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Archive for October, 2010

 

As someone that is admittedly critical of the American film scene it is very difficult to give an American made film huge plaudits and credit.  However three films in the last month have really changed my outlook on the current forecast of American made films.

First was The Town, an intense character study about slums that are mainly populated by white Americans, a setting that is rarely seen.  I was very impressed by Affleck’s film and the honesty its story was told with.  It pulled a punch at the end but was still impressive.

Then there was David Fincher’s Facebook drama The Social Network. This was an exploration of the upper class in America and how social voyeurism has become quite an intrinsic part of all our lives.  Fincher continues to prove he is one of the most interesting directors working today.

However the film that stands out as being truly and uniquely an American film is Winter’s Bone.  This is an independent film directed by Debra Granik and made on a paltry budget of 2 million dollars.  However the story it tells is haunting and stays with you for many weeks after seeing the film.

Winter’s Bone tells the story of an impoverished 17-year old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawerence) who is responsible for taking care or her younger brother and sister as well as her catatonic mother in their small Missouri home.  Her father is a Meth-Cooker who put their house up as bail when he gets arrested then promptly disappears.  Ree is forced to venture into the underground networks of her Ozark community to find her father if her family is going to have any chance of surviving.

The film breathes realism in every aspect.  This is by no means a glamorous look at life in the substance abuse riddled boonies of Missouri.  However like The Town this explores a Caucasian slum in a way that is not often seen in film.  Ree is forced to go out searching for her father amongst a community that is all interrelated, whether by blood or by past experiences.  It is obvious that Ree is not welcome and that she should just accept that her father is gone.  However Ree is a fighter and wants to be able to provide for her family without losing her dignity.  There is a poignant scene where Ree’s neighbors are skinning a deer.  Ree’s brother implores her to ask for some of it, as they have no food.  Ree scolds him, “never ask for something that ought to be offered”.

Lawrence depicts Ree with a steely set of nerves yet is not without ambitions outside her family.  She wishes to go to school like every other kid her age, and also dreams of someday joining the Army.  However she understands her responsibility and takes the burden of her family on her fearless shoulders.  Lawrence gives a strong performance, she plays Ree as such an empowered female lead throughout the film, which shows the backwardness of the Ozark community where the males make the life-altering decisions, and the females are forced to deal with the consequences.

The scene-stealer and overall best performance of this film however is John Hawkes as Ree’s coke-addicted uncle Teardrop.  If Hawkes were not nominated for Best Supporting Actor it would truly be a crime because he delivers a performance so powerful that the film feels almost anchored by his scenes.  He also delivers the scene of the film in the form of a showdown with Garrett Dillahunt’s Sheriff.  Hawkes has been trapped in thankless comedy roles for a long time but finally breaks out here and shows a brooding intensity.  Teardrop is a conflicted character that the audience never fully understands, however he is a symbol of the good and evil that we as humans are capable of.  He is not a fully sympathetic character yet he is not completely bad, and Hawkes portrays him beautifully.

Another thing that I specifically thought about this film was how much of an answer it was to The Coen Brothers No Country For Old Men.  Where No Country was an exploration of the transition from old moral views to a new generation of moral views Winter’s Bone is an example of the new generation run amuck.  In fact there seems to be a sense of continuity with Garrett Dillahunt’s character.  In No Country he was a young and naïve deputy to Tommy Lee Jones Sherriff.  In Winter’s Bone he is a Sheriff who has been jaded by the community he is serving and no longer sees a meaning to his job.  What are the effects of trying to serve justice on a community that has no respect for it?  How can you do your job when no one wants the job done?  These are all questions Winter’s Bone raises.

Director Debra Granik does a thoughtful and meditative job with this film.  She understands the direction that American filmmaking has been going and actively fights against that paradigm with this film.  She says, “The traditional storyline in an American film is usually in the form of a V shape. I am oversimplifying, but we see someone tumbling down, they hit bottom, and then they rise up again and find redemption…You get knocked down and ask all the ethical questions like how many chances do you give a person? When is the last chance? How many chances do they get? Can you imagine how difficult it is to fit that in a feature-length film? But those are the questions that are worth asking… The reason why boils down to the word “dark”. It is the scariest four-letter word in American storytelling and in this culture.”  This is a true statement but hopefully more directors will join Granik in their subtle understanding that humans are not always predictable and total redemption is not always found in a 2-hour time frame.  Also making a film does not mean that it needs to have a conclusive ending.  Trusting your audience enough to allow them to make decisions about what happens to the characters after the film is a huge compliment a film can pay its audience.  Granik achieves this and then some with a beautiful final scene that is half melancholic and half hopeful.

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The Social Network

Many have referred to modern youth as being the “Facebook Generation”.  That is saying that Social Networking will completely change the way that people interact in the future.  My only criticism of this estimation is to say that Social Networking already has completely changed the way we interact with one another.  All types of different websites allow for people to display their lives in hopes of meeting other people around the world.  The birth of this idea is the focus of the new David Fincher film “The Social Network”.

The film is based on the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mreznick and tells a pretty simple and straightforward story.  Harvard Computer Programming student Mark Zuckerberg begins the film getting dumped by his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara).  In a drunken frustration he blogs unflattering comments about her on his LiveJournal and then creates a website called Facemash where Harvard undergraduate girls pictures are put up face to face and people browsing the site can rate them.  This becomes so popular it inspires Zuckerberg to work on a bigger idea for a social networking site.  With some initial capital from his best friend Eduardo Saverin, (Andrew Garfield, or the new Spiderman in Sony’s reboot) Zuckerberg sedulously begins work on “The Facebook”.  It quickly grows from being Harvard-exclusive to other college campuses and Zuckerberg struggles to maintain control of his creation and his friendship with Eduardo.  All while dodging a lawsuit attempt from a triad of Harvard students who claim that Facebook was their idea.

I was first drawn to this film when I saw the beautiful trailer this summer with the “Creep” cover hauntingly layered over snappy dialogue.  My interest was peaked when I saw David Fincher was attached to direct.  Fincher is still unfortunately on the fringe of the directing A-List.  In the late 90’s he was somewhat pidgeon holed as a Thriller/Suspense director with films such as “Seven”, “The Game”, and “Panic Room”.  However in that time he also turned out the cult hit “Fight Club”, a film as epitomal for Generation X as “Social Network” is for the Facebook Generation.  In the Mid-2000’s he directed the underrated “Zodiac” and then two years ago got Oscar nominated with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”.  Fincher has a visual flair that is comparable to Kubrick in that every shot is very intentional in progressing the story and themes of the film.  However it is his sense of narrative that makes him stand out, expect this to be his first legitamate shot at grabbing a Best Director Oscar.  However Fincher’s film would be grounded if it wasn’t for the brilliant pen of Aaron Sorkin, Screenwriter of venerably worded films such as “A Few Good Men”, “Charlie Wilson’s War”, and the popular T.V. Series “The West Wing”.  If Fincher grounds the film with his realistic directing, Sorkin’s witty dialogue gives in wings and carries it to a level an average writer could not reach.  This is important because the story in and of itself is not terribly dramatic.  Zuckerberg creates the site, struggles with his friendship with Eduardo, and then gets hit with two lawsuits.  The stakes are not horrible high, yet Sorkin and Fincher add the drama without over dramatization.

A huge part this film is so successful is the casting and the unexpectedly astonishing performances.  The role of Mark Zuckerberg is a hard one to cast, however Jesse Eisenberg completely knocks it out of the park.  Eisenberg was quickly headed towards Michael Cera cute nerd typecasting before this intervention.  He creates a character in Zuckerberg that is at times a total jerk and menacingly selfish.  However he plays it so understated that you end up being sympathetic for him, even though he is a 26-year old billionaire.  While Zuckerberg is obviously the main cog of the film the scene-stealer is Justin Timberlake as Napster founder Sean Parker, in a case of pitch-perfect casting.  Parker arrives midway through the film and attempts to get on board the Facebook gravy train.  Timberlake is the perfect choice because he emanates charm and cool, just like Parker trying to get Zuckerberg to buy into his vision for Facebook.  However Parker is also a tragic character, a dinosaur of programming innovation that is deadly insecure of not being in on the cash cow Facebook would become.  The only real weakness in the acting is unfortunately the role of Eduardo Saverin.  On this character rests the fulcrum of the only real high stakes in the movie, the betrayal of a best friend.  Saverin and Zuckerberg’s falling out leads to a lawsuit, which is intertwined throughout the whole film via a non-linear storytelling style.  Andrew Garfield play’s the role so one-dimensionally that Saverin doesn’t even feel like a real person (As well as horribly butchering what I am assuming to be a pseudo-Brazilian accent…).  Garfield is so doe-eyed that the scenes he is supposed to feign intensity don’t hit nearly like they should.  A climactic showdown in the Facebook offices late in the film ends up not packing the emotional punch it could because Garfield simply doesn’t have the range to get the audience to believe he is truly angry.

I hoped that this movie would not simply be a straightforward biopic of Zuckerberg’s creation, though that also would have been successful, Fincher chooses to reach deeper into this and explore the roots of Social Networking as a concept.  This digital voyeurism is shown most powerfully in the lawyer meetings where Zuckerberg is attempting to exculpate himself.  Zuckerberg and his accusers (Saverin in one case, the Harvard Classmates in another) rarely speak to each other directly in these scenes, using their Lawyers as proctors who they speak through.  A powerful symbol of the courage allowed when one is a step disconnected from others.  What Social Networking does essentially is creates a symbol of a person, whether it be a Yelp! profile, a Blogster account, or a Facebook page.  Through this symbol a living breathing person can safely observe others and can more courageously interact because there is not the same fear of rejection or social cues.  This is the power of social networking yet also the addictiveness of it.  The film refers to this when a Harvard student hears that The Facebook got 650 members in a day.  He quips, “I couldn’t give free drugs out to 650 people in a day.”  Every day millions of college students spend countless hours on Facebook, so much that the term “Facebook stalking” has become very common vernacular.  As I am writing this I have my own Facebook page up, occasionally checking to see if anyone has posted anything new or written on my wall.  The film also interestingly portrays the battles as an old time Aristocratic Feud.  This is done primarily via the visual styling, with Fincher taking nods to Kubrick’s forgotten “Barry Lyndon” and other period pieces such as “Pride and Prejudice” and “Vanity Fair”.  The film is compelling because it is not simply a battle of regular people but of high class New England yuppies to whom money is not the issue but personal and familial pride is.

“The Social Network” sets itself a step above almost all films released this year, and is sure to be a Best Picture contender come Oscar season.  While the story does not always have a sense of urgency or high stakes the performances and content are so interesting you will find yourself not even noticing.  Sorkin’s script paired with Fincher’s directing make for a smartly comedic and dramatized look at one of the biggest innovations of the last twenty years.  Look for Eisenberg to receive tons of deserved Best Actor plaudits as well as Justin Timberlake finally getting respect as a talented actor in his own right.  “The Social Network” will most definintly cause you to take pause and think about all the ways you are “connected” online, and make you wonder if it may not be high time to “log out”.

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Departures

I once heard someone describe the 2008 Japanese film “Departures” as the place where “Soul met Beauty”

I was curious as to where this place was, surely it could not be a film, for I thought it would be a shaded wood or a shining night sky.

However I was wrong on all counts, “Departures” truly is a film with Soul and Beauty, and the two encounter each other quite often.

“Departures” tells the story of a young cellist named Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) whose dreams are dashed when his Orchestra in Tokyo gets disbanned.  In financial woes because of the cost of a high-class cello, Daigo and his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosu) relocate back to his hometown.  Here Daigo finds a lucrative job preparing corpses in front of mourners.  Daigo is hesitant to accept the job at first and tells no one about it.  However after a while the community begins to find out, prompting him to lose friends and others close to him.  Daigo chooses to continue through the persecution because he begins to see the beauty in his work.  He is mentored by and elder corpse dresser named Shoei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) who urges him to continue.  Eventually so much contact with death leads Daigo to confront the issues in his own life, including old family relationships that lack closure.

“Departures” is a strangely packaged film, as at times it slips between genres.  It is strikingly poignant, while at the same time being uproariously hilarious.  The humor is at times very culturally Japanese, which lend to the films charm.  For this is truly a film made for the Japanese culture, one that holds death and all things surrounding it to be taboo topics.  Director Yōjirō Takita believed that his film was not going to succeed commercially due to these topics being discussed.  Despite this the film went on to gross over 61 million dollars and won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2008.

So what is it about this film that has such universal draw?  Why is it that it has found such a wide audience even with its perceptively small scope of story?

What drew me so much to this film is its grand celebration of life.  In the opening scenes Daigo experiences death.  It is not a physical death but a death to his dream of playing in an orchestra, and with it comes the death of his identity.  In his conversations with Miko he is a shell of himself, while her powerful life force seems to be the only thing keeping him going.  As more is revealed of Daigo we realize this passion for Cello is intertwined emotionally with a desire to know his father, who left Daigo and has been estranged from Daigo almost his whole life.  Daigo’s attempts to escape his woes lead him into an occupation where he must confront death, every day.  He is jaded and wounded but he is slowly coming back to life.  There is a beautiful moment where Daigo is contemplating quitting his newfound profession.  He is on a bridge staring into the murky river below.  He sees a salmon floating dead, a victim of his own fatigue.  Then another salmon approaches and accelerates past the corpse, fighting for his life.  At this point Daigo decides to continue his job, realizing how intertwined death and life are.

This is the fundamental exploration of the film, the interrelatedness of life and death.  Daigo encounters the beauty of both in his work.  He cleans and dresses the corpse in front of the families, in front of their eyes reviving their bodies.  This revival brings out the memories and beauty of these peoples lives, even ones with checkered backgrounds.  Many of the families tell Daigo after his work that their dead family member is the “Most beautiful they have ever been.”  Daigo sees that death and life are part of one another, we could not understand the beauty that we have in life without the concept of death ending its existence.  Daigo experiences the beauty of life, as does the viewer.  While death is a terrifying concept because of its mystery, “Departures” also highlights the mystery of life.  As the seasons change in Daigo’s hometown so does his outlook on life and his relationships with others.  He arrives in Fall, understanding the leaves as they die and fall off of the trees.  In the winter Daigo is at a low place, however is beginning to discover more about his life.  As the spring rolls in Daigo experiences the revival of what he thought were dead relationships in his life.  Daigo experiences this rebirth and the film begs the audience to find the same beauty and revival in the things we think to be dead in this life.

Life is cyclical, Death is imminent.  However these two things that so tightly govern our lives are beautiful and true gifts.  Both have their time and place and both are unavoidable no matter how hard we try and thwart them with our personal attempts at control.  As Daigo learns the acceptance of the existence of Death and the embrace of it as a part of life leads one to fully feel and emote.

“For Death begins at Life’s first breath and Life begins at the touch of Death”

-John Oxenham

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