In the movies that dominate this opening weekend, the action is all talk. Topping the new releases is a trio of grown-up pictures driven by energetic dialogue—Social Network, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and Trigger. Then, for a more visceral kick, there’s a choice between the horror movie remake Let Me In and the Canuck hoser farce Fubar 2, which are both a cut above their respective genres. Finally, for a trip inside the ultimate talking head, there’s Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie. Now, maybe someone has slipped a smiley pill into my critic cocktail, but believe it or not, I can happily recommend all six films to some degree, something I can’t remember ever doing for a such a large batch of new releases. Not all are must-see movies. (Woody Allen’s Tall Dark Stranger eminently skippable.) And for the moment, Trigger is playing only in Toronto. But this is a pretty fine crop, led by one of the smartest movies to come out of Hollywood in some time:
Directed by David Fincher (Fight Club) and scripted by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing), The Social Network makes intelligence sexy and exciting, as if it’s the latest comic book super power. In the role of Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, Jesse Eisenberg is scarily convincing as the Smartest Guy in the Room, a serious geek whose brain seems to be moving at warp speed. Sorkin is a past master at dramatizing complex information with dense, propulsive dialogue—remember all those walking-and-talking marathons in the White House corridors of The West Wing—and here he sets a new land-speed record for dialogue. It’s fun just trying to keep up. And under Fincher’s kinetic direction, The Social Network‘s verbal intrigue rips along like a house on fire.
The story charts Zuckerberg’s imperial destiny back to a drunken prank in his Harvard dorm room, where he hacks into Harvard’s databases to launch Facesmash, a site rating the hotness of co-eds. The narrative is framed by flash-forward scenes of a deposition room where history’s youngest billionaire is trying to fend off two lawsuits—one from his best friend and former Facebook CFO Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and the other from the stranger-than-fiction Winklvoss twins, blue-blood Olympic rowers who claim he stole their idea. Garfield (the next Spider-Man) proves immensely sympathetic as Eduardo, the loyal partner who gets stabbed in the back after Zuckerberg makes a devil-pact with Napster bad boy Sean Parker—played with sulfuric sleaze by Justin Timberlake, who’s proving to be quite the potent actor.
The movie’s genius is that it pulls the viewer in conflicting directions. On the one hand, we’re appalled by Zuckerberg’s cold-blooded calculations, and his betrayal of Saverin. On the other hand, Saverin seems hopelessly wedded to an old-school business model that Zuckerberg has no time for. And even though Eisenberg never tries to soften his character or court our affections, we find ourselves perversely rooting for him. He is, after all, the Citizen Kane of this saga; he’s the one living out the twisted version of the American Dream. And with rather generous psychological license, Sorkin’s script gives him a Rosebud—the film begins with Mark being dumped by his girlfriend (Rooney Mara, warming up for her role as the avenging heroine of Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). From there on, the movie hinges on the back-pocket whim that Zuckerberg’s quest for world domination is fueled by romantic rejection. Which reduces him to just another guy taking a really circuitous route to getting laid. But it still makes for a helluva story. It’s exhilarating to see a movie with this much verbal complexity succeed at being so entertaining. People will be talking about it all the way up to the Oscars.
For my story on The Social Network in this week’s magazine go to Aaron Sorkin, Facebook and the Devil. And to read the full transcript of my interview with Sorkin go to: Aaron Sorkin gives Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg a Poke.
You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger
Although Woody Allen rarely achieves the level we feel he’s truly capable of, even Woody on cruise control has an effortless knack for throwing wonderful actors into rich, if contrived, situations. You get the sense that every great actor in the world is dying to work with him, or to have worked with him. And as they queue up to do so, some nifty casting combos get forged. Set in London, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger doesn’t have anything to match the fireworks generated by Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. But it’s fun to watch Woody throw a supremely talented septet into a game of romantic snakes and ladders: Gemma Jones is in the thrall of a psychic as her Viagra-wired husband (Anthony Hopkins) falls for a trashy young gold-digger (Lucy Punch), while Naomi Watts is wooed by her art-curator boss (Antonio Banderas) and her failed novelist husband (Josh Brolin) falls for the guitarist next door (Slumdog Millionare’s Freida Pinto). It doesn’t add up to much, but there’s some pleasure in watching the performances—a septet ensemble that ticks along to the music of misplaced romance.
To read my interview with Josh Brolin go to: Josh Brolin on Woody Allen, Master Manipulator.
Tracy Wright, who died of cancer on June 22, was one of Canada’s most under-appreciated talents, and now we finally get to see her shine in a lead role that reveals her untapped star-power. Shortly after she received a terminal diagnosis, director Bruce McDonald rallied Toronto’s film community into action, and Trigger was rushed into production—miraculously shot in just nine days. But the result is no act of charity: Trigger is simply superb. Molly Parker and Wright co-star as Kat and Vic, former rockers who are reunited a dozen years after the breakup of their band, Trigger. They’ve gone their separate ways: Kat is a pretentious L.A. showbiz type, Wright is the acerbic bohemian. Aside from some cameos, Trigger unfolds as a two-hander, a feast of wall-to-wall dialogue along the lines of My Dinner With Andre. But though it begins in a restaurant, the conversation goes on the move as the women head into the night, to a reunion concert, an after-party, a park bench. The dialogue, sharply crafted by Daniel McIvor, crackles with recrimination, rivalry, competing addictions and blunt inquiry into the Big Questions. McDonald, who’s proving adept at shooting films on the fly (This Movie is Broken), directs with an elegant, unobtrusive eye, as Tracy and Parker deliver a master class in acting via luxurious stretches of unbroken conversation. Witty, moving and immensely satisfying, Trigger is a real gem, and far better than a movie so quickly slapped together has any right to be. It says a lot about what can be accomplished when filmmaking is fired with urgent devotion to a common purpose.
You know that something is going right with this country when it’s still possible to turn out a new and improved prototype of the hoser farce. Director Michael Dowse cashes in on the cult success of FUBAR (2002) in the best way possible, by turning it up to eleven. This raucous mockumentary begins with a party to celebrate a one-nut Dean’s fifth anniversary of being cancer free, and the bash turns into a house-wrecking eviction party. The inimitable Tron (Andrew Sparacino) blithely promises Dean (Paul Spence) and Terry (Dave Lawrence) jobs in Fort McMurray, so that’s where they end up, working the pipeline and having a buddy bro-mance break-up as Dean falls hard for a zaftig waitress (Terra Hazelton) at a strip bar. What’s most surprising about the film is that it’s funny; it’s the sweet sentiment that waylays us in the third act, as a hoser comedy almost turns into a Christmas movie. As much as Canadian cinema aspires to high art, FUBAR II makes you wonder if (the horror!) maybe this is what we do best.
Let Me In
It’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to remake Let the Right One In (2008), the exquisitely austere vampire/coming-of-age film from Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist. But then one might same the same thing about that other Swedish “horror” film, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which David Fincher is now remaking as a Hollywood blockbuster. In both cases, the idea is to refashion the movie for an English-language audience that refuses to read subtitles. But this remake still has an art house allure. Aside from tweaking the title and transplanting the setting to New Mexico—Let Me In turns out to be a remarkably faithful clone of the original. Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) preserves the main strokes of its narrative as well as the spare, elegant tone. By relocating its snowy landscape from ’80s Sweden to the high altitude desert of ’80s Los Alamos, Reeves adds a laminate of Cold War referencing: there’s a recurring conceit of President Reagan popping up as a spectral presence on TV, talking about the presence of “evil” in the world and how America is a force for “good.”
The evil in this story, however, is embodied by a trio of school bullies who terrorize our 12-year-old weakling, Owen (played by The Road‘s Kodi Smit-McPhee). He finds a soul mate, and a guardian angel, in the ageless 12-year-old vampire next door (Chloe Grace Morentz of Kick-Ass fame). But love between humans and vampires never runs smooth. Like the original, the remake plays as a mood piece, casting a spell that relies on the power of its young leads, who are both compelling—though Smit-McPhee, whose eyeliner is visible in close-ups, is made to look more like an other-worldly demon seed than the ethereal Morentz.
Beneath the horror-film trappings, the story unfolds as a tender pre-teen romance between the living and the undead, a classic rift that’s underscored by the fact Owen is reading Romeo and Juliet in class. Think Twilight. but more dark and barren, and without a trace of camp. The violence is sudden and severe, buffered by the silence of a winter night. Vampire movies do not get more tasteful.
Canadian writer-director Sturla Gunnarsson has a dual agenda here. On the one hand he’s trying to get behind the public persona of Canada’s celebrated environmentalist and paint an intimate portrait of David Suzuki. On the other hand, the film serves as another platform for its subject, albeit a more epic canvas than the one we’re used to; and the narrative is punctuated by Inconvenient Truth-like slices of a career-capping lecture that Suzuki delivers before an enthralled audience. It’s difficult to do both things at once. Suzuki’s life story—imprinted by his childhood experience in Japanese internment camps and his experiences of racism while working in the U.S.—is a compelling one. And there’s only so much room for it in a 93-minute film that also wants to be a vehicle for his ideas. One minute Suzuki is a “horny” teenager, ordered to date only Japanese girls in a town where there weren’t any. The next, he’s talking about how fortunate his first wife was to find the strength to leave him. So in among the lovely old film footage of the young David, hippie activist, there are some frustrating gaps in the personal story.
But on the whole, Gunnarsson’s unalloyed devotion to his subject allows Suzuki’s vision to range over an emotional, and cosmic, scale that goes beyond his TV persona. Whether he’s talking about his years in the trenches as a geneticist—marvelling at “the beauty of a fly, a totally unprepossessing organism”—or conjuring the pulse of a universe “filled with evanescent tendrils of attraction that some people call love,” Suzuki emerges a beatific soul dwelling in his own private Pandora. Along the way, the film takes him from the tragedy of the blue-fin tuna auctions—where he does a sad stand-up as the last of a species is tagged and sold—to the homespun romance of the campfire and the forest, where former fly scientist goes fly-fishing, and rejoices in finding his aboriginal roots via a Haida grandchild born to his daughter.
In his director’s statement, Gunnarsson defends the film’s open embrace of its subject: “Suzuki sounds more like the Romantic poets I was reading at UBC when I first heard of him than the environmental scold I was expecting. I found urgency, clarity and hope in his message. It cut through the complacency and cynicism I’ve allowed to creep into my life and inspired me to want to make a film about his life and legacy.”
We’ve all heard Suzuki’s environmental sermons so often that they tend to wash over us. But by honestly throwing himself over to his subject, and serving as a faithful disciple, Gunnarsson allows him to take his place as a genuine elder, an activist sage who goes much deeper than Al Gore. Suzuki makes the fate of the planet personal, mixing Carl Sagan’s sense of wonder with Walt Whitman’s transcendental awe. The film, which won the Cadillac Peoples Choice Award for documentaries at the Toronto International Film Festival, may be dead earnest, but is a crowd-pleaser for a reason: it’s grandly inspirational. In the film’s final act, the remarkable arc of Suzuki’s life and the cosmic sweep of his ideas come full circle, as he argues that the subject-object dichotomy between us and our environment is fallacious: “We are the air.” And we’re left with a moving portrait of a preacher man contemplating his mortality and that of the human race (this “infant species”) in the same breath—which, as he reminds us, contains argon atoms that once travelled through the lungs of Joan of Arc, Jesus Christ, and the dinosaurs. Trippy.