Monday, December 6, 2010

Faster

"Faster" is a pure thriller, all blood, no frills, in which a lot of people get shot, mostly in the head. Rotate the plot, change the period, spruce up the dialogue, and this could have been a hard-boiled 1940s noir. But it doesn't pause for fine touches and efficiently delivers action for an audience that likes one-course meals.
Dwayne Johnson stars in the kind of role he's possibly been avoiding up until now. Once known as The Rock, he has developed a kinder, gentler screen persona that more closely fits him in real life. It's a melancholy fact of Hollywood today that “Faster” could be a good career move, sending him on the trail blazed by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis. Johnson has very broad shoulders and wicked tattoos, and a gun seems to grow from his hand.
 
As the film opens, he's being released from prison after a 10-year term. He walks out the gate into a desert wilderness and begins to run — run — to a nearby city, where a circa 1970 Chevelle is waiting for him in a junkyard. This is because modern cars all look boring, and most action heroes drive classics. He whips off the tarp and peels outta there. A private eye gives him a list of names, and he sets out to murder everyone on the list.

His character is named Driver. A clue to this, and the title, is that he invariably drives at the top possible speed, and obviously never took driver's ed in high school, because he doesn't know how to turn around and drive in the other direction except by slamming on the brakes, twisting the wheel and whipping through 180 degrees.

Driver is soon wanted for one, then two, then three murders. The cops know who he is. His photo is on the TV news. This all takes place in Bakersfield, Calif. What are the odds a tattooed killer with a shaved head could elude the Bakersfield police for long while piloting a classic Chevelle at 80 mph and laying rubber all over town? In “Faster,” excellent.

The cop on the case is Cicero (Carla Gugino). She finds herself saddled with a partner known as Cop (Billy Bob Thornton). He's two weeks from retirement. As we all know, anyone two weeks from retirement, be he cop, fireman, stunt man, prison guard or kindly old dad, will never make it. Cop is also mainlining heroin, for no better reason than to show him doing it. One fix lasts him for the rest of the film.

Cicero and Cop try to track down Driver, who seeks vengeance on those who squealed about a bank heist and killed his brother. These people have moved into other lines of work, most notably, Preacher (Buzz Belmondo), who runs revival tent meetings. We find out more about them. And we meet the fatuous Killer (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a British addict of extreme sports, who is a professional hit man for fun. This is some guy. He informs his girlfriend Lily (Maggie Grace) that he has “beaten” yoga, having mastered the most difficult three positions, and is ready to move on.

As Driver tracks his victims, Killer tracks Driver and Cop and Cicero track them all, director George Tillman Jr. does a lean, efficient job of creating stark action scenes. Driver shows vestiges of a personality, reluctantly. Billy Bob creates a Cop who looks like it's been all downhill for him since “Bad Santa.” Gugino, a good actress, gamely pretends to be in a more nuanced movie. And the hits keep coming.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky's “Black Swan” is a full-bore melodrama, told with passionate intensity, gloriously and darkly absurd. It centers on a performance by Natalie Portman that is nothing short of heroic, and mirrors the conflict of good and evil in Tchaikovsky's ballet “Swan Lake.” It is one thing to lose yourself in your art. Portman's ballerina loses her mind.
Everything about classical ballet lends itself to excess. The art form is one of grand gesture, of the illusion of triumph over reality and even the force of gravity. Yet it demands from its performers years of rigorous perfectionism, the kind of physical and mental training that takes ascendancy over normal life. This conflict between the ideal and the reality is consuming Nina Sayers, Portman's character.

Her life has been devoted to ballet. Was that entirely her choice? Her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), was a dancer once, and now dedicates her life to her daughter's career. They share a small apartment that feels sometimes like a refuge, sometimes like a cell. They hug and chatter like sisters. Something feels wrong.

Nina dances in a company at New York's Lincoln Center, ruled by the autocratic Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). The reach of his ego is suggested by his current season, which will “reimage” the classics.

Having cast off his former prima ballerina and lover, Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), he is now auditioning for a new lead. “Swan Lake” requires the lead to play opposite roles. Nina is clearly the best dancer for the White Swan. But Thomas finds her too “perfect” for the Black Swan. She dances with technique, not feeling.

The film seems to be unfolding along lines that can be anticipated: There's tension between Nina and Thomas, and then Lily (Mila Kunis), a new dancer, arrives from the West Coast. She is all Nina is not: bold, loose, confident. She fascinates Nina, not only as a rival but even as a role model. Lily is, among other things, a clearly sexual being, and we suspect Nina may never have been on a date, let alone slept with a man. For her, Lily presents a professional challenge and a personal rebuke.

Thomas, the beast, is well known for having affairs with his dancers. Played with intimidating arrogance by Cassel, he clearly has plans for the virginal Nina. This creates a crisis in her mind: How can she free herself from the technical perfection and sexual repression enforced by her mother, while remaining loyal to their incestuous psychological relationship?

No backstage ballet story can be seen without "The Red Shoes" (1948) coming into mind. If you've never seen it of course eventually you will. In the character of Thomas, Aronofsky and Cassel evoke Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), the impresario in that film, whose autocratic manner masks a deep possessiveness. And in Nina, there is a version of Deborah Kerr's ingenue, so driven to please.

“Black Swan” will remind some viewers of Aronofsky's previous film, "The Wrestler." Both show singleminded professionalism in the pursuit of a career, leading to the destruction of personal lives. I was reminded also of Aronofsky's brilliant debut with "Pi" (1998), about a man driven mad by his quest for the universal mathematical language. For that matter, his "The Fountain" (2007) was about a man who seems to conquer time and space. Aronofsky's characters make no little plans.

The main story supports of “Black Swan” are traditional: backstage rivalry, artistic jealousy, a great work of art mirrored in the lives of those performing it. Aronofsky drifts eerily from those reliable guidelines into the mind of Nina. She begins to confuse boundaries. The film opens with a dream, and it becomes clear that her dream life is contiguous with her waking one. Aronofsky and Portman follow this fearlessly where it takes them.

Portman's performance is a revelation from this actress who was a 13-year-old charmer in "Beautiful Girls" (1996). She has never played a character this obsessed before, and never faced a greater physical challenge (she prepared by training for 10 months). Somehow she goes over the top and yet stays in character: Even at the extremes, you don't catch her acting. The other actors are like dance partners holding her aloft. Barbara Hershey provides a perfectly calibrated performance as a mother whose love is real, whose shortcomings are not signaled, whose own perfectionism has all been focused on the creation of her daughter.

The tragedy of Nina, and of many young performers and athletes, is that perfection in one area of life has led to sacrifices in many of the others. At a young age, everything becomes focused on pleasing someone (a parent, a coach, a partner), and somehow it gets wired in that the person can never be pleased. One becomes perfect in every area except for life itself.

It's traditional in many ballet-based dramas for a summing-up to take place in a bravura third act. “Black Swan” has a beauty. All of the themes of the music and life, all of the parallels of story and ballet, all of the confusion of reality and dream come together in a grand exhilaration of towering passion. There is really only one place this can take us, and it does. If I were you, I wouldn't spend too much time trying to figure out exactly what happens in practical terms. Lots of people had doubts about the end of "The Red Shoes," too. They were wrong, but they did.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Welcome to the Rileys

"Welcome to the Rileys" takes two old plots and makes a rather touching new plot out of them. What we’ve seen before is (1) the good man who hopes to redeem a prostitute, and (2) the frozen suburban couple who find new hope in their marriage. The film involves such characters in a story that is a little more real and involving than we expect.
James Gandolfini stars as Doug Riley, an Indianapolis plumbing supplies contractor. His wife, Lois (Melissa Leo), hasn’t been able to leave their house in years. He’s having an affair with Vivian (Eisa Davis), a black waitress at a pancake house, and their two brief scenes together show enormous warmth. He isn’t ready to leave his wife, however, perhaps because he knows she would not survive alone. Their daughter was killed at 15 in a car crash.

Doug goes to New Orleans for a convention, is depressed, wanders into a stripper bar and finds himself through no desire of his own receiving a hard sell from Mallory (Kristen Stewart). He doesn’t want sex. He wants to talk. She thinks he’s crazy. She is worn and wounded, hostile and vulnerable. He drives her home and ends up fixing her plumbing, cleaning her shabby shotgun house and offering her $100 a day to stop hooking.

We think we see where this will lead. That’s not where it leads. Ken Hixon’s screenplay deliberately avoids most of the obligatory dialogue in a situation like this and throws some curves at us. One of the surprises involves Lois. Mired in deep depression, Doug decides with a jolt to sell his business and stay in New Orleans. When he informs Lois, she finds the courage to leave her house and drive herself down to New Orleans.

Now watch how she reacts to the reality of her husband’s relationship with Mallory. This involves good writing and acting. Lois is a grown-up. She isn’t jealous; she’s more concerned that he’s crazy. He isn’t defensive; he’s matter-of-fact. This is Mallory, she’s a 16-year-old runaway, he’s helping her, she doesn’t want help. That’s how it is.

It’s such a relief to be spared the usual cliches here and observe how Leo so convincingly channels a woman’s mothering instinct. It’s good, too, to see how director Jake Scott uses the physical presences of his well-cast actors. Stewart here is far from the porcelain perfection of the “Twilight” movies, and it’s a relief to see that it is, after all, physically possible for a teenager to have complexion problems in a movie. Leo is worn out by loss and worry, but smart and kind.

And look at what Gandolfini does. He’s a mountain of a man, but gentle, not threatening. In terms of body language, he establishes his character in a scene where he crawls into bed with his wife, and the mattress sags and he burrows into his pillow and looks — comfortable. When he smokes, his huge hands dwarf his cigarette. (There’s a subtle tweak: He uses regular cigarettes, not king size, because they make his huge hands look even larger.)

I was struck at once by the uncanny accuracy of his central Indiana accent. I grew up in Downstate Illinois hearing men speak exactly like him. A kind of firm, terse understatement, on a flat, factual note. I could close my eyes and imagine one lifelong friend in particular. Going online, I found that the coastal critics as a group thought he was using a Southern accent, “for some reason.” They’ve never been to the Midwest and possibly never to the South. We all sound the same to them. Gandolfini has the accent spot on, and it’s certainly not one that we’ve heard before from him.

“Welcome to the Rileys” does a convincing job of evoking its New Orleans locations. Mallory’s house is messy and forlorn. Her street is depressing. The city at night seems a contrast between artificial merriment and loneliness, and more evocative than another city known for sin, Las Vegas.

What happens among the three people I will not say. The film introduces them, makes them plausible and then what happens is pretty much what might happen. These people haven’t studied up on their archetypes. Each one is doing the best possible, under the circumstances.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

White Material

Isabelle Huppert, small and slender, embodies the strength of a fighter. In so many films, she is an indomitable force, yet you can't see how she does it. She rarely acts broadly. The ferocity lives within. Sometimes she is mysteriously impassive; we see what she's determined to do, but she sends no signals with voice or eyes to explain it. There is a lack of concern about our opinion; she will do it, no matter what we think her reasons are.


 In Claire Denis' "White Material," she plays Maria Vial, a French woman running a coffee plantation in an unnamed African country. The land has fallen into war, both against the colonialists and among the insurgents. In an opening scene, a helicopter hovers above Maria and French soldiers advise her to evacuate quickly. This she has no intention of doing. As it becomes clear that her life is in danger, she only grows more opaque. Huppert's approach is valuable here, because any attempt at a rational explanation would seem illogical. I believe her attachment to the land has essentially driven her mad.

This isn't even her farm. It was owned by her former father-in-law and run by her ex-husband (Christopher Lambert). Now she is in day-to-day charge and moves with confidence. The way she dresses makes a statement: She likes simple sandals and thin print sundresses that make her seem more at home than durable clothing would. She doesn't even much like hats or sunglasses. She runs through fields like a child. She drives a truck, runs errands, goes into town to hire substitute labor when her workers walk away in fear of the war. There's a scene where she all but tries to physically restrain departing workers.

They try to be reasonable with her. Yes, it will be a good crop of coffee beans, but there will probably be no way to get it to market. Anarchy has taken over the land. Child soldiers with rifles march around, makeshift army stripes on their shirts, seeking "The Boxer" (Isaach De Bankole), a onetime prizefighter and now the legendary, if hardly seen, leader of the rebellion. When Maria is held at gunpoint, she boldly tells the young gunmen that she knows them and their families. Her danger doesn't seem real to her. There is no overt black-white racial tension in the film; the characters all behave as the situation would suggest.

Claire Denis, a major French director, was born and raised in French Colonial Africa, and is drawn to Africa as a subject; her first film, the great "Chocolat" (1988), was set there, and also starred the formidable Isaach De Bankole. Both it and this film draw from The Grass Is Singing, Doris Lessing's first novel, the idea of a woman more capable than her husband on an African farm. Denis' 2009 film "35 Shots of Rum" dealt with Africans in France. She doesn't sentimentalize Africa nor attempt to make a political statement. She knows it well and hopes to show it as she knows it. Huppert's impassivity perhaps suits her; the character never expresses an abstract idea about the farm or Africa, and the nearest she comes to explaining why she won't leave is asking, "How could I show courage in France?" No one asks her what that means.

We meet the ex-husband and his father, but the other major figure in the film is her son, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle). This boy, in his late teens, seems prepared to spend all of his life in his room. While his mother manages the farm, he projects indolence and total indifference. He cares not about her, the farm or anything.
Events cause him to undergo a scary transformation, but it's not one we were expecting. He doesn't move in a conventional narrative direction, but laterally, driven by inner turmoil.

This is a beautiful, puzzling film. The enigmatic quality of Huppert's performance draws us in. She will never leave, and we think she will probably die, but she seems oblivious to her risk. There is an early scene where she runs in her flimsy dress to catch a bus and finds there are no seats. So she grabs onto the ladder leading to the roof. The bus is like Africa. It's filled with Africans, we're not sure where it's going, and she's hanging on.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sorry

I just wanted to say sorry to all of my followers about my lack of posts recently. I've been really busy and haven't had time to put up new reviews. I will have a new one up either tomorrow or the following day.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

127 Hours

Sometimes a person will make an enormous mistake and get a lot of time to think about it. There was a man who went over Niagara Falls sealed inside a big rubber ball. It never made it to the bottom. The ball lodged somewhere on the way down. He’d counted on his team to cut him out after he landed. Oops! Aron Ralston, the hero of "127 Hours," had an oops! moment. That’s even what he calls it. He went hiking in the wilderness without telling anyone where he was going, and then in a deep, narrow crevice, got his forearm trapped between a boulder and the canyon wall. Oops.
We all heard about this. Ralston stumbled out to safety more than five days later, having cut off his own right arm to escape. He is an upbeat and resilient person and has returned to rock climbing, although now, I trust, after filing a plan, going with a companion and not leaving his Swiss Army Knife behind. The knife would have been ever so much more convenient than his multipurpose tool. I imagine that every time he considers his missing right forearm, he feels that under the circumstances he’s better off without it.

What would you have done? What about me? I don’t know if I could have done it. It involves a gruesome ordeal for Ralston, and for the film’s audience, a few of whom have been said to faint. But from such harrowing beginnings, it’s rather awesome what an entertaining film Danny Boyle has made with "127 Hours." Yes, entertaining.

For most of the film he deals with one location and one actor, James Franco. There’s a carefree prologue in which Ralston and a couple of young woman hikers have a swim in an underwater cavern. Later, during moments of hallucination, other people from his life seem to visit. But the fundamental reality is expressed in the title of the book he wrote about his experience: Between a Rock and a Hard Place.

Franco does a good job of suggesting two aspects of Ralston’s character. (1) He’s a cocky, bold adventurer who trusts his skills and likes taking chances, and (2) he’s logical and bloody-minded enough to cut through his own skin and bone to save his life. One aspect gets him into his problem, and the other gets him out.

Is the film watchable? Yes, compulsively. Films like this don’t move quickly or slowly, they seem to take place all in the same moment. They prey on our own deep fear of being trapped somewhere and understanding that there doesn’t seem to be any way to escape. Edgar Allan Poe mined this vein in several different ways. Ralston is at least fortunate to be standing on a secure foothold; one can imagine the boulder falling and leaving him dangling in mid-air from the trapped arm.

Suddenly, his world has become very well-defined. There is the crevice. There is the strip of sky above, crossed by an eagle on its regular flight path. There are the things he brought with him: a video camera, some water, a little food, his inadequate little tool. It doesn’t take long to make an inventory. He shouts for help, but who can hear? The two women campers have long since gone their way and won’t report him missing because they won’t realize that he is. For anyone to happen to find him is unthinkable. He will die or do something.

"127 Hours" is like an exercise in conquering the unfilmable. Boyle uses magnificent cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak, establishing the vastness of the Utah wilderness, and the very specific details of Ralston’s small portion of it. His editor, Jon Harris, achieves the delicate task of showing an arm being cut through without ever quite showing it. For the audience the worst moment is not a sight but a sound. Most of us have never heard that sound before, but we know exactly what it is.

Pain and bloodshed are so common in the movies. They are rarely amped up to the level of reality, because we want to be entertained, not sickened. We and the heroes feel immune. "127 Hours" removes the filters. It implicates us. By identification, we are trapped in the canyon, we are cutting into our own flesh. One element that film can suggest but not evoke is the brutality of the pain involved. I can’t even imagine what it felt like. Maybe that made it easier for Ralston, because in one way or another, his decision limited the duration of his suffering.

He must be quite a man. The film deliberately doesn’t make him a hero — more of a capable athlete trapped by a momentary decision. He cuts off his arm because he has to. He was lucky to succeed. One can imagine a news story of his body being discovered long afterward, with his arm only partly cut through. He did what he had to do, which doesn’t make him a hero. We could do it, too. Oh, yes, we could.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Unstoppable

The freight train pulls out of a siding with no engineer on board and accelerates to 70 m.p.h., and you see how Tony Scott's "Unstoppable" gets its title. The movie is as relentless as the train, slowly gathering momentum before a relentless final hour of continuous suspense. In terms of sheer craftsmanship, this is a superb film.
The trouble begins when an engineer (Ethan Suplee) dismounts after thinking he had brought the train to a full stop. He hasn't. When he sees the train slowly pulling away, the look on his face is adequate to fuel the next several minutes. At first, it's assumed that the train is a "coaster," but no luck. It's under full throttle.

Scott tells the story from several points of view. In the cab of another train, a longtime engineer named Barnes (Denzel Washington) is breaking in a new man, Colson (Chris Pine). In the station yard, a yard master named Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson) is in charge of dispatch and operations. In the railroad's corporate offices, an executive (Kevin Dunn) is concerned mostly about the cost of losing the train, which seems harsh, since it is carrying hazardous materials and is rocketing straight toward the heart of Scranton, Pa.

Overhead, news choppers circle, providing a live TV feed that Scott intercuts with the action. That allows him a plausible way to provide an overview and narrate the action; a similar device was used by his brother Ridley Scott to help us follow events in his "Black Hawk Down" (2001).

There isn't a lot of room here for personality development, but Washington and Pine provide convincing characters, the veteran driven by love of his job, the new guy more cynical. This conflict isn't ramped up for dramatic effect in the screenplay by Mark Bomback, but is allowed to play out as naturally as it can, under the circumstances. Rosario Dawson makes her dispatcher aggressively competent, and the hurtling train of course rumbles beneath everything.

Chase scenes involving trains have an unavoidable limit: Trains require tracks and can only go forward or in reverse. There are sidings, but getting on to one may not be very simple. Two other films that come to mind are Buster Keaton's "The General" (1926) and Andrei Konchalovsky's "Runaway Train" (1985), which won Oscar nominations for the two men in its locomotive, Jon Voight and Eric Roberts.

How Scott deals with his "chase" is not for me to reveal here, but although the possibilities of two trains on one track would seem to be limited, he and Bomback are truly ingenious. They employ a kind of logical lateral thinking: The trains can move only in certain ways, but those ways may not be as obvious as we assume.

Not that those are terms we're thinking of during the action. The photography and sound here are very effective in establishing that a train is an enormously heavy thing, and once in motion wants to continue. We knew that. But Scott all but crushes us with the weight of the juggernaut. We are spellbound. And we sure hope those little kids are saved.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Four Lions

There’s a difference between blowing up people and blowing up things. When the African National Congress in South Africa was bombing power pylons, that made strategic sense. When terrorists blow up people (and themselves), it strikes me as self-defeating idiocy. Believing in heaven is commonplace. But surely only a stupid person would blow himself up to get there sooner.
“Four Lions" is a transgressive comedy about five such people. They live in an anonymous British suburb and dream of jihad. They speak such a fluent mixture of working-class Brit slang and argot, in such fluent accents, that it’s odd to hear their radical beliefs in such commonplace slang.

All are Muslims. Four have Pakistani roots. One is a red-bearded Brit whose ideas are the most aggressive. They conduct a scheme to strap bombs to their bodies and strike against society. In this scheme, they are so amateurish they fly below the radar of British intelligence. Nor do they have a very clear plan; Barry, the convert, believes they should blow up a mosque to radicalize Muslim moderates. The Catch-22 here is that therefore the bomber should be a white Westerner. Hello, Barry.

“Four Lions" is impossible to categorize. It’s an exceedingly dark comedy, a wicked satire, a thriller where the thrills center on the incompetence of the villains. It’s fueled by both merriment and anger. It shows characters so dazzled by the prospect of the next life that they have no cares about their present lives — or ours. It is about Muslims, but also about the fundamentalist mindset in general, which admits no doubt.

Consider Omar (Riz Ahmed), who I suppose is the film’s closest thing to a hero. He has a loving wife named Sofia (Preeya Kalidas) and a sweet child. He works as a security guard. He has a comfortable flat, where he studies terrorist videos on his laptop. He despairs of the ignorance of some of his comrades (one has “special needs"), but perhaps he thinks that even the stupid are useful as suicide bombers. Omar and his wife openly discuss his plans without a shred of doubt.

The others seem average blokes, apart from their fanaticism. They all seem serene about the prospect of blowing themselves up; they attach much importance to entering heaven with smiles on their faces. They have either not received or were unable to benefit from an education preparing themselves for reality. This is sad, and all the more so because the “four lions" (and a young recruit they pick up) are so satisfied with themselves.

There are elements of slapstick, particularly involving an unfortunate sheep (who was “harmed during the making of this film," the end titles tell us). And the climactic sequence involves the four men dressing up in bizarre clown costumes to run in the London marathon. Why? To blow up other marathoners?

During this plan, one lion locks himself inside a kebab shop, taking the owner and three customers hostage. When he’s reached by a police negotiator and asked for his demands, he admits he doesn’t have any. He seems, indeed, to have little idea why he has a bomb strapped to himself. The importance of blowing himself up and arriving in heaven with a smile has overshadowed any mundane considerations.

“Four Lions" was directed by Chris Morris, a British TV and radio satirist, and co-written by Morris, Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong (who wrote the political satire “In the Loop"). They have made the film with heedless abandon. Its strategy is to regard imbecility with a poker face and permit horrifying acts to occur absentmindedly. Sometimes this is funny and sometimes not at all, but you can’t call it boring.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Megamind

"Megamind" was the third 3-D movie I'd seen in a row, and as I struggled to free my glasses from their industrial-strength plastic envelope, I wasn't precisely looking forward to it. Why do 3-D glasses come so securely wrapped they seem like acts of hostility against the consumer? Once I freed my glasses and settled down, however, I was pleased to see a 3-D image that was quite acceptable. Too dim, as always, but the process was well-used and proves again that animation is incomparably more suited for 3-D than live action is.


I'd just been rewatching "Superman" (1978) and felt right at home with the opening of "Megamind," narrated by a bright blue alien over flashbacks to his infancy. Born on a distant planet, he's packed into a rocket ship and blasted off to Earth, just like the Man of Steel. En route, he meets his lifetime nemesis, a golden child who lands on Earth and in the lap of wealth. The blue child, alas, lands in a prison and is raised by hardened convicts.

As they grow up, these two super-beings are destined to play crucial roles in nearby Metro City, where they're named Megamind (voice of Will Ferrell) and Metro Man (Brad Pitt). We may remember that Superman was given his name by Lois Lane, and here the story of the two superbeings is covered by a TV reporter named Roxanne Ritchi (Tina Fey). Roxanne's cameraman, Hal (Jonah Hill, looking rather Jonah Hill-like), later morphs into yet a third super-being named Titan.

This set-up is bright and amusing, even if it does feel recycled from bits and pieces of such recent animated landmarks as "The Incredibles" with its superpowers and "Despicable Me" with its villain. "Megamind" even goes so far as naming Megamind's fishy sidekick "Minion" (David Cross), a nod to the Minions who serve the despicable Gru. I enjoyed Megamind's conclusion, after being bullied as a child, that if he can't get credit for doing anything good, he might as well become a villain.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a hero requires a villain, and "Megamind" has some fun by depriving Megamind of Metro Man. Left without an opponent, he loses his zeal for evildoing, and actually clones Titan to cure his loneliness. All of this of course is accomplished with much slapstick and sensational action, in a population which consists entirely of super-beings, plus Roxanne, the prison warden and cheering thousands of anonymous humans.

Tina Fey does a spirited job with Roxanne, and again I was reminded of "Superman" and Margot Kidder's high-spirited, unafraid Lois Lane. This time Roxanne isn't smitten by anyone, which is just as well because these guys are aliens, after all.

"Megamind" is an amusing family entertainment and gains some energy from clever dialogue and the fun Will Ferrell has with his character. I like the way he pronounces "Metro City" like "metricity," for example. The 3-D is well done, if unnecessary. Nothing in the movie really benefits from it, and if you can find it in 2-D, that's the best choice. Save the surcharge and see those colors nice and bright.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Due Date

"Due Date" is nearly a down-market retread of the great comedy "Planes, Trains and Automobiles." It pairs up Robert Down-ey Jr. and Zack Galifianakis in the Steve Martin and John Candy roles, puts them in a car together, sends them down the highway, and doesn't neglect to rip off one but two car doors.
The first film by director Todd Phillips since his blockbuster "The Hangover" cheerfully includes some of the same raunchy humor and the same dogged persistence in the face of overwhelming character defects. It's not as funny, but few films could be, and it does have some very big laughs. Unfortunately, the story holding them together isn't as successful.

Peter Highman (Downey) and Ethan Tremblay (Galifianakis) have a Cute Meet, or more of a Brute Meet, at the Atlanta airport, when Ethan's beater knocks off the door of Peter's Town Car. Peter is a neat, precise architect with a schedule to meet. Ethan is a shaggy man-child who confesses that on the way to the airport he and his buddy split a six pack — of 40s.

Ethan is like Joe Btfsplk, that character in "L'il Abner" who always had a black rain cloud over his head, with the difference that the cloud is over the head of whoever he's standing next to. Ethan efficiently destroys Peter's trip by switching carry-ons with him, shoving his hairy belly into his face (under stress, to be sure), and getting them both thrown off the flight by insisting on using the words "bomb" and "terrorist." That scenario leads to a run-in with TSA agents (who, oddly enough, seem to be morphing into Hollywood's villains du jour).

All cross-country trips involving odd couples require deadlines. Peter agrees to accept a ride in Ethan's rental car only because he must be back in Los Angeles with his wife, Sarah (Michelle Monaghan), who will deliver their child very soon by C-section. Ethan needs to get to L.A. because he dreams of becoming an actor. If you doubt Ethan Tremblay has a future in acting, simply consider Zach Galifianakis.

There are stops along the way to visit Western Union, Peter's old buddy (Jamie Foxx), and Ethan's practitioner in "herbal medicines," a pot dealer played by the scene stealer Juliette Lewis. Those visits are funny. There are also running gags involving Ethan's beloved pet dog and a coffee can containing the ashes of his father. When Ethan performs the rather private act of pleasuring himself in the car's front seat, it's not funny, but when the dog is inspired to copy him, it is. No matter how much I think, I can't decide whether training a dog to do that is cruelty to an animal.

So the movie probably contains enough laughs to satisfy the weekend audience. Where it falls short is in the characters and relationships. "Due Date" may offer enough, but with the example of the classic "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," it could have offered more.

Downey and Steve Martin are more or less a stand-off. But John Candy (and director John Hughes) made his character earnest, inept and lovable. The Galifianakis character seems more an exercise in passive aggression. He lacks social skills so urgently it's hard to believe he doesn't know what he's up to. Surely no one could be that obnoxious by accident. In comedy it helps if we have a bottom line of affection for the characters, and Galifianakis and Phillips make affection awfully hard to feel for Ethan.

There's a moment in "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" when the Steve Martin character thinks he has seen the last of John Candy, and then pauses, reconsiders and returns. There's a moment something like that here, but frankly, we don't know why the Downey character returns.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Pulp Fiction

Quentin Tarantino is the Jerry Lee Lewis of cinema, a pounding performer who doesn't care if he tears up the piano, as long as everybody is rocking. His new movie "Pulp Fiction" is a comedy about blood, guts, violence, strange sex, drugs, fixed fights, dead body disposal, leather freaks, and a wristwatch that makes a dark journey down through the generations.



Tarantino is too gifted a filmmaker to make a boring movie, but he could possibly make a bad one: Like Edward D. Wood Jr., proclaimed the Worst Director of All Time, he's in love with every shot - intoxicated with the very act of making a movie. It's that very lack of caution and introspection that makes "Pulp Fiction" crackle like an ozone generator: Here's a director who's been let loose inside the toy store, and wants to play all night.

The screenplay, by Tarantino and Roger Avary, is so well-written in a scruffy, fanzine way that you want to rub noses in it - the noses of those zombie writers who take "screenwriting" classes that teach them the formulas for "hit films." Like "Citizen Kane," "Pulp Fiction" is constructed in such a nonlinear way that you could see it a dozen times and not be able to remember what comes next. It doubles back on itself, telling several interlocking stories about characters who inhabit a world of crime and intrigue, triple-crosses and loud desperation. The title is perfect. Like those old pulp mags named "Thrilling Wonder Stories" and "Official Detective," the movie creates a world where there are no normal people and no ordinary days - where breathless prose clatters down fire escapes and leaps into the dumpster of doom.

The movie resurrects not only an aging genre but also a few careers.

John Travolta stars as Vincent Vega, a mid-level hit man who carries out assignments for a mob boss. We see him first with his partner Jules (Samuel L. Jackson); they're on their way to a violent showdown with some wayward Yuppie drug dealers, and are discussing such mysteries as why in Paris they have a French word for Quarter Pounders. They're as innocent in their way as Huck and Jim, floating down the Mississippi and speculating on how foreigners can possibly understand each other.

Travolta's career is a series of assignments he can't quite handle. Not only does he kill people inadvertently ("The car hit a bump!") but he doesn't know how to clean up after himself. Good thing he knows people like Mr. Wolf (Harvey Keitel), who specializes in messes, and has friends like the character played by Eric Stoltz, who owns a big medical encyclopedia, and can look up emergency situations.

Travolta and Uma Thurman have a sequence that's funny and bizarre. She's the wife of the mob boss (Ving Rhames), who orders Travolta to take her out for the night. He turns up stoned, and addresses an intercom with such grave, stately courtesy Buster Keaton would have been envious. They go to Jack Rabbit Slim's, a 1950s theme restaurant where Ed Sullivan is the emcee, Buddy Holly is the waiter, and they end up in a twist contest. That's before she overdoses and Stoltz, waving a syringe filled with adrenaline, screams at Travolta, "YOU brought her here, YOU stick in the needle! When I bring an O.D.

to YOUR house, I'LL stick in the needle!" Bruce Willis and Maria de Medeiros play another couple: He's a boxer named Butch Coolidge who is supposed to throw a fight, but doesn't. She's his sweet, naive girlfriend, who doesn't understand why they have to get out of town "right away." But first he needs to make a dangerous trip back to his apartment to pick up a priceless family heirloom - a wristwatch. The history of this watch is described in a flashback, as Vietnam veteran Christopher Walken tells young Butch about how the watch was purchased by his great-grandfather, "Private Doughboy Orion Coolidge," and has come down through the generations - and through a lot more than generations, for that matter. Walken's monologue builds to the movie's biggest laugh.

The method of the movie is to involve its characters in sticky situations, and then let them escape into stickier ones, which is how the boxer and the mob boss end up together as the captives of weird leather freaks in the basement of a gun shop. Or how the characters who open the movie, a couple of stick-up artists played by Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer, get in way over their heads. Most of the action in the movie comes under the heading of crisis control.

If the situations are inventive and original, so is the dialogue. A lot of movies these days use flat, functional speech: The characters say only enough to advance the plot. But the people in "Pulp Fiction" are in love with words for their own sake. The dialogue by Tarantino and Avary is off the wall sometimes, but that's the fun. It also means that the characters don't all sound the same: Travolta is laconic, Jackson is exact, Plummer and Roth are dopey lovey-doveys, Keitel uses the shorthand of the busy professional, Thurman learned how to be a moll by studying soap operas.

It is part of the folklore that Tarantino used to work as a clerk in a video store, and the inspiration for "Pulp Fiction" is old movies, not real life. The movie is like an excursion through the lurid images that lie wound up and trapped inside all those boxes on the Blockbuster shelves. Tarantino once described the old pulp mags as cheap, disposable entertainment that you could take to work with you, and roll up and stick in your back pocket. Yeah, and not be able to wait until lunch, so you could start reading them again.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Requests

Anybody have any requests, I am running low on newer movies to review.  I will try to fulfill every request, and I apologize in advance if I don't get to yours.

Monday, November 1, 2010

100 Followers



I just wanted to say thanks to all of my followers.  I am looking forward to continuing on with my blogging adventure, and here's to a hundred more!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest

Lisbeth Salander makes a transfixing heroine precisely because she has nothing but scorn for such a role. Embodied here for the third time by Noomi Rapace, she's battered, angry and hostile, even toward those who would be her friends. Some of the suspense in the final courtroom showdown of "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" comes from the excellent question of whether she would rather be found guilty than provide anyone with the satisfaction of hearing her testify in her own defense.
By the time she comes to what is essentially a sanity hearing, she has returned to the ranks of punk fashionistas, with the black leather pants and jacket, the boots, the studs and buckles, the spikes, the body piercings, the eyeliner that looks like protective armor and the stark black crest of her hair. She sits sullen and silent in the courtroom, as if saying, I care nothing for you, although I have spent hours working on my look in front of the mirror.



She is formidably smart and deeply wounded from childhood, as we know from the earlier two films in the Stieg Larsson trilogy. Worse, she can't leave her pain behind. Again in her life are her freakish, gigantic half-brother, Niedermann (Mikael Spreitz), and the psychologist who fabricated her incarceration in an asylum. And the murderous members of "The Section," a rogue killing unit within the Swedish national police, are determined to eliminate her once and all.

The outlines of her dilemma will be clear to those who've seen "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and "The Girl Who Played with Fire," but this film has enough quick flashbacks to orient the first-timer. It begins literally when the second one ended, after the bloody confrontation in the barn with her father and half-brother. She's taken to the hospital with a bullet in her brain, and spends much of the film's first half in intensive care and refusing to speak.

That frees the director, Daniel Alfredson, to focus more time on Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), the investigative journalist who collaborated with her in the first film and has become her fierce defender — and perhaps more, a man who loves her. Their mutual affection was an intriguing subtext in the first film, but has been on hold ever since, while Mikael continues his relaxed intimacy with his editor, Erika Berger (Lena Endre). There are said to be two more Larsson novels in various stages of completion, but even if they're not publishable, Lisbeth Salander is too good a character to suspend after three films, and my guess is there must be sequels.

The sequels need not fret overmuch about plot. These films are really about personality, dialogue and the possibility that the state has placed itself outside the law. That leads to an oppressive, doom-laden atmosphere that the characters move through with apprehension. We understand the basics of "The Section" conspiracy, we recognize most of the faces, but few of us could pass a test on exactly who is who. No problem; neither could Lisbeth or Mikael.

The tension — and there is a lot of it — grows from the danger that Lisbeth brings upon herself by refusing to act sensibly for her own welfare. She has such a burned-in distrust of authority that even a friend like Mikael gets closed out; Rapace takes a simple friendly "see you" and invests it with the effort it costs Lisbeth to utter. Her battle with herself is more suspenseful than her battle against her enemies, because enemies can be fought with and that provides release, but we spend much of "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" straining against Lisbeth's fear and sending her urgent telepathic messages about what she should do.

These are all very well-made films. Like most European films, they have adults who are grown-ups, not arrested adolescents. Mikael and Erika, his boss and lover, have earned the lines in their faces, and don't act like reckless action heroes. They make their danger feel so real to us that we realize the heroes of many action movies don't really believe they're in any danger at all. Lisbeth is in grave danger, but in great part because of her damaged obstinacy, and that scares us more than any number of 6-foot-4 Nordic blond homicidal half-brothers.

So what has happened is that this uptight, ferocious, little gamine Lisbeth has won our hearts, and we care about these stories and think there had better be more. The funny thing is, I've seen the "real" Noomi Rapace on TV, and she has a warm smile and a sweet face. What a disappointment.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Paranormal Activity 2

"Paranormal Activity 2" is an efficient delivery system for Gotcha! Moments, of which it has about 19. Audiences who want to be Gotchaed will enjoy it. A Gotcha! Moment is a moment when something is sudden, loud and scary. This can be as basic as the old It's Only a Cat cliché, or as abrupt as a character being hit by a bus.
PA2 starts slyly with pre-Gotcha! teasers, such as a door or a child's toy moving on its own. Then there are obscure off-screen rumbles, like a uneasy stomach. Then loud bangs. Then loud bangs with visible causes. Then all the doors in a room banging open at once. And eventually…well, you can see for yourself, because all the activity is captured by 24-hour security cameras.



The cameras, which function perfectly but never capture the Presence on the screen. For the house is indeed haunted by a ghost-like supernatural presence, I guess. I say "I guess" because there is a scene of a victim being dragged downstairs, and the entity doing the dragging is invisible. On the other hand, the movie ends with a strong suggestion that the malefactor was in fact a living human being. So would that be cheating? Hell yes.

But who cares? People go to "Paranormal Activity 2" with fond memories of the original film, which was low-tech and clever in the way it teased our eyes and expectations. It scared them. They want to be scared again. They will be. When there's a loud unexpected bang it will scare you. The structural task of the Gotcha! Movie is to separate the bangs so they continue to be unexpected.

Any form of separation will do. The characters include the Sloats (Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston), who are back from the first movie. But this story takes place in the home of her sister Kristi (Sprague Grayden), her husband, Daniel (Brian Boland), teenage daughter Ali (Molly Ephraim), brand new baby Hunter, and his nanny, Martine (Vivis). Martine is ethnic, and we know what that means: She has an instinctive knowledge of ghosts, breaks out the magic incense at a moment's notice, and can't get anyone to listen to her.

There are six speaking roles, not counting the non-speaking baby and the dog. Good odds, you'd think, that at least one of them would have something interesting to say, but no. The movie isn't about them. They function primarily as Gotcha! separators, going through vacuous social motions between Gotchas! They are not real swift. The movie numbers the days as they tick away, and along about Day #12 I'm thinking, why are these people still here? The screening I attended was treated to a surprise appearance by three stars of that cable show about Chicago's Paranormal Detectives. These are real Chicago detectives. If the Sloats lived in Chicago, they'd have a SWAT team out there by Day #7.

The movie is presented as a documentary with no set-up, unless the first movie was the set up. It begins with little Hunter being brought home, and then we get titles like "Day #3." Of what? One peculiar title says "Nine days before the death of Micah Sloat." I probably have the number of days wrong, but you get the idea. What are we supposed to do with this information? I guess we should think, "Sloat, you poor bastard, you only have nine days to go." This knowledge is about as useful as the farmer who tells you to make a left turn five miles before you get to the barn. There are also titles saying things like "1:41:15 a.m.," as if we care.

The character who suffers the most is poor little Hunter. Something is always bothering him in the middle of the night. When a security camera is on the staircase, we hear his plaintive little wail. When it's focused on his bedroom, he's standing up in his wee crib and bawling. The dog is always there barking at something, because dogs, like ethnic nannies, Know About These Things. Hunter screams and screams in the movie. If you were Hunter's parents and your house was haunted, wouldn't you move the poor kid's crib into the bedroom?

My audience jumped a lot and screamed a lot, and then laughed at themselves, even after one event that wasn't really funny. Then they explained things to one another, and I could overhear useful lines like, "She got the $#!+ scared outta her!" I understand they attended in hopes of seeing Gotchas! and explaining them to one another. I don't have a problem with "Paranormal Activity 2." It delivers what it promises, and occupies its audiences. Win-win.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Hereafter

Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter" considers the idea of an afterlife with tenderness, beauty and a gentle tact. I was surprised to find it enthralling. I don't believe in woo-woo, but then neither, I suspect, does Eastwood. This is a film about the afterlife that carefully avoids committing itself on such a possibility. The closest it comes is the idea of consciousness after apparent death. This is plausible. Many near-death survivors report the same memories, of the white light, the waiting figures and a feeling of peace. One of the characters seems to have a genuine psychic gift. But is he in fact communicating with people beyond the grave? Some form of telepathy might be possible, and he may simply be receiving what his subjects desire or need to be told by their dead loved ones. He brings nothing from beyond the grave that his clients could not have formed in their living minds.

This is a subject that lends itself to sensation and psychic baloney. It's astonishing how many people believe New Age notions, which have the attraction of allowing believers to confer supernormal abilities on themselves and others without the bother of plausibility. Eastwood's film will leave such people vaguely uneasy. It believes most psychics are frauds. It supposes one who seems to be the real thing, but what, exactly, is he real about?

This is a film for intelligent people who are naturally curious about what happens when the shutters close. Eastwood tells three primary stories. The stories meet at the end, in one of those coincidences so beloved by multiple-strand movies. Is this possible? Yes. Is it likely? No. A coincidence never is. That's why we notice them. Throughout the film, the characters behave in ways that seem reasonable enough, and possibilities are left open, which is as it should be. We must live the lives we know and not count on anything beyond the horizon.

"Hereafter" stars Matt Damon as George, a man who sincerely believes he's able to have communication with the dead, but has fled that ability and taken a low-profile job; Cecile de France as Marie, a newsreader on French television; Bryce Dallas Howard as Melanie, a young cooking student with a fearful dark place inside; Richard Kind as a man mourning his wife; and Frankie and George McLaren as twin brothers, one of whom is struck by a truck and killed.

I won't describe here the traumatic surprises some of them experience. In the surprises as in everything else, "Hereafter" is believable. There are terrifying events, but Eastwood handles them not for sensation but to show how close we all are, at any moment, to oblivion. In the case of Marie, she undergoes the near death experience we often hear reported, with the white light and the figures. Are people in such a state already dead, or are they experiencing visions generated by the human mind in its final shutdown mode?

The powers of the Damon character seem to be authentic, although what they prove is hard to say. There is a moment handled with love and delicacy in which he says something that is either true or isn't, but is a kindness either way. When he holds a stranger's hands he experiences a flash of telepathic insight, but the movie never declares that his insights literally come from dead spirits.

Eastwood and his actors achieve a tone that doesn't force the material but embraces it: Not dreamlike, but evoking a reverie state. These characters are not hurtling toward the resolution of a plot. There is no "solution" to their stories. There are various degrees of solace, or not. They don't punch the dialogue. They lack the certainty to impose themselves. George in particular is reserved and sad, because his power has become a burden to him.

There's a sweet subplot involving Melanie (Howard), who he meets as a partner in a cooking class. She has experienced loss. George doesn't want to enter her mind. He yearns for a normal life. The ability to read minds would be an unbearable curse. The way his gift affects their relationship is stark and poignant. Marie, the newsreader, is played by Cecile de France in such a fresh and likable way that our sympathy is engaged and we understand that whatever happened to her in the first terrifying scene has fundamentally changed her. Frankie McLaren, as the solemn and earnest little boy seeking his dead twin, takes a character that could have been bathetic and makes him simple and transparent. And notice Richard Kind, so affecting as a man who has lost his wife.

The movie is an original screenplay by Peter Morgan ("The Queen"). Eastwood told me Morgan doesn't believe in an afterlife. I don't know if Eastwood does, either. His film embodies how love makes us need for there to be an afterlife. It is the film of a man at peace. He has nothing to prove except his care for the living.

Friday, October 22, 2010

RED

This would have been a hell of a cast when we were all younger. “RED” plays like a movie made for my Aunt Mary, who was always complaining, “Honey, I don't like the pictures anymore because I don't know who any of the actors are.” If the name Ernest Borgnine sounds familiar, here's the movie for you.
Borgnine at 93 is still active and has a project “in development,” I learn from IMDb, even if it's ominously titled “Death Keeps Coming.” Says here it's a supernatural Western being produced by Tarantino. Borgnine himself is a heck of a guy. I flew out of Cartagena with him one morning with a terrible hangover, and we got stranded in some forgotten Colombian airport where he fed me aspirin crushed in milk. An actor like that is a role model.

Bruce Willis stars in “RED,” which refers to his alert level (“retired: extremely dangerous”) and not his hair. He's a former CIA agent, a black operative, who discovers bad guys want to kill him. So he summons the members of his old killing squad, and they prepare a defense. The team includes Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman, Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), Victoria (Helen Mirren) and Ivan (Brian Cox).

Some notes: Victoria requires no second name because she is a woman in a thriller; Ivan is a Russian, because the Russian in every thriller is named Ivan; Malkovich may have taken the role because he is never considered for characters named Boggs, and Freeman reveals early that he is dying of liver cancer. We know that as the black member of the team he must die first, “because that's how he would have wanted it.”

So once again poor Morgan Freeman is hung out to dry. He'd rather play the villain. As he once explained to me: “The villain is usually the most interesting character in the movie, and one thing you know is, he'll still be around for the last scene.”

In addition to his old comrades, Bruce takes along Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker), a telephone operator at the agency that oversees his retirement plan. He's fallen in love with her voice. He explains she has to go on the run with him because her life is in danger. Like any federal employee, she finds this reasonable. Her life will be much safer with a man who is the target of thousands of rounds of automatic weapon fire. The villains in thrillers are such bad shots they'd suck at video games.

The bad guys are in the upper reaches of the CIA, and the conspiracy reaches all the way to a vice president with connections to a huge private defense contractor. This man is played by Richard Dreyfuss, who subtly signals to us, “You only think this is my Dick Cheney imitation, but if the studio let me loose, I could nail this role.” Are sinister Dick Cheney roles growing uncommonly frequent? Hollywood is always fearful of running out of villains and, having run through Russians, Chinese, Nazis and Mongols, seems to have fallen upon poor Cheney with relief.

“RED” is neither a good movie nor a bad one. It features actors we like doing things we wish were more interesting. I guess the movie's moral is, these old people are still tougher than the young ones. You want tough? I'll show you tough. In one scene, Helen Mirren is gut-shot and a blood stain spreads on her white dress. In a closing scene not a day later, she's perfectly chipper and has had time to send the dress out to the cleaners.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Conviction

Kenny Waters might not have been a very nice man, but he was an innocent one. By considering his innocence and not his personality, “Conviction” puts the focus where it belongs: on the sister who reshaped her entire life to win his freedom. Her determination is fierce, her rebirth is inspiring, and in Hilary Swank, the film finds the right actress to embody gritty tenacity.
You can hardly imagine anyone else playing Betty Anne Waters. She's a working-class woman from a hard childhood. She and her brother, Kenny (Sam Rockwell), had an absent father and a mother who might as well have been absent, and were shuffled through a series of dismal foster homes. But they stuck together and helped each other, almost as Dickensian survivors. Her gratitude to him is boundless.



(Spoilers ahead:) The movie doesn't avoid that Kenny gets wild when he gets drunk. He displays the personality changes of an alcoholic. He can be mean, and everybody knows it. In many circles, this is seen as a trait and not a symptom. A local woman is murdered, he's arrested on suspicion and makes the mistake of behaving insultingly to a cop (Melissa Leo, from “Frozen River”). He will pay for that. A few local women, including a ditzy witness (Juliette Lewis) sorta are kinda sure they musta seen him at the crime scene, and the vengeful cop railroads him into jail.

Waters dedicates her life to proving her brother's innocence. This involves reinventing herself. She gets a high school diploma, a college degree and enrolls in law school. One cost of this is her marriage. It's an intriguing possibility, untouched by the movie, that after a certain point in her re-education, she simply outgrew her earlier life and carried on for her own sake as well as her brother's.
In law school, she bonds with another student named Abra (Minnie Driver), who also dedicates her life to the case. The movie never really explains why; is it just the goodness of her heart? Driver is very good, in any event, and the two women involve us in their investigation.

Courtroom scenes just about always work for me. It must be built into the situation. “Conviction” has good ones, especially when the Juliette Lewis character comes back into play. It is good to see Melissa Leo again, not so good that her vengeful cop has one dimension, but effective at how well she evokes it.

This is all based on a true story, including the lucky break when DNA testing is introduced and is used to prove Kenny innocent. The story generates that kind of urgency we feel when a character is obviously right and is up against stupidity and meanness. It delivers.

What “Conviction” doesn't reveal during the “where are they now?” crawl at the end is that six months after his release, according to the Associated Press, Kenny was killed when he “fractured his skull when he fell from a 15-foot wall while taking a shortcut to his brother's house after a dinner with his mother.” Tragic. But Betty Anne Waters is still working for wrongfully convicted prisoners.

Stone

"Stone" has Robert De Niro and Edward Norton playing against type and at the top of their forms in a psychological duel between a parole officer and a tricky prisoner who has his number. Norton plays Gerald Creeson, imprisoned for his role in a crime that resulted in the murder of his grandparents and the burning of their house. De Niro is Jack Mabry, who plays everything by the book to protect himself from a dark inner nature.



De Niro is an old hand at playing inner demons. In "Raging Bull," his classic weakness was jealousy. Here it is anger, which perhaps leads to lust. The film opens with a younger Jack Mabry enacting a terrifying scene with his young wife and infant. Years later, they are still married, in a loveless gridlock based on passive aggression. He does nothing "wrong." It is his duty to stay married. His wife, Madylyn (Frances Conroy), seems to be hunched against blows that never come. He mechanically sips whiskey and stares at the TV, the wall, anything.

It's time for his retirement. He could pass his case load on to his successor, but no: He will do his duty to the last detail. That includes handling a parole plea by Creeson, who is very smart, an emotional manipulator, whose wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), is such a woman that such a man might use and be used by. Creeson senses that Mabry, the duty-bound straight arrow, might be vulnerable to temptation. Lucetta is smart enough to try, not a bold seduction, but a mental game in which Mabry essentially seduces himself.

This is a process which cannot be dispatched in a neat prison caper. It involves plotting about personalities. Lucetta has a key role in finding and exploiting an avenue through Mabry's defenses. What does Creeson think about the possibility she will have sex with Mabry? What does he think about her sex life in general? Is her promiscuity useful to him? Does she know it? Apart from whatever she does, she loves her husband without reserve, which is peculiar because he doesn't seem to deserve it, but then you never know.

"Stone" could have been some sort of a procedural, a straightforward crime movie, but it's too complex for that. It is actually interested in the minds of these characters, and how they react to a dangerous situation. De Niro is so good at playing a man who has essentially emasculated himself because of fear of his anger, so that sex and anger may be leashed in precisely the opposite way, as in "Raging Bull." And Norton, the puppetmaster — it may not even be freedom he requires, but simply the pleasure of controlling others to obtain it.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Vet

A little off topic but I just had to tell someone.  I took my dog to the vet today for a Lyme disease shot.  So I get there and go to check in when they tell me he needs two other shots, which I asked about when I made the appointment but they said he was fine on those.  So I'm like OK how much are they?  She says, "$22, $24, $25."  I say OK do them all today.  Then after the shots the vet says something about some test he needs done, I tell him we'll do it next time.  I go to check out and she says, "That'll be $166."  I almost said are you out of your fucking mind?  They charged me $53 for the visit, $5 for hazardous waste disposal, and pre-paid $37 for the test on his next visit.  Actually thinking about switching vet's now.  On a lighter note I did get to see a 150lb horse of a dog, it was a St. Bernard.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Road

"The Road" evokes the images and the characters of Cormac McCarthy's novel. It is powerful, but for me lacks the same core of emotional feeling. I'm not sure this is any fault of the filmmakers. The novel itself would not be successful if it were limited to its characters and images. Its effect comes above all through McCarthy's prose. It is the same with all of McCarthy's work, but especially this one, because his dialogue is so restrained, less baroque than usual.




The story is straightforward: America has been devastated. Habitations have been destroyed or abandoned, vegetation is dying, crops have failed, the infrastructure of civilization has disappeared. This has happened in such recent memory that even The Boy, so young, was born into a healthy world. No reason is given for this destruction, perhaps because no reason would be adequate. McCarthy evokes the general apprehension of post-9/11. The Boy and The Man make their way toward the sea, perhaps for no better reason than that sea has always been the direction of hope in this country.

The surviving population has been reduced to savage survivalists, making slaves of the weaker, possibly using them as food. We've always done that, employing beef cattle, for example, to do the grazing on acres of pasture so we can consume the concentrated calories of their labor. In a land where food is scarce, wanderers seek out canned goods and fear their own bodies will perform this work for the cannibals.

Although we read of those who stockpile guns and ammunition for an apocalypse, weapon stores on the Road have dwindled down. The Man has a gun with two remaining bullets. He is a wary traveler, suspecting everyone he sees. He and The Boy are transporting a few possessions in a grocery cart. He encourages his son to keep walking, but holds out little hope for the end of their journey.

I am not sure the characters could be played better, or differently. Viggo Mortensen portrays The Man as dogged and stubborn, determined to protect his boy. Kodi Smit-McPhee is convincing as a child stunned by destruction, depending on his father in a world where it must be clear to him that any man can die in an instant. The movie resists any tendency toward making the child cute, or the two of them heartwarming.

Flashback scenes star Charlize Theron as the wife and mother of the two in earlier, sunnier days. These sequences show the marriage as failing, and these memories haunt The Man. I'm not sure what relevance this subplot has to the film as a whole; a marriage happy or sad -- isn't it much the same in this new world? It has a lot of relevance, however, to The Man and The Boy. In times of utter devastation, memories are what we cling to.

The external events of the novel have been boldly solved, and this is an awesome production. But McCarthy's prose has the uncanny ability to convey more than dialogue and incident. It's as dense as poetry. It is more spare in The Road than in a more ornate work like Suttree; in The Road, it is as evocative in the way Samuel Beckett is. If it were not, "The Road" might be just another film of sci-fi apocalypse. It's all too easy to imagine how this material could be vulgarized, as Richard Matheson's novel was in the 2007 version of "I Am Legend."

How could the director and writer, John Hillcoat and Joe Penhall, have summoned the strength of McCarthy's writing? Could they have used more stylized visuals, instead of relentless realism? A grainy black-and-white look to suggest severely limited resources? I have no idea. Perhaps McCarthy, like Faulkner, is all but unfilmable.

The one great film of his work is the Coens' "No Country for Old Men," but it began with an extraordinary character and surrounded him with others. The Road is not fertile soil, providing a world with life draining from it. McCarthy's greatest novels are Suttree and Blood Meridian. The second, set in the Old West, is about a fearsome, bald, skeletal man named Judge Holden, who is implacable in his desire to inflict suffering and death. ("Blood Meridian" is being prepared by Todd Field, director of "In the Bedroom.")

Hillcoat's earlier film, "The Proposition" (2005), written by Nick Cave, seems almost McCarthy-like. Something in McCarthy's work draws Hillcoat to it, and you must be a brave director to let that happen. Writing this, I realize few audience members can be expected to have read The Road, even though it was a selection of Oprah's Book Club. Fewer still will have read McCarthy's other works.

I've been saying for years that a film critic must review the film before him, and not how "faithful" the film is to the book -- as if we're married to the book, and somehow screen adaptation is adultery. I realize my own fault is in being so very familiar with Cormac McCarthy. That may affect my ability to view any film adaptation of his work afresh. When I know a novel is bring filmed, I make it a point to not read the book. Yet I am grateful for having read McCarthy's.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Man On The Moon

He was not the most successful comedian of his time. The last years of his life, his biographer Bill Zehme tells me, were spent in mostly unemployed show-biz free fall. But Kaufman enjoyed that, too: He was fascinated by the relationship between entertainer and audience, which is never more sincere than when the entertainer is hated. It is poetic justice that Andy Kaufman now has his own biopic, directed by Milos Forman and starring Jim Carrey. He wins. Uncle.



What is most wonderful about ``Man on the Moon,'' a very good film, is that it remains true to Kaufman's stubborn vision. Oh, it brightens things up a little (the cookie and milk evening at Carnegie Hall wasn't his farewell concert, because by then he was far too unemployable for a Carnegie booking). But essentially it stays true to his persona: A guy who would test you, fool you, lie to you, deceive you and stage elaborate deceptions, put-ons and hoaxes. The movie doesn't turn him into a sweet, misunderstood guy. And it doesn't pander for laughs. When something is not working in Kaufman's act, it's not working in the movie, either, and it's not funny, it's painful.

The film has a heroic performance from Jim Carrey, who successfully disappears inside the character of Andy Kaufman. Carrey is as big a star as Hollywood has right now, and yet fairly early in ``Man on the Moon,'' we forget who is playing Kaufman and get involved in what is happening to him. Carrey is himself a compulsive entertainer who will do anything to get a laugh, who wants to please, whose public image is wacky and ingratiating. That he can evoke the complexities of Kaufman's comic agonies is a little astonishing. That he can suppress his own desire to please takes a kind of courage. Not only is he working without his own net--he's playing a guy who didn't use a net.

The film, and written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, begins with Kaufman as a troublesome kid in his room, refusing to go out and play, preferring to host his own TV variety program for the cameras he believed were hidden in his bedroom walls. His material was inspired by shabby nightclub and lounge acts. He understood that a live performance is rarely more fascinating than when it is going wrong.

I myself, for example, have seldom been more involved than I was one night at a 36-seat theater in London during a performance of a one-man show called ``Is It Magic--Or Is It Manilow?'' The star was a bad magician who did a bad imitation of Barry Manilow, alternating the two elements of his act. There were 12 people in the audience, and we were desperately important to him. The program notes said he had once been voted most popular entertainer on a cruise ship out of Goa. Andy Kaufman would have been in ecstasy.

The movie follows Kaufman into the L.A. standup circuit, where a talent manager (Danny DeVito) sees something in his act and signs him. Kaufman is soon a sitcom star, a regular on ``Taxi'' (we see cast veterans like Marilu Henner, Carol Kane, Christopher Lloyd and Judd Hirsch playing themselves--DeVito of course is otherwise engaged). He insists on ``guest bookings'' for his ``protege,'' an obnoxious lounge act named Tony Clifton, who is played behind impenetrable makeup by Kaufman and sometimes by his accomplice Bob Zmuda. Kaufman steadfastly refuses to admit he ``is'' Clifton, and in a way, he isn't.

The parabolas of Kaufman's career intersect as ``Taxi'' goes off the air. He has never been more famous, or had bleaker prospects. He's crying wolf more than the public is crying uncle. He starts wrestling women in his nightclub act, not a popular decision, and gets involved in a feud with Memphis wrestling star Jerry Lawler. They fight on the Letterman show. It looks real. The movie says it was staged (Lawler plays himself). OK, so it was staged--but Lawler's blow to Kaufman's head was real enough to tumble him out of his chair. And no doubt Kaufman made Lawler vow to hit him that hard. He always wanted to leave you in doubt.

Courtney Love is back in her second Milos Forman movie in a row, playing the lover of an impossible man (she was the Hustler publisher's lover in Forman's ``The People vs. Larry Flynt''). She comes to wrestle Kaufman and stays to puzzle at him. She likes him, even loves him, but never quite knows who he is. When he tells her he's dying of cancer, her first reaction is anger that he would toy with her feelings in yet another performance piece. Love shows again here that she is a real actress and can if she wants to give up the other job.

What was it with Kaufman? The movie leaves us with a mystery, and it should. In traditional Hollywood biopics, there would be Freudian shorthand to explain everything. Nothing explains Andy Kaufman. If he had been explicable, no one would have wanted to make a movie about him.

The Chicago talk jock Steve Dahl told me the other day that Kaufman once recruited him for a performance. ``He told me I would be inside a box on the stage, and people would try to guess what was in the box,'' Dahl recalled. ``He gave me a six-pack of Heinekens to keep me company. What he didn't tell me was that I would be in the box for three hours. There I was in the dark, trying to pee back into the can.'' Dahl thought he was in the show, but from Kaufman's point of view, he was the ideal member of the audience.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Zombieland

There's no getting around it: Zombies are funny. I think they stopped being scary for me along toward the end of "Night of the Living Dead." OK, maybe in a few others, like "28 Days Later." They're the Energizer Bunnies of corpses, existing primarily to be splattered. But who would have guessed such a funny movie as "Zombieland" could be made around zombies? No thanks to the zombies.
The movie is narrated by a guy played by Jesse Eisenberg, named after his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, who is making his way back home across a zombie-infested America. The landscape is strewn with burned-out cars and dead bodies. He encounters another non-zombie survivor, Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson). The two team up, not without many disagreements, and eventually find two healthy women: the sexy Wichita (Emma Stone) and her little sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin).



The plot comes down to a road movie threatened by the Undead, as countless zombies are shot, mashed, sledgehammered and otherwise inconvenienced. Wichita and Little Rock turn out to be con women, dashing the hopes of the love-struck Columbus. Yet eventually they all join in an odyssey to a Los Angeles amusement park, for no better reason than that there's no location like a carnival for a horror movie. Yes, even with a haunted house, the usual ominous calliope music and a zombie clown. Columbus, like so many others, is phobic about clowns, making Eisenberg an ingrate, since his mother put him through grade school by playing clowns at children's parties.

All of this could have been dreary, but not here. The filmmakers show invention and well-tuned comic timing, and above all, there's a cameo by Bill Murray that gets the single biggest laugh I've heard this year. The foursome hauls up at Murray's vast Beverly Hills mansion, so palatial it is surely a grand hotel, and finds him still in residence. More than that I will not say, except that not many zombie comedies can make me think simultaneously about "Psycho" and "Garfield."


Eisenberg, a good actor, plays a pleasant nerd who has compiled a seemingly endless survival list for the United States of Zombies. These items are displayed in onscreen graphics that pop up for laughs and include a tribute to the Back Seat Rule of my Little Movie Glossary, which instructs us -- but I'm sure you remember.

Woody Harrelson takes a great deal of relish in killing zombies, often declining to use a gun because he prefers killing them with car doors, tire irons and whatever else comes to hand. As usual, the zombies are witless, lumbering oafs who dutifully line up to be slaughtered.

Vampires make a certain amount of sense to me, but zombies not so much. What's their purpose? Why do they always look so bad? Can there be a zombie with good skin? How can they be smart enough to determine that you're food and so dumb they don't perceive you're about to blast them? I ask these questions only because I need a few more words for this review. I will close by observing that Bill Murray is the first comedian since Jack Benny who can get a laugh simply by standing there

Monday, October 4, 2010

Let Me In

"Let Me In," like the Swedish film that inspired it, deals brutally with the tragic life of the vampire. It's not all fun, games and Team Edward. No lifestyle depending on fresh human blood can be anything but desperate. A vampire, like a drug addict, is driven by need. After a certain point, all else is irrelevant, and the focus is on the craving.

The film is remarkably similar in tone and approach to "Let the Right One In," and it is clear that the American writer-director, Matt Reeves, has admiration for the Swedish writer-director, John Ajvide Lindqvist, who made the original. Reeves understands what made the first film so eerie and effective, and here the same things work again. Most U.S. audiences will be experiencing the story for the first time. Those who know the 2008 version will notice some differences, but may appreciate them.

The core story remains similar. Owen, a boy on the brink of adolescence, lives a lonely life in a snowbound apartment complex with an alcoholic mother, hardly seen. He is bullied at school by a sadistic boy, much larger. A girl named Abby and her father move into the next apartment. She announces "I can never be your friend," but some latent kindness causes her to feel protective toward the lonely and abused child. Abby is a vampire, but vampires have their reality forced upon them, and having lived for a long time, may have seen much to make them pity the living.

The story focuses tightly on Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Abby (Chloe Moretz, of "Kick Ass"). Two other adults are of consequence: Her "father" (Richard Jenkins), who can hardly be her father and was probably, long ago, in Owen's shoes. In vampire lore, he is her Familiar. The other adult is a local policeman, played by Elias Koteas as a saturnine and solemn man. He's investigating a serial killer in the region. Where there are vampires, there must always be serial killers.

The night and the cold are also characters. The film is shot in chill tones of blue and gray, Owen and Abby have uncanny pale skin, there is frost on his breath, but not on hers. She doesn't feel the cold, we gather. Or the warmth. Many of the events are the same in both films, although the U.S. version adds one surprise that comes at a useful time to introduce frightening possibilities: This is not a safe world, and bad things can happen.

Both films end with scenes set in a swimming pool at night. The windows, high up under the ceiling to admit sunlight, are dark and cold. We can imagine the clammy tiles, the chill in the locker-room where Owen is so often picked on. The bullies call him a "girl" and seem obsessed with seeing his genitals — homophobic cruelty that casts a sad light on the first film's revelation about Abby's body. Both these characters feel sexually threatened or inadequate. It may only be me, but as I recall indoor swimming pools at night in winter (at high school, or the YMCA), they always had a whiff of mournful dread.

In the "Twilight" films, sexuality is treated as a tease. The handsome Edward is cast as a sexy but dangerous threat, who manfully holds back from sex with Bella Swan. She's tempted, but the films are cautionary fables about the danger of teenage sex. In "Let Me In," sex is seen more as a troubling encroachment on privacy. Owen and Abby for their own reasons quail from intimacy and contact, and their only sensuous moments involve the comfort of close, tender hugs.

Where this will lead is easy to guess. Owen will move into Abby's life as her next Familiar. She will protect him. Among the things she will save him from is the necessity of growing up and functioning as a normal male. She will control everything. Thus Bela's sweet masochism will become Owen's hunger to give over control. To be a servant is the price for not being a victim. Those hoping to see a "vampire movie" will be surprised by a good film.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Shawshank Redemption

"The Shawshank Redemption" is a movie about time, patience and loyalty -- not sexy qualities, perhaps, but they grow on you during the subterranean progress of this story, which is about how two men serving life sentences in prison become friends and find a way to fight off despair.

The story is narrated by "Red" Redding (Morgan Freeman), who has been inside the walls of Shawshank Prison for a very long time and is its leading entrepreneur. He can get you whatever you need: cigarettes, candy, even a little rock pick like an amateur geologist might use. One day he and his fellow inmates watch the latest busload of prisoners unload, and they make bets on who will cry during their first night in prison, and who will not. Red bets on a tall, lanky guy named Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), who looks like a babe in the woods.





But Andy does not cry, and Red loses the cigarettes he wagered. Andy turns out to be a surprise to everyone in Shawshank, because within him is such a powerful reservoir of determination and strength that nothing seems to break him. Andy was a banker on the outside, and he's in for murder. He's apparently innocent, and there are all sorts of details involving his case, but after a while they take on a kind of unreality; all that counts inside prison is its own society -- who is strong, who is not -- and the measured passage of time.

Red is also a lifer. From time to time, measuring the decades, he goes up in front of the parole board, and they measure the length of his term (20 years, 30 years) and ask him if he thinks he has been rehabilitated. Oh, most surely, yes, he replies; but the fire goes out of his assurances as the years march past, and there is the sense that he has been institutionalized -- that, like another old lifer who kills himself after being paroled, he can no longer really envision life on the outside.

Red's narration of the story allows him to speak for all of the prisoners, who sense a fortitude and integrity in Andy that survives the years. Andy will not kiss butt. He will not back down. But he is not violent, just formidably sure of himself. For the warden (Bob Gunton), he is both a challenge and a resource; Andy knows all about bookkeeping and tax preparation, and before long he's been moved out of his prison job in the library and assigned to the warden's office, where he sits behind an adding machine and keeps tabs on the warden's ill-gotten gains. His fame spreads, and eventually he's doing the taxes and pension plans for most of the officials of the local prison system.

There are key moments in the film, as when Andy uses his clout to get some cold beers for his friends who are working on a roofing job. Or when he befriends the old prison librarian (James Whitmore). Or when he oversteps his boundaries and is thrown into solitary confinement. What quietly amazes everyone in the prison -- and us, too -- is the way he accepts the good and the bad as all part of some larger pattern than only he can fully see.

The partnership between the characters played by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman is crucial to the way the story unfolds. This is not a "prison drama" in any conventional sense of the word. It is not about violence, riots or melodrama. The word "redemption" is in the title for a reason. The movie is based on a story, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, by Stephen King, which is quite unlike most of King's work. The horror here is not of the supernatural kind, but of the sort that flows from the realization than 10, 20, 30 years of a man's life have unreeled in the same unchanging daily prison routine.

The director, Frank Darabont, paints the prison in drab grays and shadows, so that when key events do occur, they seem to have a life of their own.

Andy, as played by Robbins, keeps his thoughts to himself. Red, as Freeman plays him, is therefore a crucial element in the story: His close observation of this man, down through the years, provides the way we monitor changes and track the measure of his influence on those around him. And all the time there is something else happening, hidden and secret, which is revealed only at the end.

"The Shawshank Redemption" is not a depressing story, although I may have made it sound that way. There is a lot of life and humor in it, and warmth in the friendship that builds up between Andy and Red. There is even excitement and suspense, although not when we expect it. But mostly the film is an allegory about holding onto a sense of personal worth, despite everything. If the film is perhaps a little slow in its middle passages, maybe that is part of the idea, too, to give us a sense of the leaden passage of time, before the glory of the final redemption.

The Social Network

"The Social Network" is about a young man who possessed an uncanny ability to look into a system of unlimited possibilities and sense a winning move. His name is Mark Zuckerberg, he created Facebook, he became a billionaire in his early 20s, and he reminds me of the chess prodigy Bobby Fischer. There may be a touch of Asperger's syndrome in both: They possess genius but are tone-deaf in social situations. Example: It is inefficient to seek romance by using strict logic to demonstrate your intellectual arrogance.
David Fincher's film has the rare quality of being not only as smart as its brilliant hero, but in the same way. It is cocksure, impatient, cold, exciting and instinctively perceptive.

It hurtles through two hours of spellbinding dialogue. It makes an untellable story clear and fascinating. It is said to be impossible to make a movie about a writer, because how can you show him only writing? It must also be impossible to make a movie about a computer programmer, because what is programming but writing in a language few people in the audience know? Yet Fincher and his writer, Aaron Sorkin, are able to explain the Facebook phenomenon in terms we can immediately understand, which is the reason 500 million of us have signed up.

To conceive of Facebook, Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) needed to know almost nothing about relationships or human nature (and apparently he didn't). What he needed was the ability to intuit a way to involve the human race in the Kevin Bacon Game. Remember that Kevin Bacon himself need not know more than a fraction of the people linking through him. Same on Facebook. I probably know 40 of my Facebook friends well, 100 glancingly, 200 by reputation. All the others are friends of friends. I can't remember the last time I received a Friend Request from anyone I didn't share at least one "Mutual Friend" with.

For the presence of Facebook, we possibly have to thank a woman named Erica (Rooney Mara). "The Social Network" begins with Erica's date with Zuckerberg. He nervously sips a beer and speed-talks through an aggressive interrogation. It's an exercise in sadistic conversational gamesmanship. Erica gets fed up, calls him an asshole and walks out.

Erica (a fictional character) is right, but at that moment she puts Zuckerberg in business. He goes home, has more beers and starts hacking into the "facebooks" of Harvard dorms to collect the head shots of campus women. He programs a page where they can be rated for their beauty. This is sexist and illegal, and proves so popular, it crashes the campus servers. After it's fertilized by a mundane website called "The Harvard Connection," Zuckerberg grows it into Facebook.

In theory, there are more possible moves on a chess board than molecules in the universe. Chessmasters cannot possibly calculate all of them, but using intuition, they can "see" a way through this near-infinity to a winning move. Nobody was ever better at chess than Bobby Fischer. Likewise, programming languages and techniques are widely known, but it was Zuckerberg who intuited how he could link them with a networking site. The genius of Facebook requires not psychological insight but its method of combining ego with interaction. Zuckerberg wanted to get revenge on all the women at Harvard. To do that, he involved them in a matrix that is still growing.

It's said there are child prodigies in only three areas: math, music and chess. These non-verbal areas require little maturity or knowledge of human nature, but a quick ability to perceive patterns, logical rules and linkages. I suspect computer programming may be a fourth area.

Zuckerberg may have had the insight that created Facebook, but he didn't do it alone in a room, and the movie gets a narration by cutting between depositions for lawsuits. Along the way, we get insights into the pecking order at Harvard, a campus where ability joins wealth and family as success factors. We meet the twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer), rich kids who believe Zuckerberg stole their "Harvard Connection" in making Facebook. We meet Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), Zuckerberg's roommate and best (only) friend, who was made CFO of the company, lent it the money that it needed to get started and was frozen out. And most memorably we meet Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the founder of two legendary web startups, Napster and Plaxo.

It is the mercurial Parker, just out of work but basked in fame and past success, who grabbed Zuckerberg by the ears and pulled him into the big time. He explained why Facebook needed to move to Silicon Valley. Why more money would come from venture capitalists than Eduardo would ever raise with his hat-in-hand visits to wealthy New Yorkers. And he tried, not successfully, to introduce Zuckerberg into the fast lane: big offices, wild parties, women, the availability of booze and cocaine.

Zuckerberg was not seduced by his lifestyle. He was uninterested in money, stayed in modest houses, didn't fall into drugs. A subtext the movie never comments on is the omnipresence of attractive Asian women. Most of them are smart Harvard undergrads, two of them (allied with Sean) are Victoria's Secret models, one (Christy, played by Brenda Song) is Eduardo's girlfriend. Zuckerberg himself doesn't have much of a social life onscreen, misses parties, would rather work. He has such tunnel vision he doesn't even register when Sean redrafts the financial arrangements to write himself in and Eduardo out.

The testimony in the depositions makes it clear there is a case to be made against Zuckerberg, many of them sins of omission. It's left to the final crawl to explain how they turned out. The point is to show an interaction of undergraduate chaos, enormous amounts of money and manic energy.

In an age when movie dialogue is dumbed and slowed down to suit slow-wits in the audience, the dialogue here has the velocity and snap of screwball comedy. Eisenberg, who has specialized in playing nice or clueless, is a heat-seeking missile in search of his own goals. Timberlake pulls off the tricky assignment of playing Sean Parker as both a hot shot and someone who engages Zuckerberg as an intellectual equal. Andrew Garfield evokes an honest friend who is not the right man to be CFO of the company that took off without him, but deserves sympathy.

"The Social Network" is a great film not because of its dazzling style or visual cleverness, but because it is splendidly well-made. Despite the baffling complications of computer programming, web strategy and big finance, Aaron Sorkin's screenplay makes it all clear, and we don't follow the story so much as get dragged along behind it. I saw it with an audience that seemed wrapped up in an unusual way: It was very, very interested.