire Keesey, the bank manager held hostage who later falls for one of the robbers without even knowing it. Claire has to balance out her own frazzled emotions in the aftermath of what she has been through, and she has to deal with her strong feelings for Doug which never falter even after she discovers who he really is. As for Blake Lively, her performance as drugged out single mother Krista showed there was more to her than her work on “Gossip Girl.”. Lively excels in showing how Krista still harbors deep feelings for Doug and yet is unable to pull herself out of a painful downward spiral.

You also have resident character actors Chris Cooper and the late Pete Postlethwaite doing the same solid acting work you can always count on them for. Cooper only appears in one scene as Doug’s dad, Stephen MacRay, but he creates a fully developed character whose troubled history is communicated more in facial expressions and actions than it is in words. Postlethwaite plays Fergie the Florist, your typical mob boss, but his performance never feels anywhere as clichéd as you might expect. Even in a few scenes, his Fergie is a very scary character whose threats seem very real and who holds the answers to the questions Doug is always asking. Both of these guys are proof there are no small roles, only small actors, and these guys are most definitely NOT small actors!

Looking at the plot of “The Town” as a whole, this film could have been average or would have told the same old tired heist story with nothing new or original to say about it. But while this film may not be original, all the specific details put into use here seriously elevate it from the ordinary. The relationships and dialogue between each character never feels contrived or artificial, and the screenplay has great moments where characters realistically regain the trust of others without being at all manipulative:

“Ask me anything you want.”

“I won’t believe you.”

“Yes, you will.”

“Why?”

“Because you’ll fucking hate the answers.”

Going into “The Town,” I knew I was in for a good movie, but I should have known I was about to watch a great one. Affleck more than earned his career resurgence, and his work as a director cannot be held in doubt after this and “Gone Baby Gone,” let alone his Oscar winning triumph “Argo.” This movie could have been a spectacular failure in anyone else’s hands, but Affleck is much smarter than we ever give him credit for. Ten years after its successful release, “The Town” remains a riveting motion picture which sucks you in and never lets you off easy. Even if it brings to mind other heist movies, this one stands on its own as a unique piece of cinema and the kind only Affleck could have given us.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Scott Pilgrim vs The World’ – 10 Years Later and it is Still Awesome!

Upon seeing how the filmmakers gleefully manipulated the Universal Pictures logo to make it look like something out of an old Atari or Nintendo game in addition to scoring the fanfare with the prehistoric techno music we knew these games to have, I knew I was in for a very entertaining time at the movies. I always get a kick out of people messing around with the studio logos we see at the beginning of every motion picture. It is an immediate sign of how we are about to see something different from the usual Hollywood fare, something we do not get enough of. Perhaps if audiences embraced more movies like these, we wouldn’t have to deal with all these remakes and reboots!

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” was without a doubt the most fun I had watching a movie in a theater back in 2010. It is also another inspired masterpiece from director Edgar Wright who has previously given us the giddy cult classics “Shaun Of The Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.” Based on the comic book series by Bryan Lee O’Malley, it is really an ode to all things video games and a collage of the visual audio effects from them, and they are combined with a story featuring characters who are anything but boring. It is also beautifully shot, perfectly cast, very well written, and extremely well directed. In case you are wondering, yes, I love this movie, and I love it just as much 10 years after its release.

The Scott Pilgrim of the movie’s title is a 22-year-old man child who plays bass guitar with his friends for the rock band Sex Bob-omb. Finally rebounding from a devastatingly painful break up a year ago, he has started dating a 17-year old girl named Knives who is still in high school. Scott’s friends, including his gay roommate Wallace, tell him ever so bluntly he has lost his mind and assume he is trying to rebound with someone they consider to be his “fake girlfriend.” But then he gets a glimpse of the new girl in town, the mysterious raven-haired Ramona Flowers, and he is hopelessly smitten on sight and becomes intent on asking her out.

However, there is a catch; if Scott is going to be in a relationship with Ramona, he will have to defeat her seven evil exes. Indeed, Scott does get an email warning him of this, but he ends up deleting it quickly after declaring it as “boring.” As Arnold Schwarzenegger would say, big mistake! When Scott and his friends perform at a battle of the band’s competition, he is suddenly met by the first evil ex of the bunch, Matthew Patel. Other exes include those with mystical powers, a former skateboarder who has since become an actor, and another bass player who has developed telekinetic powers thanks to his Vegan diet. Let the battles begin!

Basically, the movie treats Scott’s life as though it were one old school game with dated graphics, and we watch him take on each ex (note, not all of them are men) as if he were in a real life Mortal Kombat tournament but without all the blood and guts. That’s the thing; there is no real gore to be found here as was the case in Edgar Wright’s previous two films. I bring this up because I gave my sister in law the DVD for “Hot Fuzz,” and she was horrified at the sight of Timothy Dalton’s face being impaled on a tiny replica of the Big Ben tower.

Scott defends himself pretty well, but he is also dealt a harsh beating without suffering any broken bones. It sounds cool when you think you can take a licking without a shattered collarbone or worst, but he does feel pain, so this side effect of taking on those people who were at other times equally enamored by Ramona is unavoidable. In defeating the exes, he will capture Ramona’s heart and become the first boyfriend of hers who is far from evil. He will also end up inheriting a boatload of coins after delivering the final blow.

I do have to say, however, it sucks he has no time to collect the coins or have some big gym bag to put them in. The amount spilled would have set him up in the local video arcade for life!

What I loved about “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” is how endlessly inventive it is in its visuals and the scenarios Wright comes up with, and it integrates all these images from video games deeply engraved in our minds to make us feel like kids again. There is one shot in particular which defies easy description, but it had me laughing harder than anything else I had seen in 2010 to the point where I got seriously light-headed. I’m pretty sure you’ll know it when you see it.

Now the pitfall of having such great visuals is other elements like acting and the screenplay might fail to get the same attention. But Wright, along with Michael Bacall, has written a script containing characters who, while flawed, I came to care about deeply. Unlike all those characters from those Pac Man or Super Mario Brothers games we played at home or, in my case, at a friend’s house, these are not just one-dimensional beings with one simple goal in mind. Scott doesn’t just have to defeat the league of evil exes, he also has to develop a strong self-respect before he can move on with his life in Canada.

Leading the cast here is Michael Cera who plays Scott, and he gives one of his best performance here. He was dealing with a backlash back then because many assumed he was just playing the same character in every movie he was in; an awkward young man who isn’t sure how to feel or act about anything due to a deep fear of embarrassment. But Scott is not really the same sort of character Cera has been portraying. Sure, there is a good dose of awkwardness when we first see him talking to Ramona, but he’s about to give up on getting her to go out with him.

It’s also important to note that Scott is not always a likable character. At times he is caught red-handed in being very dishonest with his friends, and he doesn’t always take their feelings into consideration. The major triumph of Cera’s performance is he still makes you root for Scott in spite of some of his selfish actions.

Playing the beautiful Ramona is Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and I cannot think of another actress who has looked so incredibly gorgeous with dyed hair. Winstead has appeared as John McClane’s daughter, Lucy, who proved to be just as tough as her dad in “Live Free or Die Hard,” she showed off a fantastic set of vocal pipes in Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof” (one of the two movies in “Grindhouse”), and she was a force to be reckoned with in “10 Cloverfield Lane.” Winstead makes Ramona look tough and intimidating on the outside, but she also allows us to see the wounded person underneath that cold defensive exterior of hers. Ramona may look mean, but she is a wounded soul. Then again, who wouldn’t be after having endured seven failed relationships?

There is also a dynamic scene stealer to be found here, and it is Kieran Culkin who plays Scott’s roommate, Wallace Wells. Shamelessly stealing men from Scott’s little sister while texting gossip on his phone like it is second nature, Culkin gets to bring the same biting wit of his which he used to great effect in “Igby Goes Down.” He is a fiendish delight in every scene he is in.

As for the exes, each actor imbues their characters with the specific traits and powers they come equipped with, and they succeed in making each one totally unique from the other. Brandon Routh gets to really let loose here in a way he never got to in “Superman Returns” as Todd Ingram, the Vegan ex with telekinetic powers. Witnessing his expected demise brings about one of the funniest moments as Scott finds this rival bass player’s kryptonite. Jason Schwartzman is also excellent as a slick theater manager who uses his charms on anyone and everyone around him, and he is a slimy delight as a record company exec who earns your trust only to break it when you’re not looking.

What else is there to say about “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World?” Plenty! The director of photography on this splendid picture was Bill Pope, the same man who did wonders for many of Sam Raimi’s films as well as “The Matrix” trilogy. His style perfectly matches up with Wright’s sensibility, and the way he sets up certain shots is amazingly brilliant. Furthermore, I have to applaud artists like Beck and Nigel Godrich for giving Sex Bob-Omb some kick ass music for them to play. In movies like these, I expect the bands to get stuck with some lame music which is geared more to sell a soundtrack than fit in with the overall story. That’s not the case here, thank goodness.

There are also inspired turns from Anna Kendrick (“Up In The Air”) as Scott’s sister Stacey, Alison Pine whose character of Kim Pine shows a bitter and stony expression, and Aubrey Plaza whose heavy stares and sarcastic state of mind as Julie Powers is a sight to behold.

I was depressed to see “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” bomb back in 2010. I could not believe it had such a lousy opening weekend, and I was miffed that audiences were more eager to see the god-awful comedy “Vampires Suck” snag the number one spot at the box office instead of this one. Over the years though, it has become a cult hit, and Wright did manage to score a big hit with “Baby Driver.” Regardless of its initial reception, this movie has proven to have a long shelf life, and I invite you to watch it if you have not already. Besides, in this time of an endless global pandemic, this one will take your mind off of it for a couple of hours.

Loved this movie, I did!

* * * * 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 * * * *

Errol Morris’ ‘Tabloid’ is More a Love Story Than a Documentary

Tabloid movie poster

“What is a lie when every man has his own truth?”

-Clark Johnson from “Homicide: Life on The Street”

 “I like to remember things my own way. How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.”

-Bill Pullman from “Lost Highway”

 “Facts are simple and facts are straight

Facts are lazy and facts are late

Facts all come with points of view

Facts don’t do what I want them to

Facts just twist the truth around

Facts are living turned inside out

Facts are getting the best of them.”

-from “Crosseyed and Painless” by Talking Heads

The story at the center of “Tabloid” is further proof of how truth can be much stranger than fiction. It is an endlessly entertaining documentary on an utterly bizarre incident from 1977 involving former Miss Wyoming Joyce McKinney. She talks about falling head over heels in love with a Mormon missionary named Kirk Anderson, and of how he disappeared without a trace after they became engaged.

Joyce spent the next couple of years searching for Kirk, eventually finding him in Ewell, Surrey where he was working at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Desperate to be reunited with him, she flew to England determined to rescue and marry him as she sees her destiny as being with him until death separates them forever. But from there the story splinters into two heavily contrasting versions. Joyce claims the Mormon religion is a cult which brainwashed and robbed Kirk of his free will, and that he went with her willingly upon finding him at the church. However, Kirk later told police he was abducted by Joyce and chained to a bed in a cottage where she seduced and raped him.

Whatever the case, this story exploded in the press and became, as one interviewee called it, “the perfect tabloid story.” With its mix of sex and religion, this case came to be known as “The Mormon Sex in Chains Case” and “The Case of the Manacled Mormon.”

You may come out of “Tabloid” frustrated as it is not made entirely clear who is honest and who is lying, but getting to the truth is not the intention of this documentary. Morris constructed it in a way which tests who and what we believe in and how our perceptions have been molded over time by the media culture more than we ever bother to realize. It almost doesn’t matter what actually happened because the story is so weirdly captivating, and viewers find themselves wanting it to go in a particular direction regardless of whether the facts match up with that direction or not.

John Patrick Shanley was dead on correct when he wrote how doubt is a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. Everyone in “Tabloid” has an inescapable shadow of doubt hovering over everything they say and what they believe to be true. It’s like those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books we all read as kids. You know, the ones which tell you to turn to this page or another to where the outcome of your journey remains truly unpredictable.

Seeing the media at work on this “Mormon in Chains” case makes one realize not much has changed in their coverage of events. Back then, the public ate all the lurid details of this absurd story as it touched on those guilty pleasures we are never quick to admit we have. People like to believe they are above “trash” like this, but unconscious minds are always quick to wander to the magazine aisle in the supermarket to peek through the latest issue of the National Enquirer among other magazines which take the truth and manipulate into something wonderfully lurid. We know it is bad for us, but we cannot always keep our morbid fascination in check.

As an interview subject, Joyce McKinney is never boring for one second. At the start of “Tabloid,” she has an endearing quality which makes you want to spend all this time in her company. You will find yourself feeling for her when the world more or less threw her under a bus, and you will not be able to stop empathizing with her even after much of what she says comes into question. You can hear Morris interviewing her in the background, and every other question he asks sounds like, “Oh my god are you kidding me?!”

Still, it does at times feel like Joyce is putting on a performance for us, one which she has rehearsed for decades. Morris said she was the star of her own movie long before he started making this one, and it is easy to see how this is the case. Regardless, you will find yourself wanting to buy her story even as others come up with proof of how she lied.

With all the various facets of her life put up onscreen, you are eager to see where Joyce will take us next as it is unpredictable for those who are not the least bit familiar with this case. Even if she is lying about everything, it’s never less than interesting.

The truth these days is such a malleable thing as everyone shapes it to fit their own needs and beliefs. Others will say we are wrong or lying, but we are quick to defend what we know to be the truth. Many will convince themselves of what is true to where we can no longer be objective about the experience they had. We replay certain moments in our lives over and over again until they seem correct to us. Even Joyce says at one point, “You know you can tell a lie long enough until you believe it.”

What is great about “Tabloid” is how on top it is a love story of the most unusual kind. There is never any doubt that Joyce still loves Kirk after all these years. Even if you feel miles away from truth after watching this documentary, it is safe to say this much is certain.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

If You Like ‘Ford v Ferrari,’ Check Out ‘Senna’

Senna movie poster

To call “Senna” a brilliant documentary is not enough. You will get sucked so deeply into the life of motor-racing champion Ayrton Senna to where you will not ever feel like you are watching his life from a distance. It also shows all sides of this man to where he is shown to be complex and unlike any other race car driver in Formula One. His death during a race in 1994 still saddens many after more than a decade, and after watching “Senna” you will clearly understand why.

Director Asif Kapadia really lucked out as he had access to so much footage from Senna’s life both in and out of cars. We have racing footage of course, but there is also home video footage showing him to be a sublime individual and a genuinely nice guy. Kapadia succeeds in making “Senna” feel like we are spending time with a friend and not just another racing superstar.

Compared to others in racing, Senna comes across as being surprisingly humble and shy. No matter how many championships he won, fame never seemed to go to his head, and this is saying a lot. His personality ends up getting contrasted sharply with his fellow racer Alain Prost, and their intense rivalry becomes a big focus here. Prost comes off at first as being very full of himself, particularly while he is being interviews by a female journalist, and we come to see how his biggest strength is also Senna’s chief weakness: mastering the politics of Formula One. It becomes hard not to be on Senna’s side as their rivalry becomes increasingly bitter. While Senna proves to be ruthless on the race track, he is deeply spiritual and not ignorant of the fact he is as mortal as anyone else.

The racing sequences are exhilarating as we watch Senna do things with a race car no one else could. His brilliance while driving in the rain made him especially unique in Formula One, and it is astonishing to learn he never got hurt while driving in this weather. His donations to improve the conditions in Brazil never feels like a publicity stunt, but instead proof of how fiercely loyal he was to his native country.

But the documentary’s most unnerving sequence occurs a day before Senna’s tragic death when fellow racer Roland Ratzenberger was killed on the exact same track at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Senna becomes deeply upset at what has happened and vows to improve safety on all race courses, something he sadly never got to live to carry out. Watching it feels very eerie as we know the fate which awaits him, and even then, we find ourselves hoping and praying for a different outcome.

What makes “Senna” unlike your average documentary is while most are far removed from their main subject, Kapadia brings you up close and personal. Throughout its running time, Ayrton Senna is alive and not just another dead racer forever relegated to the past. It does not matter in the slightest if you are a fan of car racing or not. “Senna” is as enthralling as the best racing movies ever made as you experience it more than watch it, and it gives us a great respect for this racer even as it leaves us very sad that he left us at such a young age (he was only 34). But seeing him here alive once again gives us a great opportunity to know a man many of us never got the chance to in real life.

So, if you liked “Ford v Ferrari,” be sure to give this one a look. And if you did not like “Ford v Ferrari,” see “Senna” anyway.

* * * * out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: Another great documentary by Asif Kapadia, and it is as great as this one, is “Amy” which serves as a much needed eulogy to the late singer Amy Winehouse.

‘Toy Story 3’ Concludes an Ever so Brilliant Pixar Trilogy

Toy Story 3 movie poster

I could never bear to give my stuffed animals away. They were a huge part of my childhood, and the thought of letting them go forever seemed so horrifying. Society expects you to give up on little dolls and stuff as you become an adult, and I honestly find that to be kind of bogus. Am I really supposed to stop playing with these plush friends of mine because society expects me to? Am I supposed to permanently kill off the childlike wonder inside of me so I look normal and hopelessly embittered like everybody else? Doesn’t this seem cruel?

In the end, I didn’t need to give my stuffed animals away. They got eviscerated by a rat that ended while they sat in a trash bag in the family garage. The rat wanted their stuffing, and he (or she) left behind a lot of rat poop which had to be disposed of carefully because it spreads disease. However, all the Eeyores I have collected over the years were fine as they continue to get preferential treatment ever since I got my first one back in the 1980’s.

It was inevitable these cuddly friends of mine would never get the same amount of attention as the years went by. The dilemma of what to do with these things we grew up with brings about strong emotions and uncertainty, and this is what Andy faces in “Toy Story 3.” Coming 11 years after its predecessor, young Andy who had given much love to these toys is now a young adult about to start college. His mother tells him he can either donate his toys to a nearby daycare center, or they can just go up in the attic. Despite Andy not having played with them in years, he is reluctant to let his toys go.

The majority of the toys from the first two “Toy Story” movies are back including Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Jessie, Rex, Slinky Dog, Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head, Bullseye and Hamm who has always been one of my favorites. Many, however, have since been donated or thrown out including Woody’s girl, Little Bo Peep. So, while Andy clearly has favorites among the toys he grew up with, it doesn’t make them feel anymore safe now that he is leaving home.

Woody (Tom Hanks) tries to keep the other toys’ spirits up even as he reminds them they knew this day was coming and that they might as well make the best of things while preparing for attic mode. However, an error occurs which has them getting donated to the nearby Sunnyside Daycare Center. At first, the toys don’t feel too bad because they are back in a position where they get to be played with on a regular basis. But despite the warm welcome from other toys, it quickly turns into their worst nightmare as they deal with kids who are not nearly old enough to take care of them. Instead of treating them with love, they get flung all over the place like they were frisbees, painted on, and contorted into positions which would make us cringe uncontrollably. Remember the scene from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” where one of Richard Dreyfuss’ children smashes a baby doll to smithereens? Jessie, Buzz Lightyear, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head and others get it just as bad here.

Now the third movie in a franchise is typically where a series goes off the rails or “jumps the shark” as some would say. After bringing something fresh and original to audiences everywhere, filmmakers end up relying on the formula which made the previous two movies so good. As a result, number three can come across as a regurgitation of our favorite moments to where it rings hollow because, even if they presented the characters in a slightly different context, it’s still the same old thing. The realization of this is always disheartening and depressing.

I’ve got good news though; “Toy Story 3” manages to escape this unfortunate trap and it proves to be just as inventive, imaginative, funny and heartwarming as its brilliantly made predecessors. Once again, Pixar shows they are not willing to rest on their laurels, and they keep their focus on the story as always.

When I was young, I always loved to believe my stuffed animals had lives of their own and did things I was never a witness to. I could see them taking out the Chevy Suburban my family used to have while the rest of us slept at night. To think they would be comfortable for the rest of their existence just sitting in my room didn’t seem particularly fair, and they deserved a night on town and a few beers. The great thing about the “Toy Story” movies is they understand how far our imaginations can go with this belief, and they play upon it in ways which are hilarious and endlessly entertaining.

Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack and the always dependable Pixar regular John Ratzenberger among others are back voicing their beloved characters. Slinky Dog, originally played by the late Jim Varney, is voiced here by Blake Clark, and he makes the transition almost perfectly seamless.

We also get to see Barbie (Jodi Benson) with her biggest role in any of the “Toy Story” movies to date as she finally gets to meet the man of her dreams, Ken (Michael). Director Lee Unkrich and screenwriter Michael Arndt have a lot of fun playing around with the Ken we think we know, and they love hinting at the kind of person we think he might be. It’s funny to think Mattel didn’t want anyone touching Barbie when the first movie was made, and now it is unthinkable not to include her.

One of the prominent new characters in “Toy Story 3” is a strawberry scented bear named Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear, but he’s called Lotso for short. Pixar always makes ingenious casting decisions in regards to the actors they pick, and casting Ned Beatty as the voice of Lotso is further proof. This cuddly and stain resistant teddy bear looks warm and affectionate, and Beatty’s voice makes us feel at home when Lotso first appears onscreen. But Lotso soon turns out to be a deceptive toy who thinks nothing of sacrificing the stronger toys to toddlers who are quicker to destroy than love them. All of what Lotso does here is powered by his feeling of resentment over being forgotten and quickly replaced by his owner. Now he manipulates the daycare center so he can live in comfort while the other toys suffer helplessly.

In terms of movies this sequel satirizes, it combines elements of “The Great Escape” and “Mission: Impossible” to show how challenging it will be for Woody and the gang to break out of Sunnyside. All the various descriptions of how closely guarded like a fortress this seemingly harmless place is leads to one brilliant moment after another. The one toy which gets chosen to watch over the surveillance cameras is an act of genius.

Now if you have already seen the trailer, you know one of the big set pieces in “Toy Story 3” comes when Buzz Lightyear gets reset and goes into Spanish speaking mode. Seeing him woo Jessie with his smoldering dance moves as if he were Ricky Martin or Antonio Banderas had everyone in the audience young and old laughing uncontrollably. The Gypsy Kings also perform a very cool cover of Randy Newman’s song “You’ve Got A Friend in Me,” and this version alone makes me want to buy the soundtrack.

And yes, Randy Newman returns to do the music score for a Pixar movie for the first time since “Monsters, Inc.” Once again, he captures the innocence of childhood and the exciting world these toys inhabit while also capturing the bittersweet emotions which bring this movie to a very emotional climax.

Of all the “Toy Story” movies, this one is easily the darkest as we see these toys get subjected to places which they should not come out of unscathed. Plus, these toys are at the endgame stage as they will soon part with Andy in one way or another. The ending of this one will almost certainly bring tears to the eyes of many as Andy talks to a shy little girl about his toys and Woody in particular. We’ve all grown up with these characters since the 1990’s, so we cannot help but feel like Andy in how we end up leaving certain things behind even if it breaks our heart.

“Toy Story 3” does what every Pixar movie does best; it entertains and enthralls the audience no matter what age they are. With this tremendous sequel, Pixar has completed another trilogy which will stand as one of the best in cinematic history, and they come around full circle with this adventure of Woody and Buzz, the characters who started it all for this animation company. They continue to push creative boundaries with all they do, and their enviable track record both creatively and financially is more than deserved. More power to them!

When this movie is over, you will know what a Lincoln Log looks like and what it doesn’t look like. Knowing the difference is important if you want to keep yourself from gagging!

* * * * out of * * * *

 

 

‘The Kids Are All Right’ is About Marriage, Period

The Kids Are All RIght movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2010.

Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” takes its title from one of many great songs by The Who. However, I kept wondering about the movie’s title in regards to the way it is spelled. The Who’s song is entitled “The Kids Are Alright” while the movie splits “Alright” into “All Right.” What exactly does this mean? Are the kids infinitely more intelligent than the parents in this movie? Do they make better decisions in their lives than the adults? We all know kids have a stronger detector system when it comes to exposing the hypocrisy of parents and adults in general, so perhaps the movie’s title means to spell this out literally. Or maybe it’s because The Who made a rockumentary a number of years back called “The Kids Are Alright,” and perhaps Focus Features didn’t want to confuse the two. Anyway, that’s just a thought.

I was lucky enough to catch a screening of this movie on the day Proposition 8 was overturned by the California Supreme Court (YES!!!). This was the same proposition which barred gay couples from getting married and found funding from people who didn’t even live in California. However, to call this a gay or lesbian movie would make audiences completely miss the point as that is like calling “Brokeback Mountain a “gay cowboy” movie for crying out loud. What the couple of Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) go through is not any different from what many “straight couples” go through, and it really gets to the truth of what hard work marriage can be.

Nic and Jules are a very loving couple indeed, and there is no doubt about how deep their affection for one another is. Furthermore, they have two wonderful children: a 15-year-old boy named Laser (Josh Hutcherson), and an 18-year old girl named Joni (Mia Wasikowska) who is about to head off to college. The major difference between Nic and Jules is while Nic has had a successful career as a physician, Jules has failed at just about every business she has tried to start up on her own. It gets to where Jules starts to wonder if Nic is really just belittling everything she does, and a resentment between the two grows quickly.

But what really throws a wrench into the family’s dynamic is when Joni, after being pushed by Laser to do so, contacts their biological father. Both were conceived by artificial insemination, and the sperm donor turns out to be a very nice guy named Paul (Mark Ruffalo) who has a phobia of commitment and leads a decidedly bohemian life. Upon meeting these two kids, he warms up to them immediately and finds himself changing in ways he didn’t expect. But then he meets the parents, and things get really crazy.

What I really liked about “The Kids Are All Right” was that after a summer of superheroes and high concept movies, here’s one which deals with real people and situations we all recognize from our own lives and the lives of others. The characters conceived here are all well meaning people who never come across as contrived or clichéd in the usual sense. Director Lisa Cholodenko, along with co-writer Stuart Blumberg, succeed in creating some wonderful characters, and they give them with hilarious dialogue which is also insightful and refreshingly down to earth. These are people with visible flaws which make them all the more human, as if we need to be told this.

I never found myself taking sides or hating any of the characters. Like I said, each one is well meaning and comes into this situation with the best of intentions. Of course, we all know where the best of intentions can lead us. When these people stray from one another, we may disagree with what they do, but Cholodenko uses this to make us understand why some end up doing the things they do. Everyone is complicated in their own way, but labeling people as bad for doing certain things only serves to blind us from understanding them as individuals.

All the actors are clearly in love with playing the intricacies of their roles, and each one creates a character we quickly become emotionally invested in. Annette Bening is perfect as Nic, the bread winner of the family. While at times very high strung and a bit overprotective of her family, she imbues Nic with a strong sense of commitment while losing sight of what brought her into this relationship in the first place.

Julianne Moore shines as she always does as Jules who feels increasingly neglected in her role as housewife, and her fear that Nic is not taking her career endeavors seriously feels very much justified. In many ways, Jules gets looked down more than anyone else in the script, but Moore never makes Jules a pitiful creature and gives her a strong center which she finds her way back to. Also, her speech on marriage is one of the movie’s best moments, and it comes from an honest place.

Mark Ruffalo continues his reign of great naturalistic performances and makes film acting look effortless. His character of Paul could have been the bad guy of the piece or some sitcom-like character, but you never doubt his sincerity in how he grows to love these kids which he had a hand in bringing into the world. Even when he missteps (and he really does), I found it impossible to dislike the guy. Of all the characters in “The Kids Are All Right,” he is the one who grows the most, but his revelations come in a way which is not exactly appropriate.

Both Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson are great as the kids, and Cholodenko keeps them from becoming conventional in the teenager mainstream movie kind of way. Wasikowska gets to be much livelier here than she was in Tim Burton’s bland remake of “Alice In Wonderland,” and she radiates intelligence which makes her character wise beyond her years to where she comes across as the most mature one in the film. Hutcherson also makes Laser into an interesting kid caught up in friendships which aren’t really sound and finding a father figure in the last place he expected to. Seeing him discovering his parents’ videotape of gay male pornography leads to one of the funniest scenes this movie has to offer.

If there is any complaint I have with “The Kids Are All Right,” it’s the ending. The plight of Ruffalo’s character is frustratingly left unresolved, and we never do learn if he will keep in touch with Joni and Laser. Nic and Jules do get a satisfying conclusion, but seeing Paul getting cut loose was an unfortunate disappointment. I was eagerly waiting to see where he would end up after all which had ensued.

Still, “The Kids Are All Right” is one of the nicest surprises of the 2010 summer movie season, and it deservedly got a large audience for an independent film. It has what I would like to see more of in movies: regular, down to earth people with problems and flaws much like anyone else’s. I also think it involves a relationship which any couple (and I strongly stress the word ANY) can relate to in different ways.

By the way, for those of you who think that gays getting married is still a threat to the “sanctity of marriage,” I got two words for you: Donald Trump. End of story.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Enter the Void’ is Mind-Blowing and Unique in a Way Few Movies Are

Enter the Void movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2010.

Gaspar Noe’s “Enter the Void,” his first feature length film since the highly controversial “Irreversible,” is one of the craziest and hypnotic cinematic experiences I have ever sat through. A hallucinogenic kaleidoscope of colors, some of which looked like they were taken from Dario Argento’s “Suspiria,” it’s a surreal out of body experience and the kind you do not see today in American cinema today. In a time of soulless remakes and films which shamelessly manipulate our emotions, this is a one of kind motion picture as it breaks boundaries to create something unlike anything we have seen before. Like Noe’s previous films, it is destined to have sharply polarized reactions. Some will admire it, and others will find it excruciating to sit through. As for myself, I was mesmerized from beginning to end, thankful I got to take in something not bound by your typical Hollywood formula.

Straight after the IFC Films logo appears, Noe propels us into this visionary experience by beginning with the end credits, just as he did with “Irreversible,” racing through them at warp speed. Watching this, I was reminded of what Homer Simpson said during the end credits of “The Simpsons Movie:”

“A lot of people worked hard on this film, and all they ask is for you to memorize their names!”

Then the movie goes from there into the opening titles which themselves are exhilaratingly creative and makes you feel like you’re at a rave party in Tokyo. Crazy visuals done to the song “Freak” by LFO, they alone were worth the price of admission and got applause from the audience I saw it with at the Lamelle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles.

The word “enter” gets blasted onto the screen, and we then make it to the seamier side of Tokyo as seen through the eyes of the main character, Oscar (Nathaniel Brown). Just like in the opening sequence of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days,” we see everything from his perspective as he talks with his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta) who lives with him in a small apartment, and as he smokes some Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) which provides him with the ultimate high, filled with amazingly beautiful colors. During this time, we see Oscar is reading a book his friend Alex (Cyril Roy) gave him called the “Tibetan Book of the Dead.” Alex describes the book as one person’s experience after death, and of how it eventually leads to rebirth. From there, you get a good idea of where “Enter the Void” is going as Oscar later gets shot dead by police while attempting to flush his drugs down the toilet.

At this point, “Enter the Void” becomes a literal out of body experience as Oscar dies and his soul, no longer caged in its human form, rises from his lifeless body. From there, he floats through the darker sections of Tokyo as he watches over his sister as she moves on with life, devastated she can no longer spend it with her dear brother. Throughout, Noe goes back and forth in time as we come to see the connection Oscar and Linda developed in their youth, and how their promise of always being together is strong even as tragedy threatens to tear them apart.

Many will probably see “Enter the Void” as being a pro-drug movie, but I will leave this up to you, the viewer to decide. This is a movie meant for an adult crowd anyway, not for pre-teens. With drug trips, or so I am told, you are lifted high into a state of euphoria which seems untouchable in our everyday lives, but you are also brought down to emotionally shattering lows you will be desperate to look away from, but you won’t be able to tear your eyes away from what you will soon wish you’d forget. Your mind may be freed up in this state, but don’t ever expect to have any control.

Look, I’m not saying drugs are right, but if we’re not taking something illegal and very dangerous, then we are probably relying on something pharmaceutical. Anyway, this is not a movie to get all political about.

When the movie veers into Oscar’s youth, we get to see the close relationship he and his sister have with their ever-loving parents, and the times we see them together are very sweet and captured with a strong sense of innocence. But this later turns out to be a setup for when the parents are killed in horrific fashion after a truck going in the wrong direction smashes into their car, killing them instantly. It’s impossible not to feel the shattered emotions of the children as their lives are irrevocably altered in ways which rob them of a childhood they deserved to have.

Noe does manage to counter many of the disturbing moments of the movie with scenes of innocence and sweetness, and this is an aspect of his filmmaking people don’t often give him credit for. In the midst of shocking scenes filmed in all their psychologically damaging glory, he does capture intimate moments between which I rarely seen in movies being released these days. This was even the case in “Irreversible” when we watched Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci frolicking with one another in their apartment, and the fact the two were married in real life at the time makes those scenes feel more emotionally honest as a result.

As with your typical Noe motion picture, “Enter the Void” is not the kind which can be easily recommended to those interested in mainstream fare. In fact, is as far from mainstream cinema as you can get these days, and those who are easily offended would do their best to keep a marathon-like distance away from it. There’s even a scene where we watch helplessly as Linda gets an abortion, and although I was afraid it would be a much harder to sit through than it was, it is bound shake up a lot of the audience members’ emotions.

The acting for the most part is good. Special praise goes to Paz de la Huerta whose character of Linda has to go through the film’s most viscerally emotional moments, and she portrays them without a hint of simply playing the emotion. I also liked Cyril Roy as Oscar’s mentor Alex and found him to be an enjoyable presence even in the film’s more damning  moments of despair. But let’s be honest here, this is a director’s movie more than anything else, and it is easy to believe this was Noe’s dream project for years. It’s a movie for visual and sound designers to go nuts on, and they must have had a blast trying to bring the director’s own psychedelic visions to the silver screen.

At two and a half hours long, “Enter The Void” does get a bit tedious at times. When the movie ended and the lights came up, I heard one guy say, “So at what point did you fall asleep? For some, this movie will be a lot longer than it should. The only time I got a bit restless was during the hotel orgy scene which overstays its welcome after not too long. Noe uses this scene to make clear the difference of having sex and making love, but he spends far too much energy filming this moment instead of just cutting down to its bare essence. I started to feel like Sean Young at the DGA awards when she told “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” director Julian Schnabel to “get on with it.”

In spite of this, I was completely mesmerized by “Enter the Void” from start to finish as it took me on a cinematic journey far different than most I have sat through this past year. It will surely go down as one of the definitive love-it or hate-it movies of 2010, but I have no problem sticking up for what Noe has accomplished even if it became a bit overindulgent.

Personally, I’m glad we have directors like Gaspar Noe around because it feels like cinema worldwide is lacking filmmakers who take risks and challenge the conventional structure of your typical corporate product posing as a movie. We need more directors like him now because it has become increasingly understandable as to why many no longer go out to the movies like they once used to.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Last Airbender’ is a Cinematic Atrocity

the last airbender movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2010. I also want to dedicate it to my good friend Ed Mahoney who was brave enough to endure this cinematic monstrosity with me.

I couldn’t help it. I had to see this movie for myself. Ever since it opened, “The Last Airbender” has received some of the most atrocious reviews of any movie ever made. Audiences all over have been calling for M. Night Shayamalamadingdong’s blood for the last decade, and they just may get their wish with this monstrosity posing as a summer blockbuster.

But nothing could keep me or a friend of mine from witnessing the cinematic carnage of what was an eagerly awaited motion picture. The reviews were getting increasingly abysmal, and public perception made it look like a car crash you drive by on the freeway which you can’t help but look at. We knew we only had ourselves to blame since we paid $10 bucks each for our tickets, but we were willing to make the sacrifice.

Well, I came out of “The Last Airbender” laughing hysterically. In fact, I couldn’t stop laughing for an hour after I walked out of the theater, and it was for reasons Shyamalan didn’t intend. Everything you have heard about it is true. It is a complete and utter disaster and fails on just about every level a movie can. It proved to be so boring to where I almost passed out even when the soundtracks and explosions increased in volume. Furthermore, the plot is almost completely incoherent, and the dialogue will make you howl in disbelief. Shyamalan’s career has officially hit rock bottom with this atrocious adaptation, and no one is going to ever let him off easy for all the things he got wrong here.

I could tell from the start the movie was going to be terrible as the opening scroll fails to make any back story seem the least bit comprehensible. Then words “Book One” appeared, and it quickly reminded me of what Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi were once told by Irvin Shapiro when they were selling him a certain horror movie:

“Fellas, if you call this movie ‘Book of the Dead’ they’re gonna think they have to read it! Call it ‘The Evil Dead!’”

Campbell and Raimi thought it was the worst title they ever heard, but what did they know?

So, what is “The Last Airbender” about exactly? Well, it’s about this kid named Aang who is brought up out of the water where he has either been hiding or accidentally entombed in, and he is revealed to be the new Avatar. In plain English, the Avatar is the only living being capable of controlling the four elements: water, fire, air and earth. But wait, he wasn’t actually trained on any of them, and yet people take him at his word. What happened? Doesn’t it make more sense for him to be resurrected and have him be fully trained? Or are we going to watch him perfect these so-called talents in future sequels? You know Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon are just begging for a franchise here.

Oh, I see! Aang found out 100 years ago he was the new Avatar and ended up running away because he didn’t want the responsibility. Also, this meant he could never have a family. Now that sucks! You haven’t even gotten laid yet, and then you find out you have all these powers and can defeat anything and anybody in your way. But you know sooner or later, this kid is going to hit puberty and really scare the crap out of everyone. The question is, will he hit puberty in this movie or the sequel?

Those who know me best know how sick and tired I am of movies which have characters forever reluctant to accept the fact they are “the one.” We end up having to spend almost three quarters of the movie’s running time watching Aang bitch and moan about his unfair predicament, and all the time I found myself getting infinitely impatient as we know he will eventually accept the role the universe has given him. Look, you’re “the one,” so get on with it already! Take pride in the fact you can defeat so many enemies without ever having to use a gun!

The two innocent looking kids who accidentally resurrect Aang are Katara, one of the last waterbenders of her tribe, and Sokka. These characters were originally Asian in the television series this film is based on, but Shyamalan chose to cast Caucasian actors instead. To say fans were angered is one of the ultimate understatements of the year. If Shyamalan was such an ardent admirer of the show, he would have honored the source material without question. His casting decision is even more bewildering when you take into account he is an Indian American filmmaker, an ethnicity sorely underrepresented in movies. Furthermore, the actors he cast are personality free and spend way too much time emoting when they should have been acting.

The main antagonist of “The Last Airbender” is the fire nation which appears to be comprised of men who have had all the joy sucked out of their lifeless faces. All of them seem to be on the same emotional wavelength, and none ever appears to enjoy being pyromaniacs for life. Would it be too much to show the bad guys enjoying what they do even as we want to see them fail?

Most of the cast here are unknowns which I thought might give Shyamalan the power to discover some incredible new talent as he did with Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense,” But from the start you see that these actors are not going to even compare to that kid who saw dead people.

Aang is played by Noah Ringer, and his job seems to be playing the emotion more than the character. We never fully buy into what Aang is doing because Ringer is not able to give us a character worth rooting for. Nicola Peltz plays Katara, and Shyamalan said he refused to make the movie without her, but she is not given much to do other than pine for Aang who is way too young for her. She keeps coming on to Aang like some stalking fan, and I kept waiting for Aang to drop his polite guard and yell at her, “COULD YOU GIVE ME A MOMENT TO MYSELF???!! PLEASE???!!!!”

The biggest name “The Last Airbender” has to offer is Dev Patel whom we all remember from “Slumdog Millionaire.” Patel plays Prince Zuko who spends an obscene amount of time moaning and groaning over how he was once heir to the throne but has since been exiled by his father. The only way back into his dad’s good graces is to capture Aang. After a while, I couldn’t figure out if Zuko was a good or a bad guy. Maybe that ambiguity was supposed to be there in the screenplay, but it gave me a headache just thinking about what role this character was supposed to play in the story.

As for the screenplay, it features dialogue which sounds like people listlessly reading facts from some outdated history book which should have been removed from circulation seven years ago. Much of it cannot be digested without cringing in utter horror. This is the same problem I had with the “Star Wars” prequels as they too contained characters made to sound like they are in some stuffy period piece when they should sound relatively normal. Compared to those three movies, however, George Lucas’ dialogue sounds amazingly fresh compared to what comes from Shyamalan’s pen.

I’m not sure what else to say about “The Last Airbender” other than it is a monumental failure, and the blame for its epic awfulness lays solely at Shyamalan’s feet. One has to wonder how the director of “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable” and “Signs” could have stumbled so badly. He has gone from being a wunderkind of cinema to its abandoned stepchild, and I think success has spoiled him too much to where the creative freedom he has at his disposal needs to be reined in. This is the same guy who pulled off one of the most brilliant twists ever in a movie with “The Sixth Sense,” and now he has given us a summer blockbuster every bit as inept and infuriating as last year’s “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.”

Do I regret watching “The Last Airbender?” No, not really. It was worth it just to watch the finished result so I could analyze everything wrong with it. But with so many movies out there worth watching, I would encourage you to avoid this one at all costs. Watching paint dry will prove to be a far more invigorating experience. Better yet, watch the Nickelodeon animated television series it is based on instead. You do not need to convince me it is better than this cinematic atrocity.

Maybe Shyamalan should just direct for the time being. No more screenwriting. Lord knows how long it’s going to be before he gets over this creative disaster. Considering the talent involved, there’s no excuse for it to be this atrocious. None whatsoever.

ZERO out of * * * *