Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)

Originally posted on Jan. 11, 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (USA, 2011)

The gist: Undeniably, it's a sappy dramatization of the most horrifying experience for America and beyond, but when a tinge of remorse crosses von Sydow's face, that moment seems rather close to genuine than just manipulation.

Dealing directly with the aftermath of the 9/11 catastrophe, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is such a difficult movie to pass judgment on. It has been accused of bleaching the specifics of the tragedy to arouse most basic emotions like sadness, or basically, of being an exploitative weepie. And an excruciatingly annoying kid as the protagonist doesn’t help its cause, either; Oskar Schell, an apparently autistic and obviously eccentric fatherless boy and the movie’s hero/narrator, can be easily viewed as too unpleasant and inappropriate to represent the calamity-stricken residents in post-9/11 New York City.

While I do not entirely disagree with the widely circulated criticism that it’s a waterlogged fiction based on the tragic watershed that has forever tainted the landscape of global politics, I doubt if it’s a fair assessment to just write off the film’s consolatory, and very idiosyncratic, portrayal of a family coping with a devastating loss as a cheap moneymaking enterprise intended to offend the victims and grieving families. I’m not going to defend its manipulative tendencies, but I wouldn’t call it, say, mere 9/11 porn. Despite its unevenness in pacing and editing, and despite some prolonged moments of saccharinity that should have been curtailed, it still offers somber depictions of this particular earth-shatteringly horrific event and its after-effects. So for me, at least, describing this film in a few words is extremely tricky.  

Since it’s mostly seen from Oskar's point-of-view, a quick sketch of him may help better understand a few directorial and editing choices that often appear fragmentary and all over the map: he's a precocious and loquacious boy prone to nonsensical babbling, who tries to make sense of the world without his father, Thomas. Oskar doesn’t believe in burying an empty casket, yet strives to accustom himself to the post-“worst day” reality by stretching the last eight minutes with his father, as if that made more sense. Then he stumbles across a key in his late father's carefully preserved closet and embarks on an expedition to unearth a lock that fits the key, reasoning that that is the only way to stay in touch with his father.

Much of the movie travels in Oskar’s mind back and forth between his recollections of the happiest moments with Thomas and the dreary real world wherein he panics besieged by traffic and crowds and fears taking public transportation and falling from bridges, while cold-shouldering his mother, Linda. The movie skitters across different time frames and the camera soars and swoops, alternating extreme closeups and long shots, as Oskar runs all over the city. During most of the excursions, director Stephen Daldry’s frequent overheads capture the cityscape beautifully yet poignantly and at the same time, create the illusion that Thomas, somewhere up in the sky, watches over his son who doesn’t stop looking.      

An oxymoronist and a jeweller, Thomas, as warmly recalled by Oskar, never treated his son like a child and was the only one who truly understood him. The fondly reminisced flashbacks of the father-son bonding and a sanitized father figure are in clear opposition to the mother whom Oskar considers deficient and to her brutally realistic, tearjerking scenes, either alone or with her son. But those interjected scenes with Linda seem rather absurd and lengthier than necessary—especially when the camera lingers on the mother’s face—in spite of Sandra Bullock’s heart-wrenching display of a bereft parent’s wretchedness.

Meanwhile, the emphasis on the father figure and its paradoxical nature in this film extends to Max von Sydow’s The Renter, or Oskar’s almost-forgotten grandfather. In Oskar’s universe, the dead father’s always present; the grandfather doesn’t speak but ends up having the most heartfelt conversation with the boy. While the movie’s second half is mostly dedicated to his growing relationship with his grandfather, his grandmother has relatively scant presence. But wouldn’t it have been more interesting and probably lessened the uneasiness of watching the child, who’s almost obscenely rude throughout, if there were more grandmother-grandson interaction? Though Oskar’s peculiar subjectivity propels this trauma-healing narrative in an unprecedented, albeit ultimately obvious, direction, if better edited, the story could have offered more consistent maternal perspective.

There’s no denying that Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is a sappy dramatization of the most horrifying experience for Americans, and that Oskar is probably the most irritating kid ever seen onscreen. But Thomas Horn’s articulate delivery of the character is one of the film’s few strengths. And his little notepad chats and journey with von Sydow’s grandfather will bring smiles to viewers’ faces. There’s a brief scene where von Sydow stares at framed photos of his deceased son. When a tinge of remorse crosses his face, that moment seems rather close to genuine than just manipulation.


Review: Tabu (2012, Portugal)

Originally posted on Sept. 15, 2012

TABU (Portugal, 2012)

The gist: A renewed look beyond the veneer of this deceptively nostalgic romance set against a Portuguese colony in Africa throws into sharp relief the horrors to which those who benefited from a grand scheme of exploitation are utterly oblivious.

Except the opening film-within-a-film about a man on an expedition to 19th-century Africa, who flees the spectre of his dead wife and drowns himself to a pond full of crocodiles, Miguel Gomes’s black-and-white Tabu is told in two parts: one shot in 35mm of an uneventful present in Lisbon, and the other in 16mm dedicated to the memories of a paradise that once existed in Africa, at the foot of Mount Tabu. Centering on good-natured woman Pilar, her old neighbor Ms. Aurora and her maid Santa, Part 1 presents a succession of everyday affairs and interactions, mostly in static medium closeup. It consists largely of stares, indifferent or attentive, exchanged words that sound perfunctory, and the periodic knocks in between. While the unbearable ordinariness seems to occasionally steer her into the cinema for the brief purging of emotions, and while any sort of passionate love keeps eluding her, Pilar is seen involved in myriad good deeds and activism. Indeed, Part 1 provides sufficient information that Pilar really is a good person—but probably too good to fathom the larger-than-life past of Aurora, now senile and gambling away all she’s got, let alone the “horrors [Aurora is] ashamed to confess.”

With Aurora’s funeral comes Part 2, her mysterious past recounted in flashback by her old flame Ventura. All but black-and-white silent, Part 2 is tonally in contrast to its predecessor by indulging in the long shots of an expansive, mountainous landscape in Africa and varying, dynamic camera moves, which highlight the dramatic quality of Aurora’s colonial youth. Feeling trapped in the conventionality of an affluent, happily married life, a young Aurora manages to satiate her craving for escapism through hunting excursions accompanied by her servants. But when pregnancy hits her, effectively ending her freedom, she seeks an outlet for frustration and starts an affair with Ventura. Here, the sporadic use of sound, like Sixties music and gunshots, accentuates by turns the exuberance of their love and its tragic ephemerality.

As Part 2 winds down, it unveils the horrible crimes that Aurora mentions on her deathbed in Part 1, though, not unexpectedly, they are unrelated to anything else but her own affair. The young Aurora isn’t just blinded by love and momentarily out of touch with reality, but utterly oblivious to her surroundings, the complexities of the real world out there. Put differently, a symptomatic reading of Part 2 beyond its veneer of a young love gone awry would throw into sharp relief the banality of a grand scheme of exploitation that the privileged few take for granted, and their complete unawareness of the sociopolitical milieu of their time. So when you recall Aurora speaking of the “horrors,” the word now sounds more like a compressed expression of the experience Aurora and Venture shared a half century ago with those out of frame or mostly backgrounded during the second-half love story.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Further Thoughts: TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011, UK)

Originally posted on Mar. 24, 2012

Further Thoughts on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

dir. Tomas Alfredson

"That was a good time, George."
"It was the war, Connie."
"A real war: Englishmen could be proud then."

In this John le Carré adaptation by the Swedish director, who reportedly grew up on 1970s British television programming, the tragedy isn't just that the real war is now completely a thing of the past, taking away the pride and sense of place that the war instilled in many Englishmen. It also lies in the inability of those proud Englishmen to see the futility of it all and, while constantly bemoaning the demise of the good old days in self-pitying mode, their failure to earn audiences' genuine sympathy. Embodying the antithesis of boat-hopping debonair masculinity, George Smiley, former operative, isn't so much introduced with fanfare as slyly revealed as one of the bureaucratic old boys caged in a room with checkered wallpaper. Alfredson pairs geometrically-patterned images with nostalgic grains and shades of sepia in crafting a matching look for le Carré's dense, yet fading spy world. The fastidious tendencies that the filmmaker and the writer seem to have in common render the movie chock-full of visual detail, but at the same time, frustratingly elusive.

Another token of its duplicity, Tinker Tailor's labyrinthine plot unfolds non-linearly but with a reasonable clarity. It makes sure that all the flashbacks depart from Smiley's point of view, or the POVs of his equally sad, secretive fellows. The scenes follow one another in an elliptical yet coherent procession, while the twists operate on varying levels. For one, its whodunit appearance does not lead straight to a satisfactory reveal, but culminates in an anti-climactic revelation. This, then, necessitates the whole story to be reflected upon from its beginning; filling in the blanks; and extrapolating on the audience's part. The long lenses, flattening the image throughout, also lend the scenes an emotionally distant, plastic quality.

Saddled with the most migraine-inducing task of rewriting the notoriously complicated novel, writing duo Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan chopped it up and rearranged the pieces into a compact script. With the source's essentials unaltered, this adaptation contains new flashbacks--notably those of a Christmas party, in which a cozy masquerade contradicts the emasculated frigidity of 1973 London. The plot pieces then coalesce into bigger chunks, commensurate with the phases of Smiley's flushing-out of the mole: Smiley's retirement, followed by emergence of intelligence on the mole, commencement of the investigation, individual stories, more investigation, mystery solved, and finally, Smiley's return to the Circus.

The chunks then become a causally linked whole, where the gaps deliberately left contribute to the movie's elliptical nature. Such ellipsis is achieved precisely by withholding vital information for brief moments. Still, certain repeated shots or scenes more than just compensate for those glaring gaps. Take, for instance, the chessmen, one of which Control, former chief of the Circus, associates with each suspect. When Smiley stumbles upon those chessmen early on, the camera pulls a rack-focus between them, but halts right before revealing who the last piece belongs to. Only a flashback later does the photograph taped to it turn out to be Smiley's. The chess clues, along with shots of Jim Prideaux gunned down, recur now and then until the final Prideaux-Control rendezvous, gradually unveiling the true nature of Operation Testify.

Besides the interplay of ellipsis and excess, Tinker Tailor offers other intriguing ways to command attention. To create the watch-your-back sort of tension, it exhibits subtle variations on the continuity editing style. In the opening Budapest cafe sequence, Jim Prideaux, on that disastrous Testify mission, becomes increasingly alert, as the camera captures him in close-up and then scans the surroundings as dictated by his gaze. A couple of scenes later, when Control and Smiley leave the Circus (semi-)permanently, a distance shot of the MI6 building comes first before Control's wearisome figure appears in medium shot.

Unlike its source material, Ricki Tarr's story is placed at the midpoint after his arrival in London has triggered the mole hunt. When he confides in Smiley alone, the two remain seated throughout, face to face, and the conversation sequence operates strictly on the shot/reverse shot structure. Whatever the old spymaster thinks of the heedless low-ranking agent is unknown, but the two's eye-level exchange in close-up implies that Smiley's intention is to actually listen, reserving judgment. Compare this with a later confrontation in an airfield between Smiley and Toby Esterhase, one of the suspects. The camera moves more fluidly, yet it gradually closes in on the two, tightening the space between them and the plane landing behind.

Also notable is how Alfredson coordinates elements of repetition and escalation. The said chessmen are a striking example; each time they resurface they furnish further information advancing Smiley's inquiry. And that vignette of Prideaux's collapse not merely reiterates with gunshots ripping through the silence engulfing the arcade, but it also anticipates the victim's re-appearance with more story behind the foiled mission. Consider Smiley's Christmas party recollections: the first party scene hints at his burgeoning suspicions about his wife's infidelity with Bill Haydon, and in the second, the lens becomes Smiley's surrogate as he virtually freezes upon confirming his doubts.

See also the railway tracks looked down from a hotel room where Smiley lodges, and Tarr's voice recording, "Everything the Circus thinks is gold is shit," or the real "crown jewel," which he relays to Smiley from his Russian lover Irina. The tracks are introduced in a short cutaway at the outset, and Tarr's voice lurks in the background at the midpoint. After that, between fleeting inserts of the tracks and trains, Tarr's message lingers as fuzzy ambient noise as Smiley strolls or sits lost in thought. Then in a climatic scene, where all the puzzle pieces start snapping together, the tracks converge with a screech just before the screen resounds with Tarr's voice like a thud. With such an interlaced patterning of repeats and crescendos, the movie progresses with an impeccably orchestrated rhythm.

Tinker Tailor's overarching theme is none other than betrayal. It concerns the mole's treachery both of the system he served and of his friends and lover. The latent sentiment existing among these spies is that they have been betrayed by the very establishment to which they pledged allegiance. Connie Sachs is one of the dismissed agents, "chucked out on the rubbish heap," but she clings to the memories of the good time when Englishmen could still be proud. Ricki Tarr, a mere scalphunter, risked his life to prove his loyalty and competence but is accused of having defected. Meanwhile, Control's patriotism fails to save him from the scheme masterminded by his (and Smiley's) Russian nemesis and the mole who burrowed through the cracks of bureaucratic corruption.

Ultimately, though, it's the mole who turns out to feel most deceived all along. He harbors such resentment that he barely bothers to give up the rationale behind his betrayal, except, "It was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one. The West has become... so ugly." It recalls Smiley's earlier flashback when Bill Haydon, an amateur artist, dropped his abstract painting at Smiley's, and the last shot of the opening credits scene, where Smiley fixates his attention on the painting. The information that one of Haydon's many identities is an artist does not come out of nowhere, but is drip-fed from the beginning of the story. The film provides no specific reasons for his double-dealings, whereas the book has Haydon rattling them off one by one, down to the very year he became a full-fledged traitor. Instead, a still close-up of Haydon's face exhibits by turns disgust, guilt, and eerie self-assuredness, as he answers Smiley's questions.

The traitor's last image of him lying dead on a bed of leaves conjures up the shots of almost-dead Prideaux in Budapest. Feelings of resignation and impotence percolate through the final moments of the former agents. Connie Sachs forlornly stares out of the window and Ricki Tarr futilely waits for Irina in the rain. Smiley, back at MI6 reclaiming Control's seat, puts an end to the short-lived coup by Percy Alleline, nominal ringleader of Witchcraft. Smiley's victory is hardly a beacon of hope for the waning empire, which once ruled the waves, but is now making way for another budding superpower. Audiences know so well how this particular chapter of actual history went down that the applause at the end of Julio Iglesias's "La Mer" sounds like a big fat irony.

Tinker Tailor chugs on, loaded with autumnal hues and melancholy. Hoyte van Hoytema's camera constantly inches its way in, slithers back, slinks laterally. These moves are so understated that one might easily dismiss them as idle. But the real thrills are supplied by the rhythmic engineering of the movie's narrative blocks, prompting strenuous inference-making. Through such stylistic devices and plot organization, Alfredson presents an ostensibly--and deceptively--romanticized group portrait. Yet simultaneously, even his treatment of these second-best agents en route to oblivion, however superficially nostalgic, does not warrant much sympathy, let alone empathy. Our proud old boys (and girl) are still so preoccupied with their past glories, yet so consumed by paranoia that they are incapable of seeing the world after the sunset.

*Disclaimer: I do not own any of the images above. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review: Drive (2011, USA)

Originally posted on Sept. 22, 2011

DRIVE (USA, 2011)

The gist: Nicolas Winding Refn's distinctive genre filmmaking style is further enlivened by Ryan Gosling's fittingly laconic performance as a self-mythologizing loner in the glittering city.

While it may not be fair to call it a pastiche, Drive borrows heavily from the stylistic and narrative elements of its L.A.-specific gritty urban drama predecessors. It has contour-emphasizing lighting, a primary color palette, bleak street shots in contrast with aerial shots of the glittering city at night, a lone tough guy falling for a sweet girl, going on an ultra-violent killing spree, taking out gangsters to save her life, with 1980s-inspired, sad, sentimental songs and a low synth score pulsating in the background. It's full of images and sounds that scream macho coolness, kitsch and the kind of romanticism a masculine hero’s dramatic arc is expected to generate. 

Despite whatever negative connotations that the words like pastiche and kitsch may carry, however, Drive is one of those films that click and stick in one’s mind. That’s mainly because it creates the feeling of being connected with our anonymous protagonist called Driver, by means of not just point-of-view shots but slow motion and muted tones. While it’s conventional to alternate subjective and objective shots to put the audience in a character’s shoes, it seems as if, in Drive, the camera often lingers longer than necessary or moves more slowly than necessary, when Driver shares romantic moments with the girl Irene or sets out to get perilous jobs done. Admittedly, overused slow motion tends to portray brutal throat-stabbing, brain-blowing, and skull-crushing as cartoonish and that significant kissing in an elevator as overly romanticized.

Immediately after my first viewing of the film, I was confused if I should embrace this extravagance or just laugh it off. In fact, I heard several times gasps and giggles at the absurdity of extreme violence and romanticism. Then, a few questions struck me: what if Refn, the director, deliberately went overboard (aside from the possibility that he wanted to flaunt his virtuosity as a technician)? What if he wanted to make this look like a film-within-a film playing in Driver’s head? Suppose even those scenes where Driver is not present or which we do not observe through his eyes, are all a part of his fictionalized reality. It might be a bit of a stretch, but maybe that could explain the much blurred line between subjectivity and objectivity, and the excessive use of slowmo action and hovering camerawork.

This approach helps better (or with a bit more coherence, at least) digest the scene where Driver and Irene stare at each other for extraordinarily long; the elevator scene where after kissing Irene in slow motion under suddenly softened dim lighting, Driver crushes an enemy’s skull like a melon, an out-of-control exhibition of brutality that surprises even him, let alone Irene standing agape now outside the elevator; and other callous killings by not only Driver but the villainous gangsters, which exude camp. Suppose, again, all of these constitute the myth that he desires to create. In the act of mythologizing himself, Driver pictures himself as some unnamed hero, who goes to immense lengths to save the girl.

This narrative of his own has a beginning, which is a self-sustaining sequence in itself and introduces Driver by showing what he does, a conflict, a climax and a resolution, as well as decently choreographed car chases in between. It's also enveloped in a shroud of existentialism: the protagonist is an anonymous stunt driver, a part of whose job is to wear a mask, without any background stories the others seem to have. Reduced to an archetype, Ryan Gosling’s character seems to allow him little versatility, but the actor effortlessly switches between ruthless and romantic, and between unnerving and softened. Carey Mulligan brings her trademark girl-next-doorness and subtlety into play, delicately conveying the comfort that Driver seeks. And Drive also owes its charm greatly to the strong supporting performances by Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, and Oscar Issac. Drive seems a stylistic hodgepodge, but it’s the kind of film that appeals to all your senses and lingers with echoes of “Nightcall,” “Under Your Spell,” “Oh My Love,” or “A Real Hero.”


Originally posted on Dec. 23, 2011

The gist: Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson produces a chillingly observed piece of atmospheric, economical, efficiently elliptical filmmaking, with the help of Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography that creates a hazy look and reptile-like camera movements, and with the help of a flawless ensemble cast. 

George Smiley, a man of few words created by John le Carré, walks with measured steps as a thick wall of fog engulfs the whole street around him. Whatever he’s brooding over is incomprehensible, especially so behind those glasses and an impenetrable veneer of taciturnity he’s wearing. He returns home, but once inside, he becomes even more cautious. His imperceptible flinches, deliberate turns of the head, and lifting of a finger or two are hardly distinguishable and nearly buried in the shadows that drape over him. Even at home, he maneuvers with the same level of circumspection as he swims in a lake where he treads water as if wading through a swamp. Patches of light sneak in, but without quite revealing what Smiley has on his mind. His eyes behind the spectacles and tightly sealed lips register little or no emotion. Once the scene settles into a sinister mood, there comes either a knock on the door or the muffled footsteps of a visitor who has already let himself in, waiting to talk to Smiley.

Smiley listens, observes, meditates, and hesitates before he finally pipes up. He speaks and expresses as little in full-face closeup as he does with only the back of his head seen onscreen. But even then, it’s not difficult to realize that he’s paying attention, absorbing the information the visitor’s feeding him, and ruminating on its gravity. He’s always present; in a sense, he’s an atmospheric existence. It looks as if he’s assimilated into the atmosphere exuded by Dante Ferretti’s subdued, monochromatic set design and Hoyte van Hoytema’s grainy, hazy cinematography. Director Tomas Alfredson’s camera regards and investigates each scene about the same way Smiley does with his surroundings: it inches its way in, slowly pans across and scrutinizes the scene in a surreptitious and calculated manner, waiting for clues to turn up or inconspicuous objects in the frame to assume significance and lead to some kind of revelation, whether in broad daylight or in dimly lit houses and offices.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a film adaptation from le Carré’s espionage classic of the same name. Each word in the title is a codename for each suspect within British Intelligence called “the Circus.” Tinker refers to new chief of the organization Percy Alleline; Tailor and Soldier to his deputies Bill Haydon and Roy Bland, respectively. And yes, there’s the spy, or "mole," the apparent catalyst of the story. Ostensibly, the movie follows a mystery arc with two operations—or shifts in power—bookending it: one is Operation Testify, a backstory and the cause of the former chief and old power’s fall, and the other Operation Witchcraft, a platform for the rise of a new power, Alleline et al. As the plot thickens, however, each of the characters is allowed a short but significant moment, either in flashback or in a one-on-one conversation with Smiley, unveiling the flip sides of their otherwise cloaked selves. The movie thus turns out to be less about finding the exit of a labyrinth than a deliberate illustration of the characters, their relationships, ideals and moral qualms.

In other words, despite its plot-heavy exterior, this Cold War-era thriller seeks to be a character study by forming a pervasively enigmatic atmosphere and integrating into it Smiley’s equally enigmatic character and the ambiguous nature of his profession. Structurally, it’s also a continuous interplay of regularity and gradual escalation, with interpolation of the repeated shots/scenes (e.g., a dumbwaiter containing intelligence, Jim Prideaux getting shot, Smiley treading water, Smiley entering his dingy house alert, the suspects’ faces flashing across Smiley’s mind, and a Christmas party or a “good time” where everybody feigns festiveness, trust and openness), and with a creeping penetration into the characters, as Smiley’s investigation simultaneously crawls forward. Also fortifying the regularity and slow-burn build-up is the use of parallels in the opening and ending sequences, the former smoothly phasing in the characters and the latter tracing their last moments, one by one, interposed with that “good time” flashback. For this, writers Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan, as well as editor Dino Jonsäter, deserve much applause.

The efficiency and creativity of O'Connor and Straughan’s adaptation shine through not only in the aforementioned interplay but in their decisions to incorporate small scenes toward the denouement, which, albeit very subtly, expose the characters’ inner conflicts and reinforce such themes as self-interest versus ideology, personal sacrifices that have to be made, loyalty and betrayal, self-righteousness, and the questionable absoluteness of their nation’s ideals. Smiley once made the mistake of confiding in his enemy about his personal life, which supposedly sabotaged his career; Peter Guillam opts to end his relationship; Ricki Tarr, a low-ranking agent, while wanting to prove his competence, declares his intention to settle down because he doesn’t want to end up like Smiley or Guillam.

Dilemmas of similar sorts extend to Percy Alleline, Bill Haydon, Jim Prideaux, Connie Sachs, and Toby Esterhase. None of these characters are morally innocent or consistent; they are deeply enmeshed in a web of obscurity and deception and a grid of power relations. Whatever they have done, they try to rationalize or stash away and forget about it, but it still haunts, and will haunt, them. They crave normalcy and try to socialize, but they find themselves arriving at the depressing truth that they’re, in the end, alone. As Alfredson’s lens infiltrates their façades, it discovers these agents, while armored with codes and secrets, live in fear of being exposed and not being able to trust anyone all their lives.

Aside from its atmospheric style and narrative idiosyncrasies, Tinker Tailor is also abundant in images of dubiousness and entanglement: foggy streets, misty windows, incessant smoking, clouds, veils, curtains, desk arrangements, spiral staircases, the checkered wallpaper of the Circus conference room, a frame full of bookshelves, and so on. Frame after frame, and shot after shot, are dense with such repetitive, intensifying images, the predominant enigmatic atmosphere, and the tension oozing from the characters inhabiting that atmosphere, which all culminate in a unifying sensory experience.

The cast is nothing short of stellar. Alec Guinness’s George Smiley is such a tough act to follow, but Gary Oldman presents an even more reserved, mysterious version of the anti-Bond. Mark Strong channels a scarred, a bit more expressive Jim Prideaux than his TV-series counterpart; Colin Firth a less sardonic, but more understandable, Bill Haydon than Ian Richardson’s. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Peter Guillam and Tom Hardy’s Ricki Tarr are meatier and more substantial with deeper subtexts. As nostalgic as Beryl Reid’s Connie Sachs, Kathy Burke’s quips, “I feel seriously underfucked,” possibly an allusion to these agents' collective psyche: feeling trapped in an air of directionless uncertainty, after all those years of dedication to serving what they believe is right at all costs.


Originally posted on Feb. 16, 2011

The gist: In this creation myth of the quintessential Silicon Valley tycoon's social-networking game-changer, David Fincher's ingenious, rhythmic directing and Aaron Sorkin's signature machine gunfire dialog balance each other out remarkably, along with Jesse Eisenberg's perfectly tuned performance. This is a culturally relevant morality tale of the new breed determined to redefine American capitalism.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg stressed that The Social Network is a work of fiction. He's right, in a way. It's not a completely faithful account of the birth and expansion of the social networking service, which has recently surpassed a 500-million user base. The key events of the story, the creation of Facebook and the two lawsuits lodged against its creator, are facts, but the little details that account for the motivations and conflicts in the film are not. Zuckerberg jokingly said that, while the filmmakers got right about the shirt and fleece that his fictional self wears in the movie, they got wrong about the "whole reason for making Facebook." Though writer Aaron Sorkin claimed that he'd created the characters based on the transcript of Zuckerberg's former LiveJournal blog, the billionaire denied the existence of Erica Albright ("Erica"), whose breakup with the fake Mark Zuckerberg ("Mark") in the opening sequence prompts him to launch Facemash, the prototype of Facebook.

The reason the breakup scene exists is roughly twofold: first, it simply distinguishes the made-up Mark from the real one; it also motivates Mark's actions and foresees the more complex confrontations he faces later on. After the couple split up, Mark rushes into a vengeful stunt: he blogs about his now ex-girlfriend and, out of bitterness toward girls in general, builds Facemash overnight. Its short-lived success drives every girl at Harvard away from Mark, but draws the attention of the Winklevoss twins, Harvard super-elites. From then on, the film crosscuts between the genesis and growth of Facebook and the two legal battles involving Mark himself, the Winklevosses, and Eduardo Saverin ("Wardo"), the co-founder of Facebook and Mark's ex-best friend.

Unlike David Fincher's previous works like Se7en and Zodiac, The Social Network doesn't feature any serial killers we expect to be brought to justice eventually. Nor does the film let us have a clear sense of right and wrong, even though, at first glance, Mark seems to be solely to blame for the legal entanglements. As the three parties take turns telling their side of the story, confusion creeps in: there is no solid evidence that Mark stole the Winklevosses' idea, Mark insists he did not steal their source code, hence no case of intellectual property theft. Furthermore, it's in large part Wardo's fault that he did not have his lawyer go over the papers before he signed them, resulting in the dilution of his shares down to .03%. The plaintiffs allege that Mark is the ultimate bad guy: he turned the twins' idea into his own business and betrayed his best friend. But the movie also incorporates the flashbacks told from Mark's perspective, which, with the help of Jesse Eisenberg's superbly subtle performance, depict the antihero as a pathetic outsider who doesn't fully grasp how to communicate with real people, thereby feeling rejected and alienated.

By cutting dexterously back and forth between past and present, Fincher’s camera captures two opposite sides of Mark: he eagerly seeks social approval, yet he seems to despise everyone else. He patronizes his girlfriend, misleads the twins, and backstabs his best pal, but we also see him having a hard time making eye contact with Erica, not knowing what to do to win her back. Though disgusted by the Winklevosses when they offer to rehabilitate his image, Mark is secretly jealous of those 6'5'', 220-pound rowing elites, wants to get accepted into one of those final clubs, and admires their exclusivity. Then there is a strained pause and disbelief crosses Mark's face when Wardo confesses he got "punched" by a final club. As suggested later in the furious CFO's climactic outburst, that was probably one of the reasons Mark turned against his business partner and best friend.

So while we instantly find this future billionaire to be unlikable, and while we realize that Internet-age success raises even more intricate ethical dilemmas, our protagonist's ambiguity and complexity make us wonder if it's sufficiently legitimate to judge his character and actions based on the values and norms that we take for granted. Here, Mark is the epitome of a new breed born out of today’s Internet-driven American culture. In an alternative community this new breed sets out to create online, politeness, tact or consideration has no place. But it's too bad because, in real reality, Mark still has to live in the same world as those people he just can't connect with. It’s nearly pitiful to watch him lose the people he actually seems to care. The film thus avoids being either a cheap glorification of the success story of “digital capitalism,” or just a didactic allegory about how the digital-minded capitalists further undermine traditional morality.

As said earlier, the opening breakup foreshadows the deposition-room conflicts and provides a swift examination of Mark's character. In a span of five minutes, the small bar argument not only presents the irony that our future social networking magnate has zero communication skills, but also hints at the nature of the resentment Mark holds onto. For instance, compare a self-conceited Mark promising to introduce Erica to the people she would not normally meet, with a bitter Mark who is repelled by the Winklevoss brothers' condescending proposal to restore his damaged reputation. Mark experiences the feelings of superiority/inferiority on two different occasions, but these emotions come from the same source: social status. Mark's relationships with the other characters are based on his perception of their social positions. Mark disregards Erica because she attends Boston University, which he considers lower-tier than Harvard. Meanwhile, he thinks the twins look down on him because they are at the top rung of the school's social ladder, whereas he is not.

Social status is also a criterion by which Mark defines friendship. Wardo claims that he was backstabbed out of jealousy because he got accepted into a final club and Mark couldn't. In a flashback, when Wardo tells Mark he was punched by the Phoenix, Mark tries to brush it off as a "diversity thing," but feels left behind because he assumes that they are always going to be on equal footing as Harvard nobodies. To Mark, Wardo's final club admission is sort of a sign of betrayal, which makes him feel further excluded, so he sort of gets revenge, albeit not admittedly. Along the way, Mark finds a new best friend, Sean Parker ("Sean"). Sean is the complete opposite of Wardo, in that he does not mind getting ahead at the expense of others. Wardo, by contrast, acts as an ethical counterweight and constantly asks questions like, "You think this is such a good idea?" (when Mark designs Facemash), a concern that Mark immediately dismisses. To Mark, Sean is the personification of true success based on his own ability and effort, not inherited privilege. Mark sees an ideal image of himself in Sean's cool, cocky demeanor, considers them socially equal, and accepts him as a friend.

However subtle they may seem, Mark's words and actions reflect his obsession with getting attention. He believes that elevating his social status, and subsequently earning people's respect, will stop him from feeling excluded. Mark strives toward success, not because he is money-hungry—he declined Microsoft's offer to buy his app—, but because he is recognition-hungry. This ambitious Harvard nobody, however, fails to look at his own cavalier attitude and inability to interact with people, which is, in fact, the most likely reason he is hated by many. He has no idea what he’s done to make people consider him an asshole. He resents the society so focused on useless things such as likability, as well as its class-based hierarchy. So he develops this online platform now we call Facebook, hoping to bring some transformational change at the societal level, but not even for a single second does he think of doing it for the public interest whatsoever.

His ambition is, albeit tautological, completely self-centered and directed toward climbing atop everyone's shoulders—and looking cool—with the revolutionary idea as a stepping stone. The whole point of the American dream is that you work hard, make money, and move up. Mark already has more than enough to succeed under this system: motivation, a top-notch education, and his brain. He knows that, and goes on to use all his resources to gain wealth and, ultimately, recognition (again, the former is merely a means to the latter). Having faith in the "self-made man," Mark naturally loathes the “Winklevii,” who were born privileged, call themselves Harvard "gentlemen," and accuse him of ethical misconduct citing the Harvard code of ethics, which is laughed at even by the university's president.

This society we live in sees so many young entrepreneurs like Mark. They make the best use of all resources at their disposal to carve out their own slice of the market. A lot of them think nothing of sabotaging friendships as long as they succeed. Some of them pay the price, some just walk away. Of course, the film does not advocate moral anarchy at all — Mark certainly pays for his callousness. He loses his only true friend, agrees to multimillion-dollar settlements and isn’t so sure if the money that can buy a ping-pong room can also buy Erica's heart. In short, this Facebook flick does not blindly extol the brainy young tycoon's accomplishments. Half the time Mark defends himself against the accusations by Wardo and the Winklevii and against a barely concealed tinge of contempt in their respective lawyers’ otherwise flat voices.

The depositions are mostly shown in medium or medium close-up shots at eye level, and Fincher rarely allows subjectivity to spoil the very matter-of-fact tone of the film. His restrained yet powerfully rhythmic directing and Sorkin’s machine gunfire dialog balance each other out so well that it's hard to believe such static scenes generate as much energy as any action-packed flick does. Throughout, there’s almost always information overload; viewers are inundated with the clues that they can use to form an opinion about this fictional Mark Zuckerberg. Paradoxically, however, the more we learn, the less able we are to get a definite picture of him. In real life, we are going to see more heroes like him: tech-savvy, socially inept, enviable, loathsome, sympathetic, and morally vague. And it’s going to be even trickier to make ethical judgments about them. In this creation story, Mark is indeed vague, close to an archetypal tragic hero, but he's still characteristic of the new breed determined to redefine the landscape of American capitalism. That's why The Social Network is a morality tale that is relevant and significant.

Review: The Ides of March (2011, USA)

The gist: George Clooney proves again he's one of the rare sleek, competent thesp-turned-directors with this efficiently structured, neatly designed political drama with farcical undertones.

The Ides of March isn't intended to be an intellectually challenging political thriller. Expect it to offer some sort of epiphany about the American political landscape, and you'll come out of the theater hugely disappointed. Being revelatory isn't what this movie seems to be aiming at. Nor does it try to be a didactic allegory representing certain political views. Is it, then, a liberal's satirical embodiment of bitter disappointment in Obama who once made himself the epitome of hope? Not really, though some parts of it may resonate strongly with liberal-minded viewers experiencing such Obama-era frustration. Rather, liberal or conservative, most viewers will find themselves nodding in agreement with its overriding theme: politicians are corrupt.

But then, it centers specifically on a guy who devotes his life to politics and how his idealism and optimism quickly wash away once he realizes the simple, but hard-to-swallow, truth about what he loves the most. The guy's called Stephen Meyers, the hotshot brains behind Democratic Presidential candidate Mike Morris' campaign, who, in the opening scene, appears dreamy-eyed and full of hope. Not only does he firmly believe his candidate is the only one who can bring about change, he seems unreasonably invested in it while adamantly denying being naïve. When his so-called friend and a New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz warns, “He'll let you down sooner or later,” we kind of sense where this story is headed. The whole process of getting there, however, from the inciting action to the denouement, from Stephen's fall into disgrace to his miraculous table-turning maneuver, seems absurd and asinine.

The problem that many viewers will instantaneously find with this movie is that Stephen is such a difficult character to sympathize with, and his actions constantly contradict his words: he's the one who makes unfathomably stupid mistakes, especially when his “life” is at stake, yet he dares to lecture a lowly intern who's as fucked up as he is about the gravity of small errors resulting in the loss of eligibility to play the game. On top of that, the film’s simplistic treatment of such serious subject-matter, along with the nearly one-note characterizations, contributes to its donning of an outfit that's too cool and sleek for an audience to find quite fitting. But that's exactly the point it's trying to make: it doesn't take itself seriously. Put differently, it's rather disguised in dead seriousness with farcical undertones.

The crux of the movie is, then, its illustration of naïve idealism crumbling in the face of the harsh reality of politics. Just like Tom Duffy, anyone who's in politics is destined to be jaded and cynical, and Stephen is no exception. Only when he acknowledges the true colors of politics does he muster up the strength to get back in the game as a top-notch player and ultimately attain his goal, but by then, his eyes are completely drained of the hope and optimism that used to propel him forward. Stephen's abrupt, drastic transformation over the course of a week is what The Ides of March focuses on, a cynical glimpse at the collapse of a political wunderkind’s ideals. His character arc is commensurate with Alexandre Desplat's initial brisk, march-themed score morphing into a much more somber tone, and the message's further articulated with the recurring, starkly contrasting closeups of Stephen's face in the opening and closing scenes.

As for the performances, an interesting comparison can be drawn between Ryan Gosling whose acting hinges on understated facial expressions and gestures, and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti's more theatrical takes. Other noteworthy accomplishments come from George Clooney's turn as a poker-faced, cold-hearted politician, Evan Rachel Wood as a melodramatic, precocious intern, and Marisa Tomei as a fair-weather friend and opportunistic journalist. An equally effective contributor is Clooney's direction setting the tone for the film, which symbolizes Stephen's ridiculously dramatic metamorphosis with a lightheartedly satirical touch.