The Social Network (2010)
  • Directed by: David Fincher.
  • Written by: Aaron Sorkin. Based on The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich.
  • Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Max Minghella, Josh Pence, Brenda Song, Rashida Jones, Rooney Mara, Joseph Mazzello, Douglas Urbanski, Wallace Langham.
  • Rated: PG-13.

Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue is fast and vicious. The characters of The Social Network speak in quip-offs, perpetually trying to out-witty each other. The claustrophobic initial scene jumps from facts and figures to pessimism and ultimately to the characters’ hopes, dreams, and appraisals of each other. Jesse Eisenberg is speaking in rapid fire Sorkinese to his girlfriend, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara). He is obsessed with Harvard final clubs, she expresses her attraction to non-Mark men who row Crew, he makes a comment about her education and social class, she calls him an a—hole and dumps him.

The Social Network promotional posterJesse Eisenberg’s face shows neither surprise nor regret. He is already looking for an easy fix to the code, because, of course, he’s a Harvard undergraduate and the future founder of Facebook - Mark Zuckerberg. Yet, as the film shows us, the code of human interaction has escaped him. Later that night, a drunk Zuckerberg blogs comparing women with farm animals. He hacks into the facebooks of the many Harvard houses and creates a website allowing men to compare women. The site goes viral and crashes Harvard’s network within hours.

Mark’s later approached by three students, twins and Crew stars Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer as each, with Josh Pence as a body double) and their business partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) who want him to create a dating site exclusive to Harvard. A few weeks later, Mark approaches his best and only friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) to create an exclusive social network called “Thefacebook”. Whether or not Mark stole the idea or not is your decision - the movie suggests he did but allows Mark to defend himself.

The closest thing we have to a true protagonist is Eduardo. He’s rich, intelligent, and confident, but he’s grounded and, ultimately, naive. If Jesse Eisenberg fully embodies Zuckerberg’s robotic ego, Garfield is pitch perfect as a character who needs to be calm but is essentially fueled by anger and regret. The film is framed by two lawsuits. The Winklevosses are suing Zuckerberg for stealing their intellectual property, and Eduardo is suing Zuckerberg for shunting him out of his own company.

The first half of the film is remarkably different from the second. Mark is jealous of Eduardo’s acceptance into the Phoenix final club and relationship with Christy Lee (Brenda Song). Thanks to electrifying director David Fincher, the film is always as quick as its dialogue and crackling with tension. He’s counterbalanced by a reflective and simple score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. There’s a sense of wonder to the first half as we see the first time Facebook is online, the first time Mark and Eduardo meet hotshot Napster ex-exec Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake). Timberlake rises to the tricky task of playing a character that’s suave, ingenious, and toxic, all wrapped up in a tin foil hat of paranoia and obsession. Throughout it all, Mark is collected and indifferent.

In the latter portion, we see a party for Facebook’s millionth member. There are cheers, but the movie and its characters have essentially outgrown its premise. Instead, we see Mark cracking. He does not know how to deal with Sean’s drugs or Eduardo’s anger. He has achieved everything he has always desired - notoriety, importance, and belonging. It’s hollow.

There are a number of great quotes in The Social Network. I’ve seen it four, five times, yet many lines continue to surprise me with their bluntness or cruel honesty. It’s most memorable is Rooney Mara’s, from the inital scene. “You’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an a—hole.” But The Social Network is not just about Mark Zuckerberg being an a—hole. It’s about nobody caring that Mark Zuckerberg is an a—hole - except maybe himself. The Social Network has been widely lauded for its perceptive appraisal of how our society communicates, forming and breaking relationships. It’s been criticized for being a cynical and cold appraisal of youth. But Aaron Sorkin qualifies his cynicism with the friend request and the refresh button. He gives us hope. ☆☆☆

The Debt (2011)
  • Directed by: John Madden.
  • Written by: Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan. Based on The Debt (2007).
  • Starring: Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Marton Csokas, Helen Mirren, Jesper Christensen, Tom Wilkinson, Romi Aboulafia, Ciarán Hinds.
  • Rated: R.

The most effective scene in The Debt appears twice in the movie. Set to New Year’s Eve fireworks, a Mossad agent senses a disturbance with her prisoner. A chase ensues, and she shoots him with a pistol from a long distance. This scene is repeated later in the film, but there’s a twist. Pity this is the film’s only twist.

The Debt promotional posterThe Debt concerns three Mossad agents hunting a Nazi war criminal, Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the infamous Surgeon of Birkenau. The operation is headed by Stefan (Marton Csokas) and the team includes the enigmatic David (Sam Worthington) and rookie field agent Rachel (Jessica Chastain). The trio, as all fictional trios involving one female and two males must, becomes a love triangle. David is left dejected as Stefan and Rachel form a relationship, though Rachel has stronger affections for David. The trio hunts down Vogel who’s posing as a doctor in East Berlin. But their plan is too good to be true, and soon it falls apart. They’re left to fend for themselves with Vogel as hostage. A sense of claustrophobia pervades this sequence, heightened by the agents’ intense hatred of Vogel – their families were slaughtered in the Holocaust.

This story is intercut with a strand from the present, in which Rachel and Stefan are divorced and David is a recluse. Rachel and Stefan’s daughter (Romi Aboulafia) has written an account of their escapades. Here the squad is played by Helen Mirren (as Rachel), Tom Wilkinson (as Stefan), and Ciarán Hinds (as David). These older actors are more pedigreed and refined than their younger counterparts, but the younger actors have more to do. Indeed, Ciarán Hinds has only one initial scene and two or three blink-and-you-miss-it flashbacks.

This initial scene is a remarkable use of perspective and camera work. We follow Hinds and a background Mossad agent through the streets of Israel while the titles float past us. Director John Madden uses a continuous shot behind Hinds, and he sets the stage for wonderful action shots throughout the film. There’s no quickly cut artificial adrenaline here – scenes are deliberate, depending on its characters and fight choreography to quicken our pulses. Madden’s most well-known film, Shakespeare in Love, also features an all-star British cast with historical ties – but the two films couldn’t be more different.

This cast is great, but the film can’t live up to their names. The “big twist” is the film’s only twist. The Debt isn’t trying to be escapist or particularly deep – Madden makes his one theme quite transparent. The film aims to be a twisty, cerebral thriller but ends up too simple and flat to work. Better films like State of Play or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy keep you guessing until the last minute, cycling through an endless infinite of characters and possibilities. Any spy movie worth its salt chiefly features paranoia, but there is no gray area here. The Debt spells out its ending in its first five minutes. What’s more, this finale just isn’t exciting, gathering all the tension built up from the flashback storyline and scattering it with a ridiculous “action” sequence.

As for the cast, Jessica Chastain manages to convincingly emulate Helen Mirren physically, and she provides the movie’s key performance. Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington may be underwritten, but they each have a few quietly powerful scenes. Jesper Christensen makes for a colorful villain, restrained but vicious. But Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson are given mere minutes to shape performances and thus less effective. In another film, I would’ve taken away entire scenes and monologues. In The Debt, I’ll remember one or two of Mirren’s facial expressions, a grave close-up of Wilkinson. In some films, this wouldn’t be the point. Names like ‘Mirren’ and ‘Wilkinson’ would take the backseat to explosives and rambunctious chases. The problem is, The Debt doesn’t seem to have much of a point. ☆☆

It’s Complicated (2009)
  • Directed by: Nancy Meyers.
  • Written by: Nancy Meyers.
  • Starring: Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, John Krasinski, Lake Bell, Hunter Parrish, Zoe Kazan, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Mary Kay Place, Rita Wilson, Alexandra Wentworth, Peter Mackenzie.
  • Rated: R.

Though an R rated film starring our greatest living actress and two of our greatest comic actors, I am convinced It’s Complicated was churned out by the Disney Channel. It bears the same marks as what they pass as comedy: a “colorful” supporting cast, rich magazine fodder locales, and unintentionally cheesy dialogue. But while Disney provides occasional home comforts and easy entertainment for children and pre-teens, It’s Complicated is intended for the middle-aged.

It's Complicated promotional posterThe difference is in the cast. Meryl Streep is Jane, who runs her own bakery (of course), has a spacious house overlooking a beautiful nature scene (of course), and feels the need to further upgrade her house and kitchen so it will actually be her dream kitchen (of course). She’s been divorced for ten years, but is just starting to find a new normal. She even has a potential love interest, her also recently-divorced architect, Adam (Steve Martin). Then Jane’s ex, Jake (Alec Baldwin) reenters her life. He’s married an attractive nag (Lake Bell) and eagerly starts an affair. Jane isn’t so sure, but after consulting with her psychiatrist (Peter Mackenzie) she decides to ruin her ex’s wife’s life.

Jake and Jane. Don’t they just sound like a good couple? Well, they are, of course. Alec Baldwin shows off his great comic skills here, playing a mixture of himself and Jack Donaghy. The two have a great time together sneaking over to hotels or each other’s houses and awkwardly spending time together at parties. But soon others are pulled in: Adam, unwittingly falling into Jane’s madness; Jane and Jake’s three kids (Hunter Parrish, Zoe Kazan, and Caitlin Fitzgerald) who are still getting over mom and dad’s break-up; and the duo’s future son-in-law Harley (John Krasinski), who happens to see Jane and Jake in incriminating situations numerous times.

The movie’s script is tired and cheesy. Near the end, especially, Meyers seems to want to actually say something, but she drowns what little emotional heft she could’ve had in misplaced sentimentality and formulaic comic gestures. To say the film is unrealistic and manipulative is an understatement: one scene depends on your belief that Jane’s three grown children crawl into bed together waiting for their mom to come home and talk with them about the meaning of love and family. Jane has an obligatory trio of fifty-something yes-women (Mary Kay Place, Rita Wilson, and Alexandra Wentworth). Jane and Adam go on an obligatory private date in Jane’s bakery. The most that can be said for Meyers’ direction is that it’s always bright and cheerful, almost like a commercial. I wouldn’t be surprised if Meyers thought this was a commercial, though; it’s safe to bet a large number of the pots, pans, dresses, chairs, and knick knacks seen in the film were snatched up by the intended audience immediately after viewing.

What makes it watchable - if you want to give It’s Complicated an adjective like watchable - are the three stars. Meryl Streep never succumbs to the script, though she really only gets to act for the film’s last fifteen minutes. Steve Martin is pleasant and easy to watch, but Nancy Meyers doesn’t know how to use him. I don’t think they tried to make Adam remotely funny; I’m imagining consultants instructing Meyers to make him more generic and nondescript. Baldwin probably fares the best of the three, he’s able to get in a fair amount of laughs and manages to find his voice. But even this effervescent cast can’t save It’s Complicated.

The thing about It’s Complicated is that, as you’re watching it, you’re aware that it’s complete and utter tripe. The film has absolutely nothing to say about divorce, and even less to say about love. Furthermore, why doesn’t Jane choose Jake? They seem like they click together. Sure, we get that he’s a smooth operator and Adam has a superior moral character, but Jane isn’t a match for Adam. Her excuses, and the duo’s relationship, are superficial at best. ☆☆

Traffic (2000)
  • Directed by: Steven Soderbergh.
  • Written by: Stephen Gaghan. Story by Simon Moore. Based on Traffik.
  • Starring: Michael Douglas, Benicio del Toro, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Don Cheadle, Erika Christensen, Topher Grace, Luis Guzmán, Tomás Milián, Amy Irving, Dennis Quaid, Miguel Ferrer, Jacob Vargas, Steven Bauer, James Brolin, Albert Finney, Salma Hayek, Benjamin Bratt.
  • Rated: R.

Traffic is one of the most smartly cast films I’ve seen. There are stars and awards royalty here, but that’s not the point. Valentine’s Day had stars and awards royalty. Steven Soderbergh knows how to use his, to push them to the very edge with the performances that, at some points, the film becomes almost unbearable to watch. I cringed watching a teenage version of Erika Christensen, from TV’s Parenthood, fell deep into the pit of drug abuse. I was sickened by the rapier like wit with which Topher Grace delivers his lines. I was riveted and revolted by Catherine Zeta-Jones’ strength and desperation. And I marveled at the conviction with which Michael Douglas, Benicio del Toro, and Don Cheadle present us with characters of good intentions but unique morals.

Traffic promotional posterTraffic explores the drug trade from multiple perspectives: a pair of DEA agents in America (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzmán), a pair of cops in Mexico police force (Benicio del Toro and Jacob Vargas), an upper-crust woman (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who’s forced to take over the family business when her husband (Steven Bauer) goes to jail, a pair of drug-addled teens (Erika Christensen and Topher Grace), and the girl’s parents (Michael Douglas and Amy Irving). Douglas, to complicate things, is the U.S. President’s new drug czar.

The film cuts between each of these separate storylines. An orange tint is used for the Mexico storyline, in which del Toro and Vargas become entangled with a corrupt general (Tomás Milián); a blue tint is utilized for the strand involving Douglas, Christensen, and Grace; and the film is presented in normal coloration for the story of Zeta-Jones, who’s aided by her husband’s business partner (Dennis Quaid) and is monitored by DEA agents Cheadle and Guzmán. This proves to be a masterstroke. The yellow tint makes Mexico feel more intense, the blue makes drug abuse more tragic, and the normal color, in contrast, makes San Diego feel grittier.

Occasionally a character from one story will cross over into another for a brief appearance. I think, if the characters were to play the Kevin Bacon game, they would all be three or four degrees away from each other. It’s this ensemble mindset, used in similar racial drama Crash and rom-com Love Actually, that gives the film its power: each of the characters actions affects every other’s, just like in a normal drama, but it’s far more unique than a straight drama. Steven Soderbergh tried to employ the hyperlink narrative structure with his latest film, Contagion, but with less success.

The writing is sharp, the pacing smart. Soderbergh knows when to cut quickly and when to take his time developing a scene. Michael Douglas brings the right amount of helplessness and naivety to a man who’s supposed to have all the answers, while Benicio del Toro is quite effective as the simple and honest police officer. Don Cheadle and Luis Guzmán make a great pair. For me, the best performance was easily Catherine Zeta-Jones, whose arc is similar to that of Michael Corleone’s. She would never dream of becoming a drug dealer, but Michael Corleone thought he was different from his father. Desperate circumstances take us upon paths we hoped we would never set foot on.

As a teen, the movie was profoundly effective for me. My father says all teens should watch Traffic as a warning call, just like everyone should watch Saving Private Ryan to know the sacrifice soldiers go through. I think he’s right on both accounts. It was sickening to watch Erika Christensen morph into an inhuman creature. And Topher Grace was at her side the entire time, hurtling lines at the screen in near-Sorkinian style. These two teens were well-raised, logical, intelligent humans with bright futures. But drugs know no race nor class nor creed. Surely nobody I know, nobody you know, will ever get that bad? Right? ☆☆☆

Blade Runner (1982)
  • Directed by: Ridley Scott.
  • Written by: Hampton Fancher and David Peoples. Based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick.
  • Starring: Harrison Ford, Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, Joanna Cassidy, Joe Turkel, William Sanderson, Edward James Olmos, Brion James, James Hong, M. Emmet Walsh.
  • Rated: R.

Blade Runner is such a visual feast that it’s easy to call it a masterpiece and forget about its flaws. Ridley Scott’s vision of the future still holds up today - in Blade Runner, the city of Los Angles is polluted, overrun by crime, and portrayed with a unique brand of glamorous cynicism. Billboards feature Coca Cola ads (don’t worry, product placement still exists in 2019) and Japanese opera singers. Chinatown is now the whole town, complete with oriental restaurants and traditionally styled umbrellas to shield L.A.’s citizens from the perennial rain. Flames shoot from factories surrounding the massive Tyrell building. All of this is overseen by what’s left of the government, as well as the Tyrell Corporation.

Blade Runner promotional posterThe Tyrell Corporation makes - or made, as they’re illegal - replicants, or machines built to mimic life in every way. They were used as a new kind of slavery, because, of course, they’re not technically alive - but as the movie shows, they live and think for themselves. Does that not make them human? The movie lets you decide that for yourself, and therein lies its power. The point is, very few in the film openly think replicants human. They are, after all, illegal, after a colony proved they were too free-thinking and murdered their owners.

Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a Blade Runner assigned to hunt down and “retire” four replicants from off world. Their intents are mysterious at first, but the revelation that the replicants can only live for a maximum of four years clears their motives. They’re hunting Mr. Tyrell (Joe Turkel) for an extension on their lifespans. I don’t know how he stays in business if replicants are supposedly illegal, but it seems only some replicants are illegal.

His newest prototype is a “woman” called Rachel (Sean Young) who’s been implanted with memories to relieve her of emotions, somehow. Deckard meets this woman, realizes she’s a replicant, and doesn’t try to kill her. Of course, that may just be because he’s destined to fall in love with her, but never mind. Animals, too, are extinct on earth and have thus been replaced by replicant versions of themselves. Plot holes or a case of willing suspension of disbelief? Director Ridley Scott would probably like to leave that one ambiguous, too.

Blade Runner is a surreal experience. The dialogue and some of the acting - particularly from Daryl Hannah and William Sanderson - is strange and feels somehow disjointed, but tonally, the film is a masterpiece. Scott fuses science fiction surroundings with a film noir murkiness, and the story unfolds in the typical style of a noir detective film. The film wisely saves its action for moments of great emotion, but the ending duel seems flat and lifeless. It belongs in a lesser movie than Blade Runner.

The strangeness of the film at once makes it unique yet distant. It’s themes aren’t as focused as a more straightforward venture like later Philip K. Dick adaptation Minority Report, and scribes Hampton Fancher and David Peoples never find a middle ground between transparency and distance in conveying their themes.

I am of two minds about the performances. There’s no denying Rutger Hauer makes for a great villain, and Edward James Olmos and James Hong are effective in smaller roles. Harrison Ford and Sean Young give it their all, but in the end, they seem lifeless. Which I suppose they were supposed to be: Young isn’t human at all, and Ford is meant to blur the lines between human and machine. But this makes their performances half as memorable as they could be.

Blade Runner's most famous mystery, of course, is whether or not Deckard himself is a replicant. There is evidence that points both ways, and screenwriter Hampton Fancher delivered the best reply possible to his thoughts on Deckard: “I like asking the question and I like it to be asked but I think it’s nonsense to answer it. That’s not interesting to me.” Like the ending of Inception or what exactly Bill Murray whispers in Scarlett Johansson’s ear in Lost in Translation, it’s better left alone. ☆☆☆