JUST THE PERFECT KINSHIP: Reviews of the Town and The Social Network

There came a time when many British films, especially those that concerned the working classes, were subtitled so that audience might be able to better understand what was being said. Upon seeing the Town, in which many of the characters are natives of a certain neighborhood in Boston, one has to wonder whether we’ll have to start doing the same thing in the states as there were times when the Boston brogue tended to obscure what was being said in this gritty, urban thriller. In talking with my friend Beriau, I stated I preferred The Town’s approach, authenticity, over the somewhat unskilled accent of say, a Mel Gibson in Edge of Darkness; Beriau wasn’t so sure, especially because of that one scene where Jeremy Renner (terrific here as a sociopathic thug) was talking about someone he killed and the reasons for it. It seemed an important scene, but I had no idea what he said. The Town is a story about a group of bank robbers who have great tastes in masks and disguises. The movie is directed by Ben Affleck and written by Affleck, Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard. Aaron Stockard also wrote another Ben Affleck movie, Gone, Baby, Gone, and the two of them seem to have an aptitude for working class grit. Affleck comes off a bit better than Stockard this time round. With The Town, Affleck demonstrates that he is probably a better director than actor, or at least a better director than romantic or heroic lead. The action scenes have a slam bang feel to them (though they often are the sort where no one can ever seem to shoot someone except when it’s convenient for the screenwriter); the neighborhoods have a certain down and dirty bleakness to them; and the romance between Affleck and Rebecca Hall has a certain sweetness to it. The Town is never less than entertaining, especially whenever Renner is on screen, stealing the show as only a good sociopath can; he’s the main reason to see it. The rest of the movie is a bit dicey at times. The bank robberies here are too good, too clever, too artistically brilliant to be realistic. They’re enjoyable and fascinating, but one does come away from them thinking they’re the sort of thing one only sees in movies. They also suggest that Affleck’s character’s main problem is not so much his criminal background as a lack of career counseling; this guy shouldn’t be robbing banks, he should be running them. Though Renner is the top of the food acting chain, Affleck and Hall are also affective. But the others didn’t really thrill me all that much. Chris Cooper, as Affleck’s father, isn’t really given anything to do and he proceeds not to do it. Pete Postlethwaite also seems wasted in the role of the gang’s go to guy for money laundering. Jon Hamm is actually rather bland as the FBI agent hot on everyone’s trail. This blandness is perfect for his role as the man in the grey flannel suit on Mad Men, but it’s uncertain how far this can take him in the movies. The plot itself also has some issues. Part of it is personal. The older I get, the less empathy I automatically have for crooks and thugs and the authors don’t really give me any strong reason for rooting for Affleck here. I also wasn’t convinced that Postlethwaite had enough power to get Affleck to go on that oldest of clichés of heist movies, the last job. And once Renner kills some policemen, I have no sympathy for Affleck at all; he may not have shot them himself, but he’s equally culpable. At the end, in a voice over, Affleck states that everyone has to pay for what he’s done in life. The only problem is that he hasn’t closely begun to pay. He got away with the money; the affection of the girl, with the possibility of them being together again; and he’s living in what looks like, even if it’s not to my taste, a rather nice house with a great view of a river (this almost feels like an ending come up with in committee or via focus groups). It’s too idyllic to come across as any sort of punishment. I mean, I should have it so lucky if I’m responsible for the death of a couple of cops.

A critic once described the dialog in the movie All About Eve as some of the best staircase wit in the movies. I couldn’t help but think of that remark in watching The Social Network in which the writer Aaron Sorkin gives his actors one witty line after another; in fact, wholesale paragraphs of witty lines, all delivered with the speed and dead on intensity of a SWAT member taking out a bad guy. But isn’t that one of the things movies can be for: to have people say what they should have said, not necessarily what they did say? If only we could all live in the wisecracking world of His Gal Friday. The Social Network seems like one of those movie marriages of writer and director made in heaven. While Sorkin parcels out his flashes of spoken lightning, director David Fincher plays every scene for what it’s worth. In another reference to All About Eve, he grabs you like the dogs nipping at your rear end and doesn’t let go. With this and Zodiac, Fincher seems to be showing a skill at somehow keeping a movie ship afloat even if it has a somewhat unwieldy structure (I’m not using unwieldy here in a negative term; but in The Social Network and Zodiac, so much information has to be covered and dramatized effectively even if the story doesn’t necessarily conform to traditional Hollywood structural guidelines as taught in film schools or as found in various how to books). For some reason Zodiac didn’t connect to the audience (I loved it); maybe because it’s structure was just a bit too unwieldy for general consumption. Here, Sorkin has used a somewhat familiar approach by providing the story with a linking narrative, the various depositions Mark Zuckerberg, the central character, had to participate in, allowing the rest of the story to be filled in with flashbacks. And this probably did help give the story a bit more focus. Zuckerberg is played with ferociousness by Jesse Eisenberg. Zuckerberg should probably be flattered. From his various appearances on TV and The Simpsons (where he was portrayed as always speaking through his Facebook account), ferociousness is not his strong point when he talks. In fact, he comes across as the almost stereotypical geek who almost seems to have some trace of Asperger’s syndrome. Eisenberg plays him as a lion who lives his life pacing a cage. And to a certain degree that does seem to be what is driving Sorkin’s Zuckerberg, someone who is trapped in a cage of isolation because he doesn’t have the right pedigree to be invited to the best parties or the right fraternities. He’s the person who hates people not because they look down on him, but because he is not one of them looking down on others. How shallow this psychology is is probably a matter of personal opinion, but it does work. Zuckerberg would do anything to humiliate those who refuse to recognize his worth and is quick to take slights where none are intended (the fact that they aren’t intended is even worse; it means they slighted him without even acknowledging his existence). He created Facebook not just to do something brilliant, but to prove that he’s a superior human being to the upper crust snobs, the Winklevoss twins, who can’t let him in their frat house any farther than the bike room and when they offer him a sandwich, they give him a store bought one ensconced in cellophane. Zuckerberg starts distancing himself from his best friend Eduardo Saverin (an excellent Andrew Garfield with a first rate American accent), pelting him with passive/aggressive insults because Eduardo is invited to join a fraternity. Instead, his alpha male hero becomes Justin Timberlake’s Sean Parker (almost as sociopathic as Jeremy Renner’s tour de force in The Town), the founder of Napster, who also stuck it to the man. But when Zuckerberg realizes that Parker is too sociopathic, and has a way with partying and women that Zuckerberg could never hope to achieve, he drops him, too. It’s possible that as good as everyone is here, Timberlake actually gives the best performance; or is it something about sociopath’s that we can’t take our eyes off of them. Oddly enough, both Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg and Ben Affleck’s bank robber have the same ending: isolated, but having basically gotten away with everything. The difference is that I wasn’t really asked to feel that sorry for Zuckerberg. Some, yes, but Sorkin’s attitude seemed to be Zuckerberg dug his own grave. If only those involved in The Town had felt the same way.

TECHNICAL MASTERY: Reviews of Genius Within: the Inner Life of Glenn Gold and Enter the Void

Genius Within: the Inner Life of Glenn Gould, the new documentary directed by Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont (for some reason, IMDB doesn’t list a writer), about legendary pianist Glenn Gould, is told in a very straightforward way. So straightforward, that at times I felt like I was more attending a lecture than experiencing a movie. Genuis Within… has received rave reviews, but I and my friend Beriau, who I saw it with, were left a little cold. We felt we had gotten a lot of information about the famed pianist, but left not feeling like we really found out all that much about him; I mean, the real him, the inside him. The film is filled with actual visual recordings of Gould, but after it was all over, I felt that nothing really quite said Glenn Gould as much as a scene from an earlier film, Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould, in which a scene was staged and a fictional actor went to a phone booth in the middle of the night, during winter, and called a friend for no other reason than to talk; something the friend said was just something you accepted if you were going to be friends with this genius. The most interesting aspects of his life in the Genius Within… version are the early years, especially the information about a piano technique he was taught that he took not just to heart, but improved upon and made the center of his method of playing. And when one does hear Gould, it’s astounding at how every single note seems to come through with breathtaking clarity. But as the film progressed, things got a tad hazy. We’re told he didn’t want to invite his parents to his best friend’s wedding, but we’re not told why. We’re told that anti-depressants and other medications had a negative effect on him, but these effects aren’t described. We’re told he had strange eccentricities, but the home movie excerpts we’re shown don’t make him seem that odd (there’s one strange bit where his lover of a few years describes how after a talk Gould went walking on the beach wearing, as eccentrically usual, his coat and gloves in spite of the heat; but the excerpt we’re shown shows him walking down a beach in winter, which isn’t quite so odd). There’s also some talk about Gould’s radio show, but I never quite understood it; it seemed a little vague. It’s not that I didn’t like the picture. But toward the end, I was growing a bit lethargic at all the information I was being given. It did what it set out to do, that’s clear enough, but I guess I wanted to just a bit more.

Enter the Void is the new film by enfant terrible, Gaspar Noe, who gave us the controversial Irreversible, the movie known for people walking out due to a graphic rape scene and a man’s face being smashed in by a fire extinguisher. The screenplay, by Noe and Lucile Hadzihalilovic, is based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, one of the more unusual sources for a story, perhaps only equaling John Cameron Mitchell’s adaption of Hedwig and the Angry Inch from one of Aristotle’s dialogues. In Enter the Void, a drug dealer is shot by the police, leaves his body and travels Tokyo witnessing various situations involving his friends, while also having flashbacks to his younger years, in the end entering a sperm at the moment of consummation so that he can be reincarnated. Gaspar Noe is ambitious in his use of technique. In Irreversible, he told his story in reverse chronological order divided into a series of scenes, each made up of one long shot that was as long as a reel of film. Here, Noe combines the point of view technique used by Robert Montgomery in his film noir The Lady in the Lake, in which everything is seen as the lead character sees it, the hero himself never appearing unless a mirror is present (the same idea was also used in parts of the films Dark Passage and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). Noe combines this approach with the long shot style Alfred Hitchcock used in Rope, in which the camera never cuts until it focuses on a solid black object so the audience theoretically can’t tell there’s been an edit with the whole film looking as if it’s one long shot. Add to that a style that reminded me of the time I was in college in which film groups would show movies that would especially appeal to people who had partaken of mind altering substances before attending (like Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here), and you have a lot going on. One thing in Noe’s favor is that he’s not as slavish to the POV technique as Montgomery was; Montgomery used it all the way through the film, which sounds great and innovative, until you actually see it whereupon it quickly becomes tiresome and clunky and is never as convincing as you think it might be. Noe really only uses this idea for about a third of the movie; after that, it all becomes an out of body experience, which, though the action is still seen strictly speaking from the hero’s point of view, it no longer seems like it, instead feeling much closer to a camera’s usual omniscient viewpoint. At the same time, Noe does take it all a step further and actually has the character blinking. He also takes the Hitchcock technique further by making the editing seamless with almost no hesitation or pausing on the camera’s part (at times, this is extremely dazzling as the hero flies over Tokyo, entering and exiting buildings, people, an airplane, and finally that uterus where we watch a penis thrusting and having an orgasm). But as impressive as the film is at times, it quickly loses steam as the technique takes over and become more important than the story telling. The issue for me is that the plot really isn’t that complicated; in fact, it’s fairly straight forward. But in spite of that, it takes Noe two hours and forty three minutes to tell it and the story line really can’t sustain it. The length is due to the above mentioned stylistic flourishes, which are interesting at first, but also can’t be sustained in and of themselves for the more than two hours running time. Add to that an actor in the lead, newcomer Nathaniel Brown, who says every line with a flat, deadly dullness, and the whole thing finally collapses under its own stylistic weight. I’m also not sure what to make of the suggested incestuous feelings the hero has for his sister, to the extent that it’s her uterus he enters and her baby he reincarnates as; I’m not sure, because it seems to be the only aspect of the film Noe seems to not fully commit to (with the frankness of the rest of the film, one wonders what held him back). In the end, I suspect this could have been a fascinating and more emotionally involving experience if it had clocked in under the two hour mark. And one has to admit the ambition and success of much of the technical aspects of the film; it is an incredibly impressive achievement at times. But not as engaging as I needed it to be.