Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Jan. 7-13

Dr. No (1962) ***
Director: Terence Young
Writers: Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood, Berkley Mather, Ian Fleming (novel)
Starring: Sean Connery, Ursula Andress, Joseph Wiseman, Jack Lord, Bernard Lee, Anthony Dawson, Zena Marshall, John Kitzmiller

I thought the original James Bond film, “Dr. No”, would be an appropriate start to my Caribbean film watching schedule with it’s Jamaican setting. It’s one of the Bond films I’ve seen the least, and upon my most recent viewing, I was surprised at how good it was. The second half of the film drags a little, but that’s made up for by the wonderful production designs by Ken Adams.

The first half moves right along, however, and reminds us there was a time when Hollywood assumed its audience held some sort of intelligence and could follow complex plotting and foreign practices without having to spell out every step of the process for us. I think this difference in philosophy is particularly noticeable in the espionage genre in particular, since so little of the lifestyle we are witnessing on screen is experienced in everyday life. It made the heroes more mysterious, the plots more sinister, and the action harder to predict. Its no wonder the Bond series so captivated audiences upon its launch.

The American (2010) ****
Director: Anton Corbijn
Writer: Rowan Joffe, Martin Booth (novel “A Very Private Gentleman”)
Starring: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Paolo Bonacelli, Thekla Reuten, Johan Leysen

Anton Corbijn’s “The American” is a thriller the like that just aren’t made any more. I’ve heard it called “very European,” and perhaps that’s true. Certainly it’s deeply rustic European setting gives it a foreign feeling, but its plot and structure don’t seem exclusively European to me. Perhaps America was only making movies like this in the 70s, when European filmmakers were heavily influencing the Hollywood auteurs. It’s also most definitely a study in the difference between the European mind set, and those of America, with the European side looking at the big picture, while the sole American here lives only in the now. He has little perspective on the world around him and, more importantly, his own life.

But, it is also very much a thriller. Despite it’s slow pace, it has real tension. It’s foreign location and isolated hero adds to our sense of discord and anxiety. Video director Anton Corbijn’s first film “Control” was a perfectly structured and nuanced musician bio-pic of the isolated and troubled life of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis. With “The American”, he’s created another perfectly structured and nuanced portrait in isolation. George Clooney’s custom gun maker/assassin is not a far cry from other similar characters he’s played, but the world he inhabits requires more caution, a harder edge, and less emotion than we’ve been trained to accept in our action heroes. Perhaps hero is the wrong word for this character. But through the close study we are given of his world, we come to understand and feel for him just the same. At least “The American” doesn’t perpetuate the notion that we’re loud and boisterous to the rest of the world.

The Groomsmen (2006) **
Director/Writer: Edward Burns
Starring: Edward Burns, Heather Burns, John Leguizamo, Matthew Lillard, Donal Logue, Jay Mohr, Brittany Murphy

I remember seeing “The Brother’s McMullen” after it’s Sundance success and finding it to be a good movie about a family, but not really anything special. Writer/director/star Edward Burns seemed to have a fresh voice; creating people we might want to know and that might even resemble people we do know. He showed an observational level of real details from everyday life, but his stories were too neat for the real world they attempted to depict. The character flaws were never deep or strong, and his romanticized views of the world led him towards a more typical Hollywood outlook on life.

Burns’s 2006 picture “The Groomsmen” only proves these already well-established notions about his writing and direction. In this film, he creates a “Big Chill” type plot where a group of old high school friends are gathered together for the first time years later at some big event where they will all rehash and finally work through all the loose ends in their lives that all stem back to their long ago friendship. It’s a model that’s been done so many times it’s tough to pull off anymore. Although, Burns assembles a great cast, their problems are too broad and too numerous for us to believe they could be worked out in a mere three day period before one of them is about to be married. As is always the case with Burns, there are some great observations about friendship and family here, but not really any that haven’t been explored before in better movies.

The Social Network (2010) ****
Director: David Fincher
Writers: Aaron Sorkin, Ben Mezrich (book "The Accidental Billionaires")
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Armie Hammer, Justin Timberlake, Brenda Song, Rooney Mara, Rashida Jones

Seeing “The Social Network” a second time only confirms any feelings I originally had about the film and its excellence in filmmaking. Seeing the opening sequence a second time clarifies why it in particular stuck out for me the first time I saw the film.

Upon my first viewing, for some reason, the opening credit sequence stood out for me. I couldn’t pin point why at the time, but it reminded me of great credit sequences of the 70s, when credit sequences were simple but said something. Today’s credits sequences are often the stylized punch-ups that ironically are mostly inspired by “The Social Network” director David Fincher’s credit sequence for his movie “Se7en”.

The movie opens with one of the defining scenes of the year in which Mark Zuckerberg’s girlfriend breaks up with him during a conversation where he cannot stop talking about his personal obsession of getting into one of Harvard’s elite final clubs, the social outlets that claim to be based on the academic and character excellence of their members, but are really more about social partying and the degradation of those who are not members. Then, Fincher takes us into his opening credit sequence that seems to quite simply depict Zuckerberg making his way across the Harvard Campus at night back to his dorm room. What Fincher is doing here is so very subtle, but says so much more than it appears to. Zuckerberg is so obsessed with the social environment that he doesn’t even see it all about the campus around him. He remains isolated as he passes through various quads, libraries, parks, and students involved in various activities. None of these things penetrate his personal obsession. On another level, all of these elements of campus life are separate from each other, something Zuckerberg’s invention of that evening will change forever. Through the internet, Zuckerberg’s escape from the reality that he doesn’t belong to any of these real social networks, he will create a virtual social network that will connect all these outlets in ways none of it participants would ever dream possible.

Following the opening credits, we find Zuckerberg back in his dorm room on his now infamous drunken binge of blogging and creating the code that would eventually lead to the greatest internet phenomenon to this day. Fincher intercuts Zuckerberg’s cruel, revenge driven acts here with scenes of final clubs partying, and the sexist and elitist practices that are celebrated in them. Zuckerberg’s Internet invention cleverly appeals to the same mindset that leads to such clubs, yet he takes the elitism out of it by making it available for everyone.

This movie deserves all the credit it’s been getting throughout the awards season. Read my original review here.

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