The Social Network

David Fincher’s “Facebook film” The Social Network is that unique kind of film that is unashamedly populist in tone, whilst still remaining intellectually and philosophically challenging. I suppose given that West Wing wunderscribe Aaron Sorkin is behind the screenplay, we shouldn’t be surprised. There are no explosions in this film. Apart from the CGI involved in cloning Armie Hammer as a twin, there are no special effects. The special effects in this film are the cutting, often amusing dialogue between the main characters, the keenly believable portrayals delivered by the young cast, and the sense that this film says really quite a bit about life for young and youngish folk in the noughties.

There are reports that Facebook creator/evangelist Mark Zuckerberg takes issue with the vast majority of the film’s depictions of real events, but that all in all, he kind of liked the film. That tells you a little something about the movie’s charm. I don’t think anybody is really under any illusion that this film tells the story of the genesis of Facebook with its foundations in absolute fact. This is “a story” of the creation of Facebook, with enough of the emotional and psychological look and feel of how things actually played out to make you buy into it. Jesse Eisenberg may or may not be anything much like Mark Zuckerberg, but he is utterly believable in the role as Facebook’s founder. You empathise with Jesse’s Zuckerberg, and yet you feel that he is of course a complete twat. Andrew Garfield portrays Zuckerberg’s ex-best friend Eduardo Saverin with the kind of honest earnestness that somehow feels just right. Armie Hammer, playing the Winklevoss twins with a little help from body-double Josh Pence, is a complete crack-up. And then, on top of all that, you have Justin Timberlake, of all people, doing frankly more than a decent job playing Sean Parker, founder of Napster before it was legal and today, a part-owner of Facebook. It’s an incredible collision of characters and personalities, proving perhaps once and for all that truth is actually much stranger than fiction.

The other thing this film does is celebrate entrepreneurship; it celebrates invention. The story of Facebook is not just a story of greed, it is a story of “building things”, as Zuckerberg has pointed out. Despite all of its flaws, ethical issues, and annoying ubiquity, Facebook has without a doubt become a lasting fixture on the social landscape of the 21st Century. Zuckerberg might be a billionaire brat, but he’s a billionaire brat who has changed the world and – for the most part at least, and for most people – just a little bit for the better.

Mao’s Last Dancer

One of the timeless debates that tends to rear its ugly head whenever a film based on a popular book is released is whether the book should be read before the film is seen; or vice-versa. I’ve heard arguments both ways. At least one of my friends (admittedly with a slight audio-visual obsession) swears by seeing the film first – this way, he reasons, he has a reasonable idea whether or not he should invest the time, effort and money in reading the book. I tend to lean towards the other school of thought. Books intrinsically mean more to me than films, with very few exceptions. Perhaps its a personal thing. In any case, on a practical level, what this means is that I will always try to read the book before I see the film.

maolastdancer.jpg


Which brings me to latter-day Melbourne resident Li Cunxin’s memoir, Mao’s Last Dancer, and Australian director Bruce Beresford’s film, released in October last year. The reason why I didn’t manage to see this film at the cinema was that I was still getting through the book at the time. Seven months on, and the book is well finished, and I’ve just seen the film on DVD.

And the verdict? Well I did like the book, but I’m not sure I loved it. It certainly is an amazing story, and well worth reading depending on just how many similar “genre” books you have read and indeed your interest in dance. But in this case, seeing the film after the book was actually a bit revelatory! I wasn’t expecting much, because the film hadn’t garnered particularly glowing reviews, but it was a pretty solid little picture, with an emotional, fulfilling conclusion. You probably shouldn’t come to the film with hopes of deep characterisation or innovative storytelling, but you will leave it with a sense of satisfaction that you have just absorbed someone’s rather incredible story.

And if you haven’t read the book at that stage – you will definitely want to read the book afterwards.

P.S. Look for the Darling Street (Sydney) street sign in the second half of the film.

Balibo

After managing to miss this film at the cinemas, I finally got around to hiring it on DVD yesterday evening. Based on the book of the same name, by journalist Jill Joliffe, the film elegantly traces what is held to be a more factual description of the fate of the “Balibo Five” than the official version of events, which is that the five men died in crossfire in East Timor in late 1975. According to Joliffe’s book and the film, the Balibo Five – journalists Greg Shackleton and Malcolm Rennie, and crew Gary Cunningham, Tony Stewart, and Brian Peters, were not merely unlucky casualties of war – but were ruthlessly and intentionally executed by invading Indonesian forces. Joliffe’s history of the incident has been corroborated by the testimony of Colonel Gatot Purwanto, who was reportedly present when the Australians were captured.

The film centres around grizzled Darwin-based journalist, Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia), who is convinced by a young, sprightly Jose Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac) to journey with him to East Timor to cover what he fears to be an impending invasion by Indonesia. Despite some obvious reservations, East indeed agrees to go, but the fate of the Balibo Five (at the time, missing for several weeks) soon consumes his focus. The juxtaposition of the magnitude of the hundreds of thousands of deaths amongst the East Timorese population with the popular import and weight attributed to the lives of the five Australians swiftly becomes a powerful narrative thread.

LaPaglia and Isaac do a sterling job – LaPaglia as the lumbering, world-weary newcomer, and Isaac the slick, lithe local, not a little channelling Gael García Bernal’s Che Guevara. Nathan Phillips (Rennie), Damon Gameau (Shackleton), Gyton Grantley (Cunningham), Mark Leonard Winter (Stewart) and Tom Wright (Peters) give sturdy performances as the Balibo Five, and Director/Writer Robert Connolly does a wonderful job in guiding the story in such a way that the viewer really feels for all the characters, despite the succinct, workmanlike manner in which their personalities are conveyed.

It has become popular to trash Australian cinema (“why can’t we make happy films?”) in recent years, but films like this one and Samson and Delilah are undeniably world class productions. They are films with beauty, and films with meaning. In this instance, Balibo raises several prickly questions that continue to challenge the relationship between the Australian and Indonesian Governments. The Indonesian Government has affirmed frequently for its part that it does not wish to dig into old wounds that have long since healed, or more accurately, that it hopes have been forgotten. Successive Australian federal governments, fearful of the potential backlash that could ensue if they force the issue and embarrass their powerful, somewhat volatile neighbour, have tried to stay out of the debate.

It’s a shame, in this day and age, that the cold, hard truth is still so hard to come by. It’s also a shame that our relationship with Indonesia is evidently still not robust enough to prevent us from stooping to the kowtow when the going gets tough. Three cheers for Australian cinema, and Jill Joliffe, for reminding us of these painful facts.

A tale of two films

I’ve been out to the cinema twice in the last couple of weeks to see two very different films: the latest cinematic instalment in the Star Trek franchise and Warwick Thornton’s low-budget Australian film Samson and Delilah. It’s virtually impossible to compare the two films in a manner that is fair, given the fact that they span such different genres and are coming from such different places, but in judging each of them I have found that juxtaposing my observations of each has provided some much needed clarity. Hopefully that will come through in what follows, although this is by no means guaranteed. :)

So let me first turn to Star Trek. First, a confession. I am the sort of person who has digested all the original movies, most of the original series, all of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine and about half of Voyager. I had some fairly high hopes for this movie, and I was looking forward to the dynamism that someone like JJ Abrams promised to bring to what has become a flagging franchise. By and large the casting seemed pretty on the money; Zachary Quinto is a dead-ringer for a young Leonard Nimoy, Chris Pine offered the sort of youthful exuberance that one would expect from a young James T. Kirk, and Simon Pegg does actually look quite a bit like a young James Doohan in the right light.

Unfortunately for me the casting, along with the pleasantly brisk pacing, turned out to be the best thing about this movie. The origins stories for Kirk and Spock, which effectively make up about the first half of the film, are generally well executed, with a few glaring exceptions. The Nero (Eric Bana) half of the story, however, seems all too familiar and represents extremely well-worn territory. Mix the Star Trek TNG double-episode “Unification” with a couple of the time travel/reality warp plot devices of films like Star Trek Generations (VII) or First Contact (VIII) and you end up with something very similar to the plot here. Frankly, it is wafer-thin stuff and Star Trek fans have been brought up on better, so they should expect better from a full-length motion picture in 2009. They deserve better than science fiction stock sketch number 127.

My reasonably high expectations of Star Trek compare in an interesting way with my expectations for Samson and Delilah, an Australian film that has appeared on the national radar out of nowhere, without fanfare but some pretty hardcore critical acclaim in recent weeks. Yes, this is another “depressing” Australian movie. But this is a movie that will change you. It will make you laugh, it will make you want to cry, and it will change the way you think about the world, and quite frankly, I am not sure how much more you can ask for in a film. Unlike Star Trek, you will find it hard to forget that you have seen this film once you have seen it.

Samson and Delilah looks and sounds like no other film you have seen before. The cinematography is superb and makes wonderful use of the landscape of the outback. There is very little dialogue in the film. This might sound strange and put folks off, but the film’s characters are utterly expressive and fully-formed; which really does lay bear how much dumbed-down dialogue we all have to endure in most modern television shows and films. The story is languid and organic, and Thornton makes clever use of repetition to reinforce the mood he is trying to create. I am not even sure that it is fair to say that Samson and Delilah has a plot, in the normal sense of the word. This is total film. This is someone else’s life unfolding in front of you, a strange sort of dream that draws you in.

In short, Samson and Delilah makes practically all other films currently showing at your local box office seem childish, limited, and irrelevant. I don’t think I can put it any more bluntly, or truthfully, than that. Go and see it – see it now, and tell your friends.

Blessed be the polymaths

With all the hubbub going around regarding Heath Ledger’s posthumous Golden Globe nomination for his role The Dark Knight, Terry Gilliam’s fond obituary of Ledger does a wonderful job of cutting through the nonsense:

He was one of those blessed human beings who have the facility to do so many things at the same time. When he wasn’t acting, he was directing music videos and supporting young musicians. He was working on the script for a film he was preparing to direct. He had an incredibly artistic side, and he was practically a grand master at chess. That’s why, when he died, it was as if half of the world had collapsed.

He died halfway through the film I’m currently making, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. We had finished shooting in London on Saturday night. On Sunday, I went to Vancouver to prepare for the next stage and Heath went to New York. He was supposed to be turning up in Vancouver on the Friday. On Tuesday he was dead.

In terms of his acting, it still rankles with me that he’s dead because he would have been streets ahead of anyone else in his generation. He just kept getting better and better. He was fearless. On Parnassus, he was improvising all the time and it was better than what we had written. I don’t normally encourage that kind of improvisation, but in a sense I felt Heath was writing this film. He was an incredibly funny performer when he wanted to be – his comic timing was just extraordinary – and then he could break your heart the next minute.

There’s something very admirable about people who throw their hand in and try earnestly to excel in a number of different fields.

Of course, it really is a great shame that all these industry figures weren’t shouting Ledger’s name from the rooftops while he was alive, but I suppose to be fair, one gets the very real sense from The Dark Knight that it would have proved a breakthrough role for his career. The world would have been quite different for Heath Ledger had he still been alive today.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Speaking as someone who was practically raised at the teat of George Lucas and his composer-general John Williams, it goes without saying that I really had to go see this movie. After the Star Wars prequels, my expectations were not high. Leading up to the release, one could really only hope that the rollicking, grin-inducing moments of this new film would outnumber the “why, George, whyyy???” moments that we were practically guaranteed to receive. I have in recent days sought some solace in the fact that if there was a character in popular modern cinema who could carry a movie through sheer charisma, it probably would be Harrison Ford at his sheepish best playing Indiana Jones.

And the verdict? Make no mistake, this is the most absurd and somehow empty movie in the Indiana Jones franchise. On the flip side of the coin, I still enjoyed it thoroughly, and if you love the joyful adventure of the previous Indiana Jones movies, you will too. Harrison Ford was perhaps born to play this character. He does not look too old to play the part, and there are a few moments in this movie that will leave you with a slightly nostalgic grin from ear to ear. Cate Blanchett plays surely one of the most vampy villains in recent memory, and carries the somewhat threadbare character she has been given with aplomb. John Hurt is actually quite a bit of fun as the usually non-sensical Professor Oxley, and Shia LaBeouf is much better than I thought he would be.

The story is of course on the silly side: it starts fairly silly and it ends with a spectacular barrage of vintage Lucas silliness. There are a couple of occasions towards the end of the film when one realises that the world of Indiana Jones is one in which there is no place too illogical in which to have a secret passage or a hidden door elaborately concealed through mechanisms impossible. But you know, that doesn’t really matter. If you have any attachment at all to the previous movies, you will find something to like here. You will rejoice in the nuggets of rough-hewn gold hidden amongst the nonsense, some of which, mind, is wonderful nonsense.

The only questions that remain are: will Harrison Ford now finally hang up the hat? And what will George Lucas inject his fun-loving, frustrating self into next?

Speed-the-Plow

I had the pleasure of seeing an excellent production of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow at the Old Vic Theatre in London this evening, and it really was something. Hollywood star and more than that; fantastic actor Kevin Spacey, currently in the press for bagging out reality television, is artistic director at the Old Vic Theatre, and also plays a starring role as Charlie Fox in this two man and one woman show. In this star-studded production, Jeff Goldblum plays Bobby Gould, a Hollywood producer with the power to “green light” projects, with Fox his excitable underling. Both Goldblum and Spacey (the latter particularly so) were excellent, and Laura Michelle Kelly does a great job as well as temporary office worker Karen, sandwiched as she is between two titans of modern cinema.

The relatively short play is a satire of Hollywood, and a commentary on the age-old question of what it is that really makes art good. Is a film good because critics think it is good, or because it makes some kind of intellectual point? Or is it really at the end of the day the numbers of bums on seats that separates good films from great films?

If I have a brief think about the films that mean the most to me, I find that most of them probably do fall into the “publicly acclaimed” category, even if some of them are on the off-beat side of the fence. There probably is something of a consensus out there on what makes a good film, even it if it is a very thin consensus, with people’s tastes presumably collectively covering the entire spectrum. I suppose it goes without saying that a box office hit is not necessarily a great film (refer: Star Wars Episode I), and that many films that would probably be widely considered “great” today were not box office hits in their day (refer: Citizen Kane). I’d be interested if anybody has actually done any research in this area, but I would have to guess that if we plotted box-office takings against “best film of all time” survey results, we would find that box office takings are a decent but not outstanding indicator of whether a film is likely to be great.

There Will Be Blood

It’s probably high time that Daniel Day-Lewis bagged himself another Best Actor Oscar, but the Irish actor’s performance is not just the only thing going for this inspired allegory of a film from Paul Thomas Anderson. There Will Be Blood is pleasingly unconventional in a number of ways. The opening sequence, in which a seemingly interminable time passes without a single word being spoken, is adventurous and in its own strange way, breathtaking. The same can be said for Jonny Greenwood’s jarring score, which positively infests the movie, bringing a lot of character and also some machine-like brutality to events as they unfold. The score infuses an air of modernity within the film, which otherwise revolves around bit-part characters, small towns, religious nutters, and oil companies lead by gregarious thugs.

The story does not flow in a way that is normally expressed in film. The importance of the progression of the story runs a distant second to a focus on the antics of Day-Lewis’ character, Daniel Plainview. It will hardly surprise anyone, even those unfamiliar with the basic premise of the film that Plainview is a quintessential capitalist brute, putting his pursuit of oil wealth before everyone and everything else. He hates people and is individualistic to a harsh extreme. He is obsessive, immoral, and yet charming. He has more than just a slight resemblance to Day-Lewis’ other recent portrayal of a charismatic villain, Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York. There are moments in this film where the comic mania of Bill the Butcher seeps through into Daniel Plainview’s character here, and although it probably takes away from Day-Lewis’ performance somewhat, you will probably enjoy it too much to care. Perhaps the genius in his performance is the fact that he really does make you empathise with Plainview. Daniel Plainview is obnoxious and ghastly, and does some horrific things, but in some ways his virtues are greater than those of practically all other people portrayed in the film. He is terrible, and yet he is a paragon. Plainview is a fictional manifestation of the greed motive as encouraged by the modern economic world.

Personally I wouldn’t mind soaking up this film again. It’s worth seeing twice – not just for the story, and not even just for Day-Lewis masterfully putting on his evil face. The sounds and the imagery of There Will Be Blood are what sets the film apart as something quite interesting and quite different to today’s mainstream cinematic fare. Atonement was perhaps a more conventionally good film than this one, but if you want to see something a bit different and marvelous in its own strange way, you could do a lot worse than going to see There Will Be Blood.

Atonement

This film (or perhaps more specifically, the story of the film) and me go way back. Late last year, WH Smith had a deal on for a brief period advertising Ian McEwen’s Booker Prize nominated novel for half price, and I had all intentions of taking them up on the offer until it ended abruptly. With a pile of other unread books on my shelf I have resisted the temptation to indulge and buy the book since then, but I haven’t managed to resist the temptation to see the film, now that is has been released on DVD.

Nominated as it is for an Oscar for Best Picture, with Keira Knightley nominated for Best Actress, the film certainly comes with a bit of a reputation to live up to. I was fairly sceptical that I would actually enjoy the film, but came away from it quite pleasantly surprised and moved by the story. Without giving too much away, the film revolves around a blossoming relationship between the two main characters, Cecilia Tallis played by Knightley, and Robbie Turner played by James McAvoy, and crucially, how this relationship is viewed by Cecilia’s younger sister Briony. The thirteen year old Briony is played wonderfully by Saoirse Ronan in the early part of the film, and I think it is probably fair to say that the believability of her character really does provide the foundation needed for the remainder of the story to shine. Her Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress is not unjustified.

Knightley and McAvoy give quite credible if not virtuoso performances, and there are more than a couple unnerving twists in the tale as it progresses to keep the viewer interested. I was once one of those people who thought it always better to “read the book” before seeing the adapted film, but I think this may prove to be the film that changes my mind. Upon seeing such a polished rendition of a wonderful story on film, I am only more eager than before to pick up the book and relive the story through McEwen’s no doubt eloquent words.

In short, Atonement comes recommended. Of the two “Best Picture” nominated films I have seen for this year (the other being Clooney-fest Michael Clayton), this one takes the cake for me. I have a feeling that Daniel Day Lewis’ performance in There Will Be Blood may change my mind, however, if the reviews for that film are anything to go by.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

If you have any desire to watch yet another playfully gothic film from Tim Burton featuring Johnny Depp, this time playing a character who appears to be second cousin of Edward Scissorhands, you can probably count Sweeney Todd as a film worth seeing. Of course, I should probably add to my list of qualifications that you really need to not mind a barrage of gratuitous neck slitting and blood spurting, and a plethora of tunes sung in often incomprehensible cockney accents. If there is anyone (anyone?) out there who will happily tolerate all these elements, roll up, roll up.

The story revolves around the macabre exploits of Johnny Depp’s character, Benjamin Barker, who returns to London at the start of the film after a period in exile. We come to learn that Depp’s character had been sent away for a crime he did not commit, by Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who was secretly lusting after Barker’s wife. Learning from Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) that his wife had apparently since died, Depp embarks on a quest for revenge, resuming his previous occupation as a barber under the moniker Sweeney Todd. Needless to say, things don’t go quite according to plan, and Barker’s vengeance quickly expands in scope to the throat of practically anyone within in reach. Mrs. Lovett, a pie shop owner concerned about the price of meat, “assists” in disposing of the resulting corpses in a most entrepreneurial way.

Put simply, there is more singing (or sing-song speaking) than speaking in this movie. You have been warned. Johnny Depp’s voice, as has been widely reported, is somewhat thin but surprisingly capable, although one gets the impression that some of the takes would have taken a significant amount of attempts to get right for someone of his somewhat limited calibre. Bonham Carter is a fine foil for Depp’s character, although at times in the movie her high-pitched singing and accent are virtually impenetrable. Alan Rickman plays a “bad guy” as perhaps only Alan Rickman can, and Sacha Baron Cohen even turns up in a most enjoyable but sadly brief cameo as Pirelli, a rival barber.

All in all, if you can get past the singing and the blood, it makes for a quite entertaining combination, and certainly a welcome diversion from run of the mill Hollywood pap. Johnny Depp occupies an interesting place in the pantheon of Hollywood actors at the moment; not really recognised as a prodigiously talented actor, but possessing a wonderful knack for bringing off the wall characters to life. As Joe Queenan ruminated in the Guardian in the wake of Heath Ledger’s sad death, Depp has not been showered with many formal awards for his performances, but is not just admired these days, but beloved. It is this sort of movie that he shines in, revolving around a character that he can fill with his seemingly boundless supply of oddball charm. Whether it will be enough to land him an Oscar this time around remains to be seen, but in the imaginary “Most Charming Performance” award category, he is certain to triumph hands down.