Last summer, I reported that the Sam Mendes-directed James Bond movie with Daniel Craig had been canceled due to the bankruptcy of the studio, MGM. Today, it seems hopeful that it is back on track. Craig’s availability has not been confirmed but apparently Judi Dench will be back as M and there’s an intriguing rumor of Michael Sheen as the villain. MGM plans to have it in theaters in November 2012. Stay tuned for updates!
Slate movie critic Dana Stevens brought together an enormously engaging and thoughtful group for the annual “movie club” round-up discussion of the year in film.
Reviewing films is a lot of fun, but one of the drawbacks is that we have to react so quickly and specifically. I like the way Slate goes beyond the top 10 lists and “best actor,” “best screenplay” summaries of the year with a very robust conversation about the patterns discernible with a bit of distance and context and the opportunity to adjust and revise one’s views in light of a second viewing or just more time to think.
Dan Kois responded to a challenge to explain why he was the only participant who included “Black Swan” on his top 10 list, provided a hilarious flow chart with his reaction to the “trashy greatness” of the film. And I was thrilled by his shout-outs to two performances I thought only I cherished this year, Ginnifer Goodwin in “Ramona and Beezus” and Kathryn Hahn in “How Do You Know” — two movies I thought were badly underrated by critics and audiences.
“Inception” is a film that benefited from a some further time to consider it. Matt Zoller Seitz led off by noting that that critics reviewed some of the year’s other mind-bendy movies by saying that they were more effective than the high-profile “Inception.”
Clearly “Inception” is to 2010 what “Avatar” was to 2009 and “Titanic” was to 1997 and what the original “Star Wars” was to 1977–the box-office juggernaut that many critics find lacking, perhaps egregiously shallow and overrated, but that cast such a powerful spell over millions that they keep invoking it over and over to call attention to their own pets.
“Inception” was more a series of sensations than a movie–the filmic equivalent of an interactive haunted house where you’re blindfolded and someone thrusts your hand into a bowl of peeled-grape “eyeballs.” Six months later, all that remains are the sensations, which is why the Hans Zimmer button brings the entire Inception experience back in a single BrAAAAAHMMMM.
I was most intrigued by the debate about Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere.” While friends I respect like Dustin Putman loved the movie, a tone poem that follows (I won’t say it’s “about”) a disaffected movie star and his young daughter, I found its neurasthenic preciousness hard to take. So I was very interested to see what members of the Movie Club had to say.
My views are most aligned with Dana Stevens: “‘Somewhere,’ to me, was a lovingly crafted, impeccably acted, but vanishingly slight little movie.” Stephanie Zacharek responded
Coppola has the lightest touch of any American filmmaker working, but she also has very distinct fingerprints. Her sense of humor is oblique, when it’s not downright odd. There’s that sequence in Somewhere where Stephen Dorff’s lost, disaffected movie star has been slathered with a chilly-looking mashed-potato substance as a prelude for some age-makeup that’s being designed for him. And Coppola and her D.P., Harris Savides, train the camera on that droopy white face (we hear Dorff’s noisy breathing on the soundtrack) for an inordinately long time, moving in verrrrry slowly. I don’t know that there’s an earth-shattering statement there demanding to be “gotten.” It’s like a knock-knock joke reinvented as a koan.
As with Dustin Putman’s review, it didn’t deepen my appreciation for the film, but it did support and deepen my appreciation for the critics and for criticism as a calling. Onward to 2011!
Two young Canadian wolves representing the extremes of the social scale join forces in the animated “Alpha and Omega,” which keeps them stuck in the bland middle. Though the visuals are in 3D, the film barely manages to register in one. “Alpha and Omega” gives us an episodic story with an uneasy mix of slapstick and peril that drains the momentum, along with lackluster art direction that saps the visual interest.
Kate (the voice of Hayden Panettiere) was born to be an alpha wolf, daughter of the pack leader and trained to hunt caribou. Humphrey (Justin Long) is the happy-go-lucky omega.
Caribou are getting scarce, and the uneasy truce between the wolves led by Tony (Dennis Hopper, in his penultimate role) and the wolves led by Kate’s father, Winston (Danny Glover), is fraying. There’s also some nattering about eastern vs. western wolves that makes them sound like rival college football teams or gangsta rappers.
Tony proposes that the packs join forces, with a marriage between Kate and his jock-like son to bring the two groups together. But American forest rangers capture Kate and Humphrey and carry them off to Idaho, hoping they will repopulate the area.
With some guidance from a golf-playing goose (even the wildly funny Larry Miller can’t give that character any vitality) Kate and Humphrey (an “African Queen” reference?) start for home. Their adventures on the way back include being shot at by a man who thinks Humphrey has rabies and being chased by bears who mistake Humphrey’s playful snowball for an attack on their cub.
Tony threatens war unless Kate shows up in time to marry his son and unite the packs. But Kate is not the only one to discover that alphas and omegas can make a good team.
Kate is an appealing heroine, and so it’s a relief to see an all-ages movie that does not require the responsible, capable character to “loosen up” and get in touch with her silly side or the fun-loving character to become serious to find love and happiness. But the script fails to give Kate and Humphrey some other purpose to propel the story forward. Despite a perilous road trip and an imminent feud between wolf factions, we do not see Kate and Humphrey learn or change in any way that seems to matter. The result is a story with all of the dramatic tension of a dial tone.
The movie depends on the difference between the two kinds of wolves, but it is oddly reluctant to decide what that means. The alphas act like, well, alphas: strong, brave, smart and kind of bossy. They are not unkind to the omegas but they are dismissive and condescending. There’s a half-hearted attempt to make the contribution of the omegas appear equivalent because they remind everyone to have fun and “keep the peace.” It seems forced and insincere, especially when the genuine contributions made by Humphrey come from being brave and smart, not funny and playful.
The background animation has some lovely touches but the character design is poor. It’s not accurate enough to make the wolves seem like animals and not expressive enough to make them seem like characters we can care about. The characters’ expressions during vertiginous drops on a hollow log sledding down a mountain are so flat that the 3-D effects just don’t matter.
We’ve been spoiled this year by two top-quality 3-D animated films, “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Despicable Me,” and one that qualifies as a masterpiece, “Toy Story 3.” Those films are the alphas that make this one seem like a Saturday morning cartoon show.
Change is not polite. The bigger the change, the more likely that it is messy and painful and ugly. Even its beginnings are often disturbingly uninspired and uninspiring. Despite what Hollywood and history books tell us, change is less often sparked by a passion for justice or a vision of a better world. More often, even the most beneficial change is inspired by ambition, competition, revenge, spite, wanting to seem cool, or the most frequently compelling reason of all — some romantic companionship or a reasonable approximation thereof or at least to appear cool in front of whichever gender you are hoping to attract.
And it is change that is the subject of this movie. Don’t call it “The Facebook Movie.” It’s about a small group of college students who almost accidentally create a product that almost accidentally becomes a phenomenon. As screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has said repeatedly in interviews, it could just as well have been the invention of a toaster that he was writing about. Sorkin, whose past work includes “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “The West Wing,” and a Broadway play about the invention of television, uses the origin of Facebook as a way to engage with classic themes of loyalty, innovation, greed, class, and the challenges of relationships of all kinds.
In a meta-touch, the movie’s shifting points of view effectively crowd-source the storyline and its own willingness to bend the facts acknowledges that there is no one way to tell the story. However, even with the inevitable scenes of pale dudes staring intently into computer screens while they furiously bang away at the keyboards, the story is grounded in the same emotions depicted in ancient Greek drama — ambition, rebellion, anger, betrayal. It depicts the contrast between the arrogant brash and very young upstart who starts a spite project because he can’t be accepted by girls or clubs and the arrogant smug club members who assume that all they need to do is cite the school handbook to the university president (probably once brash, now smug, perpetually arrogant). Is there an underdog in all of this that we’re supposed to root for?
No one is better at writing dialogue for smart people than Sorkin. In the opening scene Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg of “Zombieland” and “The Squid and the Whale”) and his girlfriend are on a date. They have a blisteringly fast exchange about status that shows he has some issues when it comes to navigating contact with other humans. She dumps him. Frustrated, bitter, and a little drunk, he goes back to his dorm room and impulsively does two small things that will have seismic consequences. In olden days, someone in that situation might go back to the dorm and trash the now-ex to his friends. But this was 2002, so instead he wrote something nasty about her on his blog. And then he decided to create a mean “hot or not” website by posting student directory photos online. This gets him into trouble with the school. And it brings him to the attention of three upperclassmen, in both senses of the word. They have the dazzlingly casual arrogance of members of the most exclusive of the final clubs. Two of them are gigantic twins who are on the Olympic crew team and look like they walked out of a J.C. Leyendecker ad for Arrow shirts.
They ask Zuckerberg to do the programming for a website that will post and connect all of the students at the school. He brings on his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield of “Never Let Me Go” and the upcoming Spider-Man reboot), as chief financial officer — meaning that he provides the initial $1000 in start-up money.
A few months later, “thefacebook.com” is up and running and growing exponentially. Zuckerberg combined the appeal of a blog (students can express their feelings or describe their activities) and the connectivity of a computer network. When a classmate awkwardly asks Zuckerberg whether a girl in their class is dating anyone, Zuckerberg adds a function to the site that lets participants state their availability and interest.
There is change that comes because people want something. And then there is the more profound change that comes about because of something people didn’t even know they wanted. Facebook did not exist ten years ago. Today it has more than 500 million members around the world.
Zuckerberg meets Napster co-founder Sean Parker (a seductive Justin Timberlake), who entices him with a combination of glamour and venture capital. He plays the role in this movie that Lampwick does in “Pinnochio;” taking him to the fun place that turns little boys into donkeys. But he is right about some important decisions, including dropping the “the” and raising money from backers rather than advertisers. And it turns out there are two ways to become a cool guy; you can be accepted by the guys who are cool or you can be the one to redefine what cool is.
But who created Facebook? Zuckerberg is sued by the upperclassmen, who never participated after proposing the initial idea and by Saverin, who is pushed out after Parker comes on board. The movie allows us to make up our own mind. And then it ends with a reminder that even an enormous innovation in making human connections cannot substitute for the real thing.
The performances are all top-notch. Eisenberg is superb, playing not the real Mark Zuckerberg but the character created by Sorkin, hyper-alert and obtuse, his voice both taut and tremulous. Armie Hammer is outstanding as both of the towering twin brothers and Rooney Mara (soon to play Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) makes a strong impression in her brief appearance as the girl who starts the whole thing by dumping Zuckerberg. Sorkin perfectly captures the cadences of the Harvard community, including a gem of a cameo by Douglas Urbanski as Harvard president Larry Summers. Director David Fincher minimizes the scenes of people staring intently at computer screens while madly banging away on a keyboard to keep this movie about the power, the lure, the fragility, and the importance of the social network of the analog world. It might inspire the next Facebook, but it is more likely to inspire people to log off.