Monday, November 8, 2010

October 2010

While this relentlessly clever, hip and surprisingly humorous movie chronicles the creation and formative months of Facebook, it also offers a snapshot of contemporary college life.

It’s more than a comic aside that Harvard computer whiz Mark Zuckerberg (played to perfection by Jesse Eisenberg) creates his first web success---a site that allows students to select the “hotter” of two girls---during a long night of drinking after his girlfriend dumps him. If there is even a modicum of truth in “The Social Network,” the best and the brightest young men at our prestigious universities have less regard for women than ever before; it’s as if the 1960s and ‘70s never happened.

The atmosphere of college life as seen in this film resembles a high-class gentlemen’s club more than a dusty library. I’m hardly trying to preach here---I partied my way through four years of higher learning---but if I didn’t know better I’d think that Harvard was bringing in coeds on alcohol binging and stripping scholarships. At every phase of this film, while the boys are reinventing how the world sees itself and displaying their high-powered, never-at-rest creative instincts, the girls are shamelessly begging to be chosen by one of these future masters of the universe. I can only imagine what a parent of a high school girl headed for the Ivy League would make of this movie.

The smartest aspect of this David Fincher-directed picture is the framing of the story with the two lawsuits filed against Zuckerberg not long after Facebook became a money-making machine. From the testimony and charges made across a law-firm conference table, the movie flashes back to the actual events, revealing how Zuckerberg screwed over the Winklevoss twins (a very funny Armie Hammer playing the pair), jocks who actually came up the germinating idea that led to Facebook, and Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), Zuckerberg’s original partner and one-time best friend.

Eisenberg, who played the older son in “The Squid and the Whale,” captures the speed-talking, flat affect, dead-eyed, anti-social persona that---whether or not it bears any resemblance to the real person---typifies the nerd geniuses of our time. Zuckerberg isn’t just unlikeable and petty; he’s a psychotic egomaniac who probably would have ended up doing drugs under a freeway overpass if he hadn’t come up with Facebook.

Few films have the nerve to make the lead character so thoroughly unworthy of the rewards he reaps. Yet he’s so hopelessly alone that you can’t help but feel sorry for him. And Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing,” “Charlie Wilson’s War”), working from Ben Mazrich’s book, never turn away from the giant irony that the creator of the most popular resource for connecting people struggles to connect with anyone.

The picture loses some of its focus in the second half when Zuckerberg comes under the influence of hotshot party animal and Napster co-founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake). There’s nothing interesting about this character; he’s pure ego and hot air and shallow as a Kleenex. Yet he pushes Zuckerberg out of the film’s spotlight for large chucks of the film. Amazingly, I wanted Zuckerberg’s hateful character back on the screen.

The acting is uniformly excellent, with the performers actually looking and sounding like students (at least the boys). The one female student who comes off believably is Erica, Zuckerberg’s straight-shooting girlfriend who breaks up with him in the opening scene. She’s played by Rooney Mara, the offspring of the families that founded NFL teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers (Rooneys) and the New York Giants (Maras), who will portray the title character in Fincher’s remake of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” She’s the only coed who doesn’t exhibit the manners of an overpriced hooker.

This is probably Fincher’s best film since his breakthrough film, “Seven” (1995). Fast-paced and thoughtful, impeccably crafted and beautifully photographed (by Jeff Cronenweth), “The Social Network” is unquestionable a film for our times as it attempts to decipher human interaction in the 21th Century. Is it the truth? Who cares? I can’t imagine that the whole truth and nothing but the truth would be nearly as entertaining.

I’m not sure if this feeling is universal among men, but while I can absolutely adore and admire a performance by an actress, rarely do I connect with it in the way I do with an actor’s role. That bias made the way felt when I first saw Jill Clayburgh’s performance as Erica in “An Unmarried Woman” so memorable.

While she played a thirtysomething married woman living in luxury in Manhattan and I was a recent college grad living along in a small Pennsylvania burg, this singular character had an immediate and lasting effect on me.

It was more than just the independent spirit she displays when her marriage breaks up or her refusal to let another man control her life. Facing her trauma, Erica discovers her inner self, her artistic bent, her personality, all formerly buried in the roles life had assigned her. And she does it all in the incredible vibrant world of New York and the alluring energy the city exudes.

Coming on the heels of “Annie Hall” and a handful of weekend trips I’d made to the city, the film’s atmosphere was like catnip to me. I longed for this exotic world where I could leave my mark as an important writer and reinvent myself into something more glamorous than a reporter on a small-town paper.

Clayburgh, who died last week from complications of chronic lymphocytic leukemia, never came close to matching the fever-pitched gestalt of “An Unmarried Woman,” but who could have? Writer-director Paul Mazursky fashioned for Clayburgh one of the iconic female characters of an era when feminism was being discussed at cocktail parties and at the PTA.

There’s a scene early in the film when, after learning of her husband’s indiscretion, Erica, confused and stunned, walks aimlessly along the sidewalk until she vomits in the street. It’s an incredibly uncensored moment of truth, punctuated by Bill Conti’s energetic theme, signaling that this portrait of a woman wasn’t going to be like anything I’d seen before.

Clayburgh, in part no doubt because of her illness that she dealt with for over 20 years, never had that great late-career role that would have bookend her early successes. It’s easy to forget that in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, she was among the biggest stars in Hollywood: “Silver Streak” (1976), “Semi-Tough” (1977), “Starting Over” (1979) and “First Monday in October” (1981) were among her hit films.

More recently, she displayed her clear understanding of eccentricity as the happily nutty wife of a psychotic therapist in “Running with Scissors” (2006). Later this month, she’ll be seen as Jake Gyllenhaal’s mother in the romantic comedy “Love and Other Drugs.”

But what Clayburgh’s career shows is that if an artist (of any stripe) can achieve something transcendent even once, they have done more than their fair share for the world. Watching Erica struggle through New York carrying an oversized painting at the end of “An Unmarried Woman” all those years ago---on her own, struggling, but moving forward----it was inspiring and liberating and helped me understand myself and what I wanted out of life. And, maybe even more lasting, it kept me going back to the movies, in hopes of being swept away by the kind of uncompromised, emotionally rich performance Jill Clayburgh delivered 32 years ago.

I was a bit apprehensive going into Clint Eastwood’s new move about the connection between the living and the dead. Not only don’t I believe in the concept, but attempts to deal seriously with details of the afterlife have resulted in such misfires as the Robin Williams film “What Dreams May Come” (1998) and last year’s “The Lovely Bones.” Yet this extraordinary filmmaker makes you care about and root for the film’s characters to such a degree that what they believe becomes believable.

It turns out that this Peter Morgan (“The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon”) script isn’t so much about the “Hereafter,” as it is about characters who heal themselves through their belief in “the other side.”

Matt Damon gives his usual, seemingly effortless, convincing performance, here playing George Lonegan, a very ordinary man who was once a world renowned, apparently authentic, psychic. Since a childhood operation, George has been able to connect with the dead just by touching a family members’ hands. But the burden of the gift has made a normal life difficult, so he’s given up doing readings.

On the other side of the world, in an amazing special effects creation, a French TV journalist is nearly killed during the tsunami that struck Indonesia in 2004 and remains haunted by her near-death experience.

Meanwhile, in England, a young boy is left traumatized when his twin brother dies when he’s struck by a car. The boy’s determination to connect with his deceased sibling and the journalist’s insistence on understanding what she has experienced and sharing that with the world, plus a bit of coincidence (supplied by the master of that device, Charles Dickens) bring these three plotlines together.

Cécile De France, a Belgian actress virtually unknown in the U.S., makes the TV reporter a compelling figure as she leaves her job and puts her reputation on the line to pursue evidence that proves the existence of an afterlife. And as the young twins, Frankie and George McLaren are stoic and intense as they deal with an alcoholic mother and then their own separation. In a smaller, but crucial role, Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron’s daughter) deserves Oscar consideration as George’s surprisingly complex cooking partner.

The exception to the film’s spot-on casting is comedian Jay Mohr’s performance as George’s brother; he seems to have walked in from a different, more ordinary movie.

“Hereafter” isn’t a great film---the pacing, at points, is painfully slow and too much of the dialogue is redundant---yet it may be Eastwood’s most tender picture. For all its heady discussions about life after death, the movie is really about how we go about making sense of our lives down here on the terra firma.

Arthur Penn, who died last month at the age of 88, was so closely linked with “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) that you could get the impression that he never directed another memorable film.

While nothing in his career tops the landmark success of the film that, for all intense purposes, launched the second golden age of American cinema, my favorite movie of Penn’s career is the seriously cynical detective tale, “Night Moves.”

Gene Hackman plays private detective Harry Moseby, a former professional football player who hides from his unhappy personal life by taking his cases, at least according to his dissatisfied wife, much too seriously. His latest client is a slutty, washed-up actress (Janet Ward) who hires Moseby to locate her precocious 16-year-old stepdaughter (Melanie Griffith in her film debut) and bring her home. The trail leads the detective to a New Mexico movie shoot where Griffith’s Delly had gone with her mechanic boyfriend (James Wood in an early role) and ended up in the bed of a reckless stunt pilot. She’s since moved on, but Mosby hangs out with the stunt crew, including stunt director Joey (Edward Binns), digging up enough dirt to determine that Lola plans to sleep with all her mother’s ex-lovers.

That clue sends Moseby to the Florida Keys where Lola’s former stepfather Tom (John Crawford) and his coy, mysterious girlfriend Paula (Jennifer Warren) raise dolphins and run boats and drink heavily. And staying with them is Lola, who immediately attempts to seduce Harry.

The film proceeds to pick away at Harry psyche while disillusioned, amoral characters swirl around him. The script by Alan Sharp is one of the smartest and darkest of the ‘70s while Hackman conveys both the off-the-cuff sarcasm and deep-seated demons of Moseby. Griffith is also impressive as she brings out the troubled little girl just beneath the surface of Delly’s flirty confidence.

Hackman delivers the film’s most quoted line when his wife (Susan Clark) asks him if he wants to attend an Eric Rohmer film with her. “I saw a Rohmer film once; kinda like watching paint dry.” Ironically, “Night Moves” is among the most French of the era’s films, marked by ambivalent dialogue, little action and sharp, jolting editing—Penn could have been considered an honorary member of the French New Wave.
Moseby sums up the film when he says near the end, “I didn’t solve anything---it just fell in on top of me.”

Penn, who started directing on stage and TV in the early 1950s, was behind the camera for just 13 features, including the brilliantly acted version of “The Miracle Worker” (1962), which he had also done on TV and Broadway, the offbeat, cult-favorite “Mickey One” (1965) starring Warren Beatty as a comedian in trouble with the mob and “Little Big Man” (1970), an epic Western with Dustin Hoffman as a white man raised by Indians. His later work was solid---“The Missouri Break” (1976), “Four Friends” (1981), “Targets” (1985)---but never achieved the greatness of his best films from the 1960s and ‘70s.

After the acclaim of “Bonnie and Clyde,” there was really nowhere to go but down, yet Penn held his own before his approach to filmmaking went out of style. As Beatty once said of him, “His intelligence is the factor that resonates most strongly, his intelligence and a lack of interest in pandering.”

No director has populated their films with as many fascinating, multi-faceted female characters as Woody Allen has over the past 40 years.

In addition to the many incarnations of flighty females played by Diane Keaton and the vulnerable waifs portrayed by Mia Farrow, the prolific screenwriter has written memorable characters for Geraldine Page and Maureen Stapleton in “Interiors”; Diane Wiest in “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Radio Days,” “September” and “Bullets Over Broadway”; Barbara Hershey in “Hannah and Her Sisters”; Elaine Stritch in “September”; Gena Rowlands in “Another Woman”; Judy Davis in “Husbands and Wives” and “Celebrity”; Mira Sorvino in “Mighty Aphrodite”; Samantha Morton in “Sweet and Lowdown”; Tracey Ullman in “Small Town Crooks”; and Penelope Cruz in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” And that’s just the cream of the crop.

You can add Gemma Jones to this astonishing list. The 68-year-old British actress, best known as the mother in both “Sense and Sensibility” (1985) and “Bridget Jones’s Diary” (2001), plays Helena, a recently discarded wife of the ironically named Alfie (a rather tense Anthony Hopkins), who is determined to deny his mortality.
When Helena falls under the influence of Cristal, a smooth-talking fortune teller (Pauline Collins, in a subtle, funny performance), she finds a new lease on life in the hopeful predictions, even as she becomes a constant irritant to her daughter (Naomi Watts) and son-in-law (Josh Brolin).

As Brolin struggles to finish and peddle his latest novel and his marriage teeters, Helena regular drops in to tell them the latest inane fortunes foretold by Cristal. Meanwhile, while both Watts and Brolin have their eyes on prospective new lovers, they are shocked when their father introduces his fiancée, Charmaine, a high-priced, amusingly dumb call girl.

Needless to say, bad decisions result in disasters as the cruelty of fate looms just beyond the frame. After 40 films, Allen has made it pretty clear that he believes most people, especially when it comes to romance, inevitable make foolish choices.
“You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” is one of Allen’s better recent efforts as it explores the capricious way we make important life decisions and the lengths many are willing to go for the nebulous idea of success.

I also liked the film’s European style. It resembles the talky, insightful French films of Rohmer and Resnais, in the way it drops into these characters lives at a crucial moment and then ends without a clear resolution to all their problems or new flirtations.

While it seems counterintuitive to say after listing all the exceptional performances above, I think Allen is often hamstrung by having the availability to cast nearly any star-actor in his movies. A fresh face of unknown quality can be an invigorating aspect to a picture and, in this case, the most interesting characters are played by Jones, Lucy Punch as unabashed Charmaine (replacing the originally cast Nicole Kidman) and Freida Pinto (the star of “Slumdog Millionaire”). Pinto portrays a brainy music student, first spotted by Brolin from his office window as she practices in her apartment, who brings a quiet sensibility to a story that tends to ramble.

But it’s Jones’ Helena that you’ll remember. Not unlike Patricia Clarkson’s character in Allen’s “Whatever Works,” Helena, at first, is a basket case as she tries to understand the end of her longtime marriage. But as she accepts the new direction of her life, she embraces it and becomes a quirky, unlikely affirmation of what humans do best: adapt and make the best of what’s given to them.

and THE SNAKE PIT (1948)
Watching Olivia de Havilland’s performances in these two films back to back during one of TCM’s actor-themed evenings, along with parts of “The Heiress,” offered a mesmerizing lesson in unpretentious, supremely focused acting overflowing with heart-tugging, but truthful emotions.

It’s hard to call de Havilland underrated considering she won two best actress Oscars and was nominated another three times, yet she never reached the level of stardom achieved by Better Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn or Claudette Colbert. At her peak, in the late 1940s, she was as accomplished an actress as any of them and might have had a more distinguished career if Warner Bros. hadn’t kept her in undemanding supporting roles for so long. She finally gained her freedom from the studio in a landmark suit, but it cost her two years in the prime of her career.

Famously discovered while a freshman at San Francisco’s Mills College by theatrical legend Max Reinhardt, she was cast by the German producer as Hermia in a 1934 staging of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Hollywood Bowl and also in his 1935 movie of the comedy.

That same year, at age 19, she played Errol Flynn’s love interest in the romantic adventure “Captain Blood.” In 1938, de Havilland was Maid Marion to Flynn’s Robin Hood, but it took David O. Selznick (casting her on-load from Warner’s) to provide the role that changed her career.

As Melanie, the kind, sensible rival of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind,” de Havilland showed the calm demeanor and emotional range that would mark her best performances.

In the four years after that breakthrough (earning her a supporting actress nomination) she was stuck in more mediocre Warner Bros. fare, while Davis was given all the studio’s plum roles. Post “GWTW,” a time period that overflowed with fascinating female roles, she had one, “Hold Back the Dawn,” playing a wide-eyed schoolteacher visiting Mexico, before she took Jack Warner and his accountants to court. No doubt, she was inspired to seek independence, at least in part, after seeing her younger sister, Joan Fontaine, cast in plumb roles in “Rebecca” (1940) and “Suspicion” (1941), which earned her a best actress Oscar.

From 1946 to 1949, de Havilland made six films, earning nominations for half of them and Oscars for two.

In “To Each His Own,” she’s a small-town girl who finds herself pregnant as her boyfriend heads off to World War I. Though she becomes a successful businesswoman in New York, starting a cosmetic company with her bootlegger friend, she never gets over the loss of her son, who is raised by a high-school boyfriend and his wife.

Though the picture, directed by the underrated Leisen Mitchell (he previously worked with the actress in “Hold Back the Dawn”) and scripted by Charles Brackett (Billy Wilder’s writing partner), is just one stop up from a soap opera, de Havilland’s performance never becomes melodramatic as she deftly shows the intense, all-encompassing devotion she feels toward the son.

Though she won the Oscar for “To Each His Own,” the actress was equally impressive in Robert Siodmak’s mysterious “The Dark Mirror” (1946), playing very different twins.

Her next role was one of the most challenging and ground-breaking of the era, playing a woman institutionalized following a mental breakdown. Her Virginia struggles to understand where she is or who she is as she faces the still-crude methods of mental health practices. “The Snake Pit” doesn’t sugar-coat the realities of mental illness and avoids turning the inmates into cartoon freaks. Director Anatole Litvak and screenwriters Frank Partos and Millen Brand have turned a social-issue picture into a strong drama, in large part because de Havilland creates a real woman whose roller-coaster ride with sanity rings powerfully true.

This memorable run of intense roles peaked with her portrayal of Catherine Sloper, the love starved New York City heiress in William Wyler’s superbly realized, thoughtful adaptation of Henry James’ “Washington Square,” retitled “The Heiress.”

Made up to look plain and severe, de Havilland bring to life this complex character who lives under the oppressive thumb of her cold-hearted father (a brilliant Ralph Richardson) and then is seduced by a smooth-talking fortune seeker (an impossibly young Montgomery Clift). This tragic, stubborn 19th-Century woman is one of the most memorable in modern literature and de Havilland’s performance matches the emotional arc of her heartbreaking story. It earned her a second best actress Oscar, but also was the end of her career as a major film actress.

Maybe freedom from the studio wasn’t as appealing as she imagined, but, whatever the reason, the actress took leave of Hollywood. She appeared on Broadway and then moved to Paris after marrying a French magazine editor. From the mid-50s, she acted in just a few pictures each decade, her most substantial work coming in the lavish soap opera “The Light in the Piazza” (1962) as a overprotective mother and supporting Bette Davis in “Hush Hush….Sweet Charlotte” (1965). In the 1980s, she appeared in a handful of TV movies and the 1986 miniseries “North and South, Book II.”

De Havilland remains one of the few surviving stars from the 1930s; she received the National Medal for the Arts in 2008 and earlier this year, at age 94, she was awarded the Knight of the Legion of Honor by the French government.