Films I loved in October 2014

5 November 2014
Ben Affleck as Nick and Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne in Gone Girl

Ben Affleck as Nick and Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne in Gone Girl

Gone Girl is director David Fincher’s most scathing and most dangerous social satire since Fight Club. Taking a scenario that seems to have sprung from a Men’s Rights Activist’s wet-dream, and gleefully highlighting how inherently ridiculous such a scenario is, both the film and the novel it is adapted from uses the template of a whodunnit thriller to deliver a darkly comedic and borderline absurdist critique of gender roles, mainstream attitudes towards marriage, media sensationalism and materialism in a post-GFC America. Gone Girl is part of a long tradition of horror and thriller films where social anxieties of the era, in this case anxieties primarily concerned with gender, are manifest into the film’s monster or villainous character.

Lisa Loven Kongsli as Ebba and Johannes Kuhnke as Tomas in Force Majeure

Lisa Loven Kongsli as Ebba and Johannes Kuhnke as Tomas in Force Majeure

Speaking of social satires that critique what is expected of men and women, the Swedish film Force Majeure by writer/director Ruben Östlund is a hugely entertaining drama, which also has a number of wonderfully borderline absurdist and comedic elements. Not unlike the far more minimalist The Loneliest Planet, the way somebody instinctively acts in a single moment of crisis completely ruptures the dynamic between a couple making them confront the ways in which they are expected and expect each other to behave.  The passive-agressive dialogue that flows throughout this film – and the very unusual way the film sometimes disrupts the tension – is compelling and confronting, not to mention extremely funny at key moments.

Miles Teller as Andrew Neyman and JK Simmons as Terence Fletcher in Whiplash

Miles Teller as Andrew Neyman and JK Simmons as Terence Fletcher in Whiplash

The final film that caught my attention this month – and judging from the critical response, the attention of pretty much everybody – is Whiplash, by writer/director Damien Chazelle. It’s another film that challenges social conventions, in this case ideas about the nature of genius and notions concerning the use of pressure as a motivational tool. While it is a film about playing music, and some beautifully edited and shot sequences really bring the music to life visually, it overall resembles a boxing film and a Full Metal Jacket style war film. Whiplash shows us how something like music can be made miserable when the focus is on perfectionism and competitiveness, it shows that while some talent may be natural it also requires passion and a lot of practise, and most importantly it shows us that the antiquated and militaristic push-until-they-break approach is nothing but destructive.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014
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Film review – The Social Network (2010)

27 October 2010
The Social Network: Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg)

Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg)

Early in David Fincher’s The Social Network there is a brilliant crosscutting sequence where Harvard University student Mark Zuckerberg and his Fackbook co-founders are working away on their computers creating the Facebook prototype while a wild party is taking place at one of the exclusive college clubs that Zuckerberg desperately wants to be a part of. As the film cuts back and forth between the computer science students in their room and the college students partying, the juxtaposition seems to invite a scornful comment on the geeks with their computers versus the beautiful young things at play. However, as the sequence progresses and the significance of what is happening sinks in, it suddenly becomes clear that what is really being depicted is a future entrepreneur and billionaire hard at work making history while the born-to-rule kids are stuffing around.

The film that unfolds is a fascinating representation of how Facebook began as a contemptible page called FaceMash, where the attractiveness of female undergraduates was rated, to the revolutionary internet phenomenon that currently boasts it has over 500 million active users. Most of the story is told in flashback with the film set during the time that Zuckerberg was involved in two lawsuits; one with the founders of ConnectU, who claimed Zuckerberg stole their idea, and one with Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin.

The Social Network: Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake)

Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake)

Zuckerberg is portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg who up until now has been somewhat typecast in films such as The Squid and the Whale, Adventureland and Zombieland as the awkward-yet-endearing-slightly-nerdy-but-kind-of-cool guy that filmmakers turn to when they don’t want Michael Cera. Eisenberg certainly gives Zuckerberg the necessary computer-geek persona but he also goes far deeper than that to present him as a paranoid, defensive and obsessive monster who seems incapable of empathy and will do what it takes to get his way. His obsessive and at times ruthless behaviour makes him not too dissimilar from the obsessive serial killers in Fincher’s Se7en and Zodiac. He is also not too far from the characters in Fight Club as he is likewise an angry young man with a misguided sense of entitlement. As he is told at the beginning of The Social Network, he is not going to be disliked for being a nerd but for being an asshole.

Yet, Zuckerberg is not completely contemptible and there are certainly scenes in The Social Network where his defiance of authority and his ability to stand up to the members of the privileged class makes him bizarrely heroic. Also, unlike most of the other characters in the film, he is not motivated by money but simply does what he does to make his mark on the world. Eisenberg portrays Zuckerberg as an almost blank slate whose limited facial expressions suggest that his inability to express empathy, despite some scenes where he seems to be able to want to, is something more pathological.

The Social Network: Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield)

Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield)

The real heart of the film comes from the breakdown of Zuckerberg’s personal and business relationship with Eduardo Saverin, which led to the lawsuit. Played beautifully by emerging actor Andrew Garfield (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) Saverin is by far the most sympathetic character in a film containing mostly very dislikeable characters. Watching him and Zuckerberg drift apart is genuinely sad and made all the worse when Napster founder Sean Parker (played by pop singer Justin Timberlake in a nice bit of ironic casting) enters the scene as a rival for Zuckerberg’s affections.

The Social Network could have been a deathly dull film but Fincher’s impeccable direction and the smart and surprisingly funny script by The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin make it utterly engaging. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails fame also supplies an extremely impressive score that channels his trademark industrial beats and nihilist angst into several pieces of music that distinctively accompany what is happening on screen without ever becoming overbearing. The combined result is a film of our times that captures the spirit of a generation that isn’t prepared to wait their turn or pay their dues and instead will make the opportunities for themselves or tear it away from the less ambitious. It’s like a gangster film where the young hoods prove themselves to the older wiseguys by doing something audacious despite breaking all sorts of codes of honour. It’s both admirable and threatening, exhilarating and terrifying. However, in this case, the antiheros aren’t left in jail or dead but are left to endlessly refresh a browser to see if an ex-girlfriend has accepted their friend request.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

26 December 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the story of a man who is born as an old man and ages in reverse to eventually die as a newborn baby. Although based on a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, this 2008 film bears the stamp of its writer Eric Roth more than anybody else. Roth has penned several screenplays of varied quality throughout his career with Munich (Steven Spielberg), Ali and The Insider (both directed by Michael Mann) being amongst his better efforts. However it is the Academy Award winning Forrest Gump that bears the most similarities to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Both films involve a male protagonist whose unusual circumstances give him a unique view of the world and 20th century history. Both men encounter various unconventional mentors who guide them on their way through life and both men fall hopelessly in love with a woman who is almost always out of their reach.

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Film review – American Gangster (2007)

29 January 2008

Despite its grandiose title and being based on a true story, American Gangster is not the definitive American gangster film. Only half the film concerns the gangster element, although it is the classic rise to power story through boldness, cunning and strategic brutality. The other half of the film is the archetypal story of an increasingly shunned cop who overcomes the odds to dispense justice.  This aspect of American Gangster, plus its 70s New York and New Jersey urban settings, make it evoke The French Connection and Serpico more than The Godfather or Goodfellas.

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