It's Kind of a Funny Story (dirs. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck)
Ryan Fleck is credited as the sole director of 2006's Half Nelson, but apparently Anna Boden co-directed. What a wonderful, naturalistic, film it was. The actors hit the right notes. Every line of dialogue spoken seemed birth from meticulous human observation. It sits on my list of one of the 100 best films of the 2000s (I promise that list is coming soon). And their sophomore effort, Sugar? Sure, it falls short of the brilliance of their debut film, but Boden and Fleck crafted another realistic portrayal of (wait for it) human beings. I bring this up before I discuss their third feature, It's Kind of a Funny Story because I wanted to explain my bias towards these filmmakers up front, and it's always good to find something nice to say. From here on out, I will sound like Oscar the Grouch. It's Kind of a Funny Story, based on the novel of the same name, depicts a slice of life (less than two weeks, if I'm not mistaken) inside of a psychiatric hospital as told through the eyes of a teenage boy named Craig (played by Keir Gilchrist). The result is an incredibly and offensively facile look at mental illness, a very complicated issue. Craig is feeling suicidal, though (as stated plainly by the film) he has no real reason to, nor has he ever attempted suicide. While at the hospital, he meets a host of characters who all show him that his cushy, magnet school, New York life isn't all that bad. It all feels syrupy, patently false and packed to the rafters with paint-by-numbers quirk. I'm kind of floored that the people behind Half Nelson had anything to do with it. In my write-up of The Greatest, I spoke of the incredible liability that is Zoe Kravitz. I get the urge, at least on paper, to cast her in films. She's the daughter of Lisa Bonet and Lenny Kravitz, arguably two of the most beautiful people on the planet (and arguably artistic in their own right). But Zoe has a complete non-presence as a performer. Her eyes are dead, her line readings are cringe-worthy and she seems to be working against any given scene. Granted, she has the burden of playing characters that are the complete creation of male fantasy in both films, but is there any excuse for this when there was at least one female writer/director at the helm in both cases? The rest of the story is predictable. Craig falls for a fellow teenage psych patient (Emma Roberts) who's pretty, but damaged. Their courtship is played against a soundtrack of what I like to call "hey, it's that band!" That is, a particular brand of scruffy-boy rock by a bunch of Thom Yorke fetishists. These bands are also notable for their small, devoted pockets of fans who will inevitably abandon said band once the lure of obscurity is lost by having one of their songs played in a film like this or on an episode of "Grey's Anatomy." It's all incredibly trite and (I'm sorry to go here) incredibly white. Between this film and Up in the Air, I've completely lost patience for films that set their ordinary, retread narratives (in both cases, boy meets girl) against the backdrop of a larger issue (ie, unemployment or mental illness) in a transparent attempt at emotional gravitas (incidentally, I rated Up in the Air a "B" when I first saw it, but the longer I sit with it and one subsequent viewing has shown me that I can no longer stand by that).
The Social Network (dir. David Fincher)
Any praises I offer up are going to seem redundant at this point. The Social Network is sweeping the year end critics awards and is poised to be one of the most honored films of 2010. Everything seems to be working in perfect synergy in this wildly exaggerated (to its benefit) account of Mark Zuckerberg's (a wonderful Jesse Eisenberg) creation of Facebook at Harvard and the legal and social drama that ensued. Aaron Sorkin's justifiably lauded, razor-sharp script has an amazing rhythm to it, sustaining a subject that could have easily ran out of steam in the wrong hands. And what is there to say at this point about Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's outstanding and unique score. After 2008's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, (whose pedestrian leanings and meandering pace gall and bewilder upon subsequent viewings almost as much as the acclaim it received), David Fincher seems once again justified in his title of visionary director. His direction here elevates what could have been an average film into something singular, specific and richly engrossing. Almost every actor here seems to hit the right notes. There's Jesse Eisenberg, who I've admittedly not been a huge fan of in the past (though I did finally watch Zombieland, which I found immensely enjoyable). Here, he plays an embellished cinematic version of Mark Zuckerberg, forging his own creation (apart from similar curly mops, Eisenberg's Zuckerberg and the real Zuckerberg don't seem to be all that behaviorally similar). He plays him with a consistent, even tone of equal parts coldness, obliviousness and befuddlement at how off-putting people find him to be. It's a great turn that may read as effortless in some circles, but luckily seems to be getting a lot of year end accolades. I loved the performance when I saw the film, but awards season could have reacted either way (completely ignoring or fully embracing) and I would not have been surprised. More surprised am I by the myriad of nominations for Andrew Garfield, who plays co-founder Eduardo Saverin (though that SAG snub is telling). I much preferred him in Never Let Me Go, which is admittedly a much baitier performance in a film that I'll finally concede has totally bottomed out, both commercially and critically. This is in no way to imply that Garfield's work in The Social Network doesn't impress. The script gives him few actorly moments to sink his teeth into, but I do like a lot of the choices Garfield makes as an actor. His awards clip will probably be the now famous laptop smashing scene, but for my money, Garfield hits it out of the park in the quieter moments--the luau mixer, his initial reactions to Sean Parker at the restaurant. Reacting is such an important aspect of convincing acting and Garfield seems adept at being very communicative in this way. But it's rather low key and in no way the type of supporting turn that would ever be swept into awards season if it wasn't on the coattails of an inevitable best picture nominee. I would have much sooner expected Justin Timberlake, who plays Sean Parker of Napster fame, to be in the mix, though his is the weakest performance of the film. It is, however, a showy and in a lot of ways fun supporting turn. But it would seem that all the actors tried to dig deeper except Timberlake, who doesn't turn in a bad performance persay, but one that reeks of taking script and direction at face value without looking for subtext--the hallmark of an untrained actor. It's so heartening that such an amazing film seems to be the frontrunner going into awards season (and it's not even my favorite of the year).
Grade: A (after 2 viewings)
Catfish (dirs. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman)
How appropriate that I saw this film mere minutes after walking out of The Social Network. They serve as very interesting companion pieces. In many ways Catfish actually says more about the virtual social networking culture than David Fincher's film, though both are certainly arresting and resonant pieces of filmmaking. The documentary (though many inquests have been made into the film's legitimacy as a piece of bonafide nonfiction) follows Nev Schulman (director Ariel Schulman's younger brother), a New York photographer who strikes up an online friendship with who he thinks is an attractive girl. When he goes to meet her, things are not as they seem, to say the least. I went into the film virtually (no pun intended) with nothing except people's urging not to let it be "spoiled." Walking out, I was surprised by those admonishments for this was not a "spoiler" movie, at least not from where I was sitting. Despite its documentary format, it unfolds very much like a character study in a traditional narrative. When Nev, his brother and their friend (Henry Joost, the other director) go to see this family, the interactions, the situations all feel incredibly heartwrenching and fascinating in a way that was very akin to 2005's Junebug (one of the best films of the past ten years). No, the woman was not who she said she was. And yes, she lied to them every step of the way, even after being found out. But I was surprised by the conflicting emotions drummed up inside of me. Nev Schulman has the benefit of point of view and arguable physical attraction (at least in some circles) that cloud how he may not be so morally superior to this woman who conned him. He did worm his way into this family under false pretenses and he certainly dropped little white lies here and there. Perhaps if the documentary had been told from the point of view of the other family, we might have seen the Schulmans as interlopers, out on a campaign of gotcha journalism against an already down and out clan. My point is, this movie was incredibly provocative and deeply emotional, regardless of whether it's true documentary filmmaking or not. I took it at face value because most documentaries are scripted and choreographed to a certain extent and I feel this standard is being put on Catfish in a way that it's not being put on movies like Man on Wire, which was filled with unreliable reenactments (just my two cents).