Catfish

By , October 20, 2010 6:40 am

Does this beard make me look too hipster?

Reviewed by James Owen

If “The Social Network” explains Facebook’s origins, “Catfish” explains what makes it tick. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s “other Facebook movie” explores some of the darkest elements of social networking more deeply than David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s film: the creation of a “virtual” self, the lack of boundaries in what people “share” with the masses, and the voyeurism and exhibitionism. Where “The Social Network” makes us uncomfortable by showing the unlikable behavior of others, “Catfish” makes us uncomfortable by showing unlikable behavior we do ourselves.

Let’s start with this: The film I saw is not how “Catfish” was marketed (check out the trailer). Perhaps it’s fitting—especially given the film’s subject matter—that Universal Studios used deception in getting my butt into the seat. We start in New York City, where Nev Schulman receives a note from an adoring fan of his photography, an 8-year-old Michigan girl named Abby. She has painted an incredible rendition of his recent work, so they start swapping pieces.  Emails are traded, and Abby’s status as a artistic wunderkind gets tracked by Google searches. Nev’s friends—the film’s directors—begin chronicling their relationship. The relationship begins to feel familiar, though Nev and Abby never actually talk in person. She’s just a person defined by Facebook posts and text messages.

If bonding with an eight-year-old online isn’t weird enough, Nev is contacted by Megan, Abby’s older half-sister. Based on her Facebook page, she’s a looker. Based on their phone conversations, she’s got a voice full of flirtation and sultriness. They Gchat provocatively, text graphically, and Photoshop lustily. At first, Nev and Megan’s relationship seems to be pure escapism—all self-induced fantasy with no obvious or immediate consequence. It’s innocuous if not ridiculous, but Nev finds himself drawn into an unknown brier patch. Listening to the voice, reading the words, and seeing the pictures becomes an intoxicating mirage of a relationship. What began as a quirky documentary about two artists becomes an oddly sterile love affair.

Of course, what we live online and what we live in life are two opposing forces that, any good storyteller will attest, invariably collide. So, Nev and our filmmakers take to the road and use Google Earth (naturally) to locate Abby and Meghan as well as their mother Angela.  What they find once they venture into rural Michigan is not the modern “Blair Witch”-style thriller promised but something a little truer and darker—certainly more steeped in humanity. The mood is a discomforting creepiness, the way you feel when someone gets a little too honest in a status update or gets into a heated argument on a wall posting. “Catfish” traps you in the moment—you can’t just keep scrolling through your News Feed.  

I’ve already said too much about the third act—you need to know just enough to manage expectations. I will leave with this: “Catfish” nicely compliments “The Social Network”’s argument that Facebook’s primary appeal is that it’s based on subjective truth. If Fincher lays out a hypothesis, then “Catfish” is a cinematic test. As an almost scientific examination of this cultural phenomenon, this film scores fairly high. As a film, it’s hard to say if “Catfish” doesn’t cover the modern relationship any better than…say…1998’s “You’ve Got Mail”:  Desperate, lonely people struggle with emotion among cold and unforgiving technology and isolation. More interesting is that Abby’s painting oddly mirrors the wonderful 2007 documentary “My Kid Could Paint That” (Little seen but worth finding).  Though tried and tested, the film’s documentary format does not much in terms of elaboration. Facebook adds a level of novelty but not of inventiveness. As a film about subjectivity, it’s hard to buy the sentimental complications “Catfish” tries to sell at the end. I was unnerved and the filmmakers should have stopped there.

Before I knew anything about the film, I was asked what the title meant. I guessed it was some phrase aimed at Facebook users (typically known as “creepers”) who bottom feed and lurk in the shadows of the medium, quite like a catfish. While the film has its own answer, it’s sugarcoated and insincere. I think my answer still better reflects what “Catfish” actually accomplished.

The Pitch:

2 Fatal Attraction

2 Fatal Attraction

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Pulse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 Catfish

3 Catfish

3 Catfish

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

By , October 19, 2010 9:01 pm

"Anthony, You...You..You May be a Little Young to be Hitting on 30-Year Olds, But I Think You Can Act Your Way Through."

Reviewed by James Owen

Woody Allen’s “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” is one of his Existential Couple Movies. You may recognize this from “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” “Husbands and Wives,” or “Hannah and Her Sisters.” This type of Woody Allen film has layered stories centered around different couples at various stages in their relationships. Each couple struggles with why they are with the other person—lust, happiness, or something else? This struggle leads to conflict in the relationship. Such conflict then results in well-versed soul searching or deceitful cheating. In the end, everybody ends up more deluded than when they started.  Some embrace this as the uncertainly in love; some harden into stone-cold, glassy-eyed  cynics. Either way, Allen thoroughly enjoys watching his characters squirm, playing them for laughs or pathos.

This is not a slam, but an observation. Most filmmakers go back to familiar wells, what matters is whether you do it well.  “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” is a fine film—played for laughs—with great performances, witty dialogue, and the same zeal Allen brought to his recent European films.  We follow two London couples morphing into four: There’s Helena (Gemma Jones) and Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) who begin the film by divorcing, seemingly because of the anxiety of mortality. We shift into Alfie’s relationship with Charmaine (Lucy Punch), whose background is a running gag and their connection continually questioned.

There’s also Helena and Alfie’s daughter Sally (Naomi Watts). She, too, has her own problems: Her husband is American writer Roy (Josh Brolin), who is having trouble living up to his previous book. He’s moody and pushy and easily distracted by a sexy neighbor lurking by her window.  Frustrated, Sally is drawn to her new boss Greg (Antonio Banderas), who, while looking and sounding different, seems to have the same hang-ups as her husband. All of this bounces around with characters talking about their failings and their ambitions, eventually realizing their relationship anxiety is based more on the present rather than hazy expectations of the future.

“You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” works to a point—there’s more perspective here than in Allen’s recent efforts. While Brolin plays the Allen character (the writer with the idealized life he seems hell-bent on wrecking), Hopkins grabs the film’s heart: Lamenting the lost joy in his life with his fleeting days, Alfie tries too hard and ends up hurting himself more than anyone else. There’s a sadness and vulnerability Allen has sometimes run away from in the past. But here, Allen confronts death in a way that suggest Allen will finally reach the true Bergman phase of his career—hopefully, his unique take on life will match his take on death. This is certainly helped by Hopkins’ rich, interesting performance. He has a gravitas missing from even the better Allen performers and, frankly, does not have any trouble showing his age.

Alas, there’s also a nagging simplicity to Allen’s narrative that bothered me. “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” refers to Hannah’s use of a fortune teller to puzzle out her romantic woes. Allen says that you cannot guide love or people’s own nature. I mean, really? This is one of those silly crutches Allen uses like the Chinese herbalist in “Alice” who helps Mia Farrow in her mid-life funk or the hypnotist in “Curse of the Jade Scorpion”  who puts Allen together with Helen Hunt (a relationship so unappealing one wonders if they would conceive a scarecrow). It’s silly, like an old vaudeville joke Allen keeps telling, thinking someone will still laugh. But it’s just a gag; a goofy device undermining the rest of the film.

“You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” has plenty worth recommending, even if it sounds familiar. You may also recognize other Woody Allen film types here—the Moral Thriller (“Crimes and Misdemeanors”, “Match Point”) and the Intellectual’s Romantic Journey (“Annie Hall”, the 2009 vintage throwback “Whatever Works”). All fits nicely into place and, I, for one, hopes Allen keeps cranking them out a little longer.

The Pitch:

2 Husbands and Wives

2 Husbands and Wives

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Richard Curtis

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

3 You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

3 You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Justice Stevens’ Worst Opinion

By , October 16, 2010 12:08 pm

Everett, an 82 year old Mt. Pleasant man I bussed to the voting precinct during the 2008 Iowa Caucuses. I nearly dropped him on an ice patch outside the van, which might have killed him and certainly would have broken his hip for the second time in six months.

When Justice Stevens announced his retirement during the last term, liberal Supreme Court commentators lamented the loss of the leader of the left side of the Supreme Court divide.  Though appointed by Republican President Gerald Ford in 1975, Stevens sided with the liberal wing of the court in several decisions.  Over the past three decades, the Court has drifted rightward, leaving Stevens to look more and more like a liberal lion.  In truth, Stevens is a sensible moderate, only looking liberal in relationship to the rest of the Court. 

But I digress.  The day he announced his retirement, Dahlia Lithwick at Slate wrote of Stevens’ extraordinary empathy, his ability to see the world through others’ eyes.   I agree, for the most part.  But one of Stevens’ decisions that still bothers me, and could have far-reaching impacts on close elections in the years to come, concerns and Indiana voter id law from 2006.  In fact, the decision has added fuel to Kris Kobach’s “We Need to Stamp Out Voter Fraud” campaign theme for Kansas Attorney General.  This is the most significant instance of Stevens’ empathy failing him and leading to a terrible decision.  Here’s what I wrote back in 2007.  If you’re not interested in a lengthy discussion of Equal Protection Clause, feel free to skip this post and we’ll have something else for you tomorrow. 

Just a few days before the Indiana Democratic Primary on May 6th, the Supreme Court issued its in opinion in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board , which upheld the constitutionality of Indiana’s voter identification law. Ostensibly, the law (SEA 483) was designed to crack down on in-person voter identification fraud by requiring voters to show photo id at the polling place. However, SEA 483 is a solution in search of a problem: Not a single case of in-person voter fraud has ever been prosecuted in Indiana. In fact, is a partisan attempt to control the vote:  SEA 483, the toughest of its kind in the country, was approved on a strict party-line vote, with every Republican voting for the law and every Democrat voting against. The decision could play a big role in future elections, as Republican state legislatures across the country adopt similar legislation that could keep thousands of poor, elderly, and often minority citizens (who just happen to voter overwhelmingly Democratic) from casting votes.

The particulars of Crawford are as follows: In 2005, the Indiana legislature approved SEA 483, which requires citizens voting in-person to present photo identification at the polling place. There are some notable exceptions (absentee ballots only require a signature, those living in state-licensed nursing homes are exempt), but for the most part, voters need a drivers license or state-licensed non-drivers ID. The IDs are free, but you need a birth certificate or social security card to get one, which can cost up to thirty dollars to obtain and often require multiple trips to government offices. If you can’t supply photo ID, you can cast a provisional ballot and then sign an affidavit at the County Clerk’s saying, essentially, that you’re too poor to get the documents together for an ID. The Indiana Democratic Party filed suit immediately after Republican governor Mitch Daniels signed the bill into law, arguing that SEA 483 violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.  The suit eventually worked its way up to the Supreme Court, after being found constitutional by a split panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (The two Republican appointees voting in favor; the Democrat against).

To decide if a law violates the Equal Protection Clause, the Court has developed a series of hoops to jump the law through. Relevant to Crawford, those hoops are as follows. First, the Court has to decide how important the right infringed by the law is. Voting is in the category of most important rights–a “fundamental” right. A law restricting a fundamental right gets the highest level of scrutiny by the Court (“strict scrutiny”), meaning that the state has to have a really, really good reason for the law. The law survives strict scrutiny only if it is “narrowly tailored” to serve a “compelling state interest.” The vast majority of the time, if a law gets strict scrutiny, it will be declared unconstitutional. In the election law context, strict scrutiny requires a balancing test in which the Court weighs the law’s burdens on the voter versus the state’s relevant and legitimate justifications for the law.

The landmark decision in this line of cases is Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections  (1966), which held that poll taxes violate Equal Protection because “voter qualifications have no relations to wealth.” But, as with many Warren-era decisions, this bedrock value has been whittled away by an increasingly conservative Court. In 1983, the Court held in Anderson v. Celebrezze that any law which has “even handed restrictions that protect the integrity and reliability of the election process itself” qualifies as “narrow tailoring,” essentially requiring a super duper severe burden (like, a poll tax, or fighting ninjas in front of the voting booth) on the voter to overcome the state’s interest. In 1992, the Court effectively threw up an additional hoop in Burdick v. Takushi, which forces the voter to overcome an additional balancing test (“reasonable restrictions” v. “character and magnitude of asserted injury”) just to get to the Equal Protection Strict Scrutiny analysis. In effect, over the past two decades, the Court has undermined the idea that voting is a “fundamental right” and has overburdened voters’ burden to prove they’re overburdened.

The 6-3 opinion (Roberts, Stevens, Kennedy, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito in the majority; Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer in dissent) is rather extraordinary. Justice Stevens’ controlling plurality opinion found that SEA 483 does indeed infringe on a fundamental right, but the law overcomes strict scrutiny anyway–which is a little bit like giving an Oscar to M. Night Shyamalan because you didn’t count the stupid twist ending. In essence, when Stevens weighs the state’s interests versus the voters’ burdens, he finds that the state’s interest in preventing a crime nobody’s ever been convicted of overcomes the burden of poor old people having to travel all over the county, contacting state departments of revenue, paying a bunch of fees, and being humiliated by having to admit that they’re too poor to vote.

At least Stevens was willing to analyze the balancing test. Justice Scalia wrote in concurrence that the Indiana law doesn’t even meet the Burdick test, so the burden on the voter is, constitutionally speaking, so minor that it barely requires consideration. Scalia simply can’t understand why these poor old people are upset—I mean, they get to cast provisional ballots or could vote absentee if they wanted to. But, as Justice Souter notes in dissent, many absentee ballots are routinely tossed out or not counted because of technicalities or because they’re confusing. Plus, the provisional ballot is only counted if you can make your way down to the courthouse and sign an affidavit saying you’re too poor—even though the very fact that you’re poor is probably the reason you can’t get to the courthouse and pay the necessary fees anyway.

Essentially, Scalia wants to create a second class of votes—hey, you got to register your opinion about who you want to be president, but it’s probably not going to count. Scalia, true to his textualist nature, plays some word games with the terms “burdens” and “impacts.” Scalia argues that the “burden” on all voters is the same, even though it “impacts” voters differently. This is bullshit, and Scalia basically admits as much. We could require all voters to pass a literacy test because the “burden” is equal for all voters, but we can’t consider the “impact” of the law on those who can’t read. Well, why not just ignore the “impact” on those too poor to pay a poll tax just as long as all voters are “burdened” with paying $5.00 to vote? Scalia even acknowledges that “likely impact” is a factor in deciding whether a law is too burdensome (Storer v. Brown at 738), but just breezes on by this factor to re-assert his conclusory point that all burdens are equal as long as the law doesn’t say, “Poor black city dwellers and poor white country folk who live forty miles from the county seat have to pay a whole bunch of money they don’t have and make several dangerous trips just to have a small voice in the future of our country.”

Scalia, however, is right on one count, that Stevens’ invitation for individual voters to launch “as-applied” attacks on the law could create constant litigation to cut holes in the fabric of the Court’s decision. Fair enough, but it follows that voters who are too old and poor to get a state id probably don’t have the means to launch a complex constitutional case in federal court. Towards the end of his opinion, he tosses off a judicial-minimalism argument that is so formalistic that Scalia seems to willfully blind himself to its effects. Scalia says his real objection is that the Constitution vests the power to conduct elections in state legislatures in Article I. True enough, but this doesn’t mean that the state can restrict the right to vote inconsistently with the rest of the Constitution—as the Court did when it struck down the poll tax. But that doesn’t matter here. Scalia’s is a faux-democratic argument: He argues that the issue is best left to legislature, but would deny the most vulnerable citizens the right to vote for representatives in that legislature. How can hens vote the foxes out of the henhouse if the hens’ votes don’t count?

Equally bizarre is the analysis in Stevens’ controlling opinion, which is so divorced from the real lives of real-life actual real people that it reads less like work of an eighty-eight year old man and more like a grandson who is tired of taking grandma around for her errands. On the state’s side of the Anderson balancing test, Stevens identifies four state interests. First, to “modernize elections,” where Stevens invokes no less than Jimmy Carter and James Baker’s (former Secretary of State and captain of George W. Bush’s 2000 Florida recount team) Commission on Federal Election Reform to support his case. Oddly, Stevens quotes this passage from the Commission’s report: “There is no evidence of extensive fraud in U.S. elections or multiple voting, but both occur, and could affect the outcome of a close election.”

We already knew this, of course–otherwise, there would have been no need for Alberto Gonzalez’ Justice Department to fire those U.S. District Attorneys (all nominated by Bush and confirmed by a Republican Senate) for refusing to file frivolous voter fraud lawsuits in heavily Democratic precincts. If there have been no prosecution of in-person voter fraud in Indiana, and that Republican U.S. attorneys can’t find voter fraud even after extensive investigations, how much weight should this “state interest” have? At best, the Commission’s position is conclusory and faith-based: There’s no evidence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but you can’t say he doesn’t forge his signature on the Marion County, Indiana voter rolls. Still, Stevens puts his finger on the state’s side of the scale.

The second interest is bound up with the first: to deter and detect voter fraud. Stevens again emphasizes that not a single instance of voter fraud has ever been prosecuted in Indiana, as if he’s dissenting from his own opinion. If, say, ousted U.S. DA for Western Missouri (and Bush appointee and brother of Republican congressman Sam Graves) Todd Graves had caught Jackson County Democrats holding drunks at gunpoint outside the precinct like Steve Buscemi in Kansas City, then, yeah, good point. But it’s not, so Stevens has to travel in the wayback machine to pull up Boss Tweed as his chief exhibit. That’s right: Justice Stevens invokes Boss Tweed as evidence for in-person voter fraud in 2008. In fact, Stevens does find one instance of voter fraud in Indiana, involving absentee ballots cast during the 2003 Democratic Primary for East Chicago Mayor. Unbelievably, Stevens cites this as evidence of the need to prevent in-person voting fraud—the very remedy (absentee ballots) given to disenfranchised voters!

Stevens’ last point so lacks evidence he manages only a conclusory single paragraph. The third state interest is to safeguard voter confidence. He cites no evidence that Indiana voters have no confidence in their system, nothing. But he does name-drop the Carter-Baker report again, saying, well, if you don’t have safeguards, people are just going to think this whole election thing lacks integrity–you know, like legislature passing laws to intentionally disenfranchise the poorest and most vulnerable citizens from voting.

Finally, Stevens just kinda drops another argument, that Indiana needs to purge its bloated voter rolls of dead or moved citizens. Stevens likely dropped the argument because, well, there’s no possible way that requiring voter ID would help counties figure out who doesn’t need to be on the voter roll. If somebody shows up that isn’t on the list, sure, gotcha. But, unless dead people start showing up at the polls in mass, no names are coming off the list. So, unless this is the scene outside the Gary, Indiana voting precinct, and those zombie voters don’t have photo id, there has to be a more effective way to purge the rolls.

On the other side of the scale, Stevens is even less convincing. He wonders what the big deal is for somebody to cast a provisional ballot, and then within ten days go down to the courthouse and sign an affidavit that you’re too poor or without means to get an ID. Well, Justice, one reason that might cause a problem is the humiliation of having to admit, in a legal document, that you’re too destitute to cast a full ballot in an election. Second, part of the reason you can’t get your documentation together is that it’s too hard to get to the courthouse. Third, for those on fixed incomes, the cost of procuring an out-of-state birth certificate can be substantial, confusing, and time-consuming–which Stevens even admits is in opposition to the holding in Harper. Again, Stevens seems to be dissenting from his own opinion.

Stevens goes on to attack Justice Souter’s dissent in footnotes, as if he’s too embarrassed to respond in the main text of the opinion. His rebuttals recall the passage in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Nine, in which it’s revealed that Chief Justice Rehnquist took a private limo ride to the Court once he became sick. I am glad the Chief Justice, especially in his time of dire need, was able to get to the Court to do his important work, but not all of the sick and elderly can simply call up a limo and take a drive down to the courthouse. I could find no mention of how the eighty-eight year old Justice Stevens makes it to court every day, but I’ll bet he’s got it a helluva lot easier than most great-grandpas in the state of Indiana. Souter cites the fact that 43,000 elderly citizens in Indiana don’t have photo id, but Stevens just kind of dismisses the figure, even though the District Court admitted this into evidence, the State didn’t object, and it’s backed by extensive research described in Souter’s dissent. Stevens goes onto say that “supposition based on extensive Internet research is not an adequate substitute for admissible evidence,” even though the District Court admitted the evidence itself. Stevens apparently doesn’t realize that the government keeps a lot of official records on these here interwebs.

Stevens’ next argument is bizarre, and really drives a stake through the vampire heart of his argument. Souter cites the fact that public transportation is not widely available in Indiana, especially in rural counties where the county seat may be many miles away, or in large cities where the rigors of mass transit may be especially hard for the elderly and sick. Stevens wonders why these “elderly and indigent citizens” don’t just “obtain a photo identification…during a routine outing with family and friends or during a special visit to the BMV arranged by a civic or political group such as the League of Women Voters or a political party.” Apparently, poor old people are supposed to just drop by the BMV while out taking a ride down to the malt shop with their girlfriends. Fair enough, but it doesn’t seem to occur to Justice Stevens that the whole problem is that the trip itself can be extremely dangerous because they’re frickin’ old and sick.

And yes, Judge Posner, I have been a member of a political party who has helped transport old sick people to vote.  I have personally “worked harder” to get supporters to the polls. In fact, I damn near dropped Mervin the diabetic on a sheet of black ice in an elementary school parking lot in Fort Madison, Iowa just to get his ass in to caucus for that scumbag John Edwards. I drove his motorized wheelchair into a snowbank at the nursing home. That wheelchair, my friends, is not making it twenty miles down the road in the snow to the Lee County courthouse in Keokuk so Mervin can fill out his I’m-too-poor-to-vote affidavit. I damn near broke Everett’s hip trying to get him out of the van. I lost Mary in the elementary school. 

So don’t tell me, judges, that you can just pop over to the courthouse and all this is no big deal. When you’re dealing with the old and sick–the most vulnerable of our citizens–it is a big deal. It can also be life-threatening if you’ve got to go clear to the county seat, whether you live in a rural or urban area. And yes, I’d be just as pissed if these disenfranchised voters were going to vote Republican–hell, in many rural counties where getting to the County Clerk’s office is a long highway drive, they probably will. That’s not the point—especially as it relates to the Equal Protection Clause.  Poor black folks in the city and poor white folks in the country all deserve the right to vote. Democracy demands it, and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution, you would think, would command it.

Apparently, the chauffeurs of the elderly of the High Court are tipped well enough that they’ve made the justices so comfortable they don’t realize this. It shouldn’t take a de facto poll tax, three phone calls and a bunch of faxed documents to out of state departments of revenue, two thirty miles trips to the county courthouse, and if that falls through, another trip to courthouse to fill out a humiliating affidavit, just to vote.  You’d think a damn-near ninety year old man would realize that.

My Soul to Take

"Yeah Wes, right? I Loved 'Rushmore' and 'Bottle Rocket'. You're, Like, A Legend!"

Reviewed by James Owen

There must have been something on Wes Craven’s mind when he chose “My Soul to Take” for his first writer/director’s gig since 1994’s very funny and self-aware “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.” I mean, there’s always the need to make a buck—but if you’re Wes Craven, that’s why you make “Scream 4,” right?  Still, this is the guy who made “A Nightmare on Elm Street” an allegory for the Cambodian Killing Fields and made “The People Under the Stairs” about Reaganomics. If Wes Craven is going to go through the trouble of putting of the auteur hat again, we should expect some social commentary between blood lettings.  

Instead, I am not sure even what’s going on in “My Soul to Take.”  We start out in 1994 with a serial killer dubbed “The Ripper”  loose in the sleepy town of Riverton.  Inexplicably, the local news knows the killer uses a knife emboldened with the word “vengeance.”  Suburban dad Abel (uh oh, ham-handed symbolism alert) is working in the basement as his pregnant wife and child sleep upstairs. The knife appears. All of a sudden, the voices in his head tell him to kill his family. In true Craven style, the scene is unnerving, especially when Abel tries to talk himself out of it. Thankfully, Abel has a therapist on speed dial, so what we think is supernatural is actually part of some condition.

So, Abel’s problem is psychological, right? But, when all hell breaks loose, it seems awfully tough to kill Abel/Ripper, which again points us to the supernatural conclusion. As every law enforcement officer in Riverton tries to kill this lunatic, we also learn there’s an outbreak of child birthing going down at the hospital. Seven kids, which doesn’t sound like a baby boom, but (gasp!) this is the same number as The Ripper’s victims. I guess we can assume these newborns represent the souls taken by the serial killer.  While that is going on, Abel “dies,” but Craven leaves lots of ambiguities. Dead, alive, or does it matter because he will live on? Plus, does the knife have anything to do with it or is that just a vessel for something deadlier? 

We flash forward to the present. The anniversary is dubbed “Ripper Day” and all the kids born that night are turning sixteen. In a bit of endless exposition, we learn that the legend of The Ripper is that he will return to kill off all the kids who were born the day he died. Why? Because it’s the serial killer’s soul? Or because it’s the force that seemingly had control of the serial killer, as evidenced by the opener? Or did The Ripper really die? And why sixteen? This is where I think I sense Craven’s interest. Most of the Ripper Seven (or whatever they are) fit into the typical high-school stereotypes: the Jock, Geek, Mean Girl, Sensitive Type, the Non-Descript Asian are dispatched in the first fifteen minutes. The one thing they all have in common is a brooding seriousness, as if adolescence is a dreaded weight. Quite like “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” the children of this generation must pay for the sins of their parents’ generation.

Fair enough, but Craven doesn’t take that very far: Why do we care about these kids whose only purpose is to die vividly and unpleasantly in the first couple of reels? Their individuality is only matched in vapidity by your average adolescent on ABC Family. The notable exception, I suppose, is Bug (Max Thieriot). Bug has strange hallucinations and is seemingly able to channel the soul of the last kid killed. Has the soul of The Ripper entered into Bug? Does he have some sort of psychic, or genetic, connection? Seemingly not, as we see The Ripper killing his victims and he (or it) looks nothing like our Bug. Then, that pesky knife shows up.

This is almost irrelevant at this point because “My Soul to Take” doesn’t ever seem to take a position on WHAT The Ripper is. Of course, Bug also seems to have a thing for condors—a bird, we are reminded through repetitious exposition, the Native Americans believed carried the souls of the bodies it scavenged. Not only do we get this story over and over again, we even see Bug dressed as a condor for a science project. That there bird means death. Thanks, Wes, we got it the first six times.

Craven is still skilled at developing his villains into full character, not simply some moral arbiter as in the typical slasher film. Freddy Krueger, in his inception, was a silent bully designed to scar the mind as much as inflict physical pain. The killers from “The Hills Have Eyes” cleverly literalized the concept of the “nuclear” family. So, what does The Ripper represent?  As a metaphor, he’s supposed to represent the doubt in an unrepentant soul. At least, that’s what the contrived plot twists of “My Soul to Take” point to. But there’s no resolution as to who the Ripper REALLY is or what he/it really represents. Craven’s uncertainty is maddening—it’s like he didn’t quite work the whole thing out in his mind before filming. 

Plus, is it too much to just want to be scared by a mid-October movie? Other than the spooky, sepia-soaked cinematography and the opening sequence, I was given no one or nothing to worry about. I felt no emotional connection to this series of narrative episodes, so there was never anything at stake for me. If Craven had just lowered his goal to this very elegant if simple goal, I wouldn’t have cared about the unanswered question of “My Soul to Take”. As it is, my response to the question is: Who cares, Wes? Bring on Scream 4!

The Pitch:

1 Shocker

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1/2 The Secret Life on An American Teenager

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

1 1/2 My Soul to Take

1 1/2 My Soul to Take

Social Network, The

By , October 9, 2010 2:33 pm

Eisenberg's Walk of Shame After a Two-Day Bender with Aaron Sorkin

Reviewed by James Owen

David Fincher’s “The Social Network” dispenses with two essential questions fairly flawlessly: (1) How to make a movie about Facebook? and (2) Why make a film about Facebook? Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (who certainly knows a thing or two about describing the slow and inevitable corruption of ideals) tell the story from various viewpoints and present their conclusions as a subjective answer. This is what Facebook does every day; it gives 500 million of us (and the fake personalities created to sell porn) a chance to present ourselves and our lives to everyone else…as we see it.

Similarly, Sorkin and Fincher tell the story through their own artistic viewpoints.  Sorkin’s screenplay emphasizes the idealism of Facebook and the certainty of its creator (as in The West Wing—there’d be permanent Democratic majorities if the party were led by Jeb Bartlett).  On the other end of the spectrum, Fincher sees the more sinister elements of the Facebook idea, which he emphasizes with shadowy cinematography and a Trent Reznor score that sounds like the soundtrack to a badly-produced snuff film. The concoction is simplified version of a rather unusual cultural phenomenon, but one that’s wildly entertaining, systematically thrilling, and perhaps as good a corporate rendering as we’ve seen since the days of Orson Welles.

We begin in the fall of 2003 on the eve of Facebook’s genesis. Before we find out that Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) invented a daring piece of software in his teens which he refused to sell to Microsoft for a gazillion dollars, and before we learn he will drop out of Harvard to create a cultural phenomenon, we see him on a bad date. She’s Erica (Rooney Mara, or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as you will soon know her), and the audience wonders what she’s doing with this motor-mouthed weirdo. I am going to assume she’s was intrigued by his early accomplishments—curious about someone who, when asked why he made his groundbreaking software available for free online rather than contracting with Bill Gates, simply shrugs his shoulders. At this moment, Erica (and the audience) is seeing the darker side of Mark: An intellectual bully who uses his superior knowledge to feel powerful over and actively try to harm a lesser “opponent.”

She storms off; he stumbles back to the dorm. Hurt from rejection, Mark blogs about this girl—specifically about her looks and about her intellectual inferiority. Then, he starts hacking into Harvard’s dormitory pages to post pictures of female students and allow users to determine which is better looking—basically, “Hot or Not” for Harvard students.  Fincher intercuts Zuckerberg’s furious hacking and coding with a rush party at one of Harvard’s exclusive clubs. The old-oak look of the house is out-of-date with the modern Ivy League, but seems to represent Zuckerberg’s idea of the exclusive clubs, the ones he says “lead to a better life.”  Within hours, “Face Mash” is launched, crashing the Harvard server.

This gets the attention of the Winklevoss twins (both played seamlessly by Armie Hammer), who are blonde and white and rich and row crew (In fact, they do at the 2008 Olympics). They also have an idea for a website—essentially, a dating services for Harvard students. They approach Mark to create the site. He is intrigued by the attention from the twins—by their affluence and by their stature, by the fact they seem to belong to the Harvard society in Mark’s mind. He agrees to help, but signs no contract and seemingly has no contact with the twins after the initial meeting.  The Winkelvosses (or “Winklevi,” as Mark calls them) eventually sue Mark for stealing their idea. He points out their idea had nothing to do with what he created (“If you had invented Facebook, you would have invented Facebook.”) and they are simply stinging from the fact that something, for the first time in their lives, didn’t work out for them.

I tend to agree with Mark on that point. Of course, from Face Mash or the Winkelvoss’ “Harvard Connection” or whatever, Mark starts developing an idea with his roommate, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, or Spider-Man as you will soon be calling him), an investment prodigy. So, why is he friends with some motor-mouthed weirdo? They’re kindred spirits:  Outsiders who have both seen early-life success and are looking for their Next Big Thing (Or, as the President of Harvard points out later, “People come to Harvard to invent jobs, not to get one”).   Zuckerberg pulls Saverin from a party to stand outside in the cold, and he lays out why his creation, The Facebook, will be different than MySpace or Friendster: This will be a place where your curiosity about your friends will know no bounds. You can learn as much about your friends as they want you to.

While perhaps simplistic, Zuckerberg’s insight nails some of the more intriguing, yet disturbing aspects of social networking: voyeurism, exhibitionism, and our desire to present ourselves in a highly manipulated fashion.  There’s a thrill to looking through people’s lives, once invited in, that borders on a sexual energy. How many times have you seen a friend completely spill their guts on Facebook, then feel bad for revealing their sheer vulnerability? Or how many times you’ll see a friend performing and preening like a molting peacock? There’s a subjectivity to the truth found online; a truth controlled by the person handpicking the information shared.

But I digress: At this point, Facebook becomes a business that starts sweeping from campus to campus. Saverin has dumped some of his own money into the endeavor and is listed as a co-founder. But he doesn’t see this as his full-time passion. He still wants to make his money in the future and, like everyone else, does not necessarily see the full potential of Facebook. Who does see the potential is Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the founder of Napster with the right connections to capital funds wanting the Next Big Thing. While Saverin wants to make money off pop-up ads, Parker starts talking about moving everything to Simi Valley and going after venture capitalists in big, shiny San Francisco skyscrapers. This, ultimately, is why Zuckerberg’s Facebook worked when similar sites did not.

How does Parker convince Zuckerberg to drop out of Harvard?  Parker also introduces Zuckerberg to a world where geek is chic. Forget the idealized vision of Harvard—Silicon Valley is where ideas are sexually appealing. Never mind that this experience compromises Zuckerberg and his relationships, but really, what would you do if JT called you up to hang with California girls and to drink expensive champagne at the clubs? Would any of us be strong enough to resist such temptation?  “The Social Network” answers by filming Justin Timberlake’s Parker flashing in a red tinge light surrounded by girls and booze.

Regardless, a massive criticism of “The Social Network” has targeted exactly HOW someone as socially-awkward as Zuckerberg is presented here could have an idea as insightful and intuitive. My reaction to that is: You don’t have to do something to know how it works. How many film critics, for instance, can analyze a film but wouldn’t know the first thing about making a movie? How many economic professors would wilt at running the Federal Reserve. No, Zuckerberg may come off as a cold creep, but he certainly doesn’t come off as anything other than an abashed genius. Where does this genius come from? I don’t know because it’s not entirely certain ANYONE knows. The only person who has come forward to talk about him is Saverin, and he has a clear agenda based on being pissed off about Zuckerberg freezing him out of the company.

I think Fincher and Sorkin’s point is not to create a truth about Facebook, but to show the subjectivity of truth—quite like Facebook does for its users. That’s why Sorkin’s uses of the depositions as his narrative hook. Like Orson Welles’ use of a journalist interviewing questionable sources in “Citizen Kane,” a deposition doesn’t give you an objective truth about anything, just a specific version of truth. Fincher and Sorkin simply film the origins of Facebook through the lens of its own moral uncertainty.  We may not ever know who Zuckerberg is or what his motives were, but we certainly get some perspective. Perhaps the depiction makes him seem deplorable, but I felt bad for the guy—misunderstood like a Johnny Depp character in a Tim Burton film. This might brush aside some of the more unflattering “revelations” that come out about him. But that certainly makes his weaknesses far more humanized.

Is this too simple to describe Facebook:  “There’s no right answer but we know everyone who does it is just interested in sex.” No, that would be like saying “Kane” is about a boy and his sled. “The Social Network” tries to help us learn more about something by looking at its origins rather than its present, how this story is told by its participants rather than by what actually happened. Can this be considered fair to the actual, real-life people depicted? Especially when one of them is still 26? I don’t know…films aren’t supposed to be judged on fairness but on effectiveness. With “The Social Network,” you won’t find too many films more effective than this.

The Pitch:

2 "21"

2 "21"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

2 "Citizen Kane"

2 "Citizen Kane"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

4 "The Social Network"

4 "The Social Network"

4 "The Social Network"

4 "The Social Network"

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

By , October 4, 2010 7:11 am

LaBeouf reads Megan Fox's open letter to Michael Bay.

Reviewed by James Owen

If there is a theme to the erratic but mad genius of Oliver Stone, it’s a world where Dark Forces take control of Destiny because some things are Too Big to Fight. Stone’s films ask:  Why not just embrace the darkness? Whether he is the Vietnam solider (“Platoon,” “Born of the 4th of July”), the vilified politician (“Nixon,” “W”) or despicable criminal (“Natural Born Killers,” “Scarface”), an Oliver Stone protagonist struggles with the power of sin and cruelty of fate.  The best example is in “Nixon” where the President confronts a group of anti-war protesters at the Jefferson Memorial. One of these kids asks why his administration failed to de-escalate the troop levels in Vietnam. While attempting to answer, Nixon stumbles to the realization he can’t do anything about the war, that the political system has more power than any one person—even more than the President.

Perhaps Stone is self-defeating and pessimistic. Or, he’s acutely aware and humanizing.  Either way, Oliver Stone’s movies are about more than the provocative subject matter he chooses.  The subject merely represents something about ourselves.

“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” opens with Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) explaining how mankind sprung from a cosmic “bubble” billions of years ago, comparing our evolution to market fluctuations.  The implication is that our economic system is merely a reflection of our collective personality. This sets the stage for the rise of young Jake as he springs from a firm bankrupted by scrupulous spectators, leaving his mentor Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) in an emasculated heap.  Jake continues to evolve, becoming a key player for the very trader (Josh Brolin) who caused his previous employer to fail. Though this is primarily an act of vengeance, Stone muddies our hero’s motives by injecting a sense of idealism and a contradictory sense of greed. It’s a lot to ask of an actor with LaBeouf’s range, but he stays within himself and makes Jake a credible threat in the corridors of power.

Oh, and did I mention greed?  Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko himself was a contradiction:  He represented everything repulsive about the modern business man (lack of loyalty, no trace of ethics) but everything appealing (motivation, ambition, taste). No one wants to admit he likes Gekko (other than the guys in “Boiler Room”), but Douglas brought such stature to a slimy character that the film caught on with filmgoers and, inadvertently, with Wall Street itself. He returns years later to this film’s pre-2008 period, humbled by a stretch in prison, but on the comeback trail with a new book, Is Greed Good?  At book signings, he talks about derivative markets and predatory lending, bemoaning the calculus behind the new market of backing money rather than productivity. In these moments, Douglas conveys a weary and aged power that’s as good as almost any performance he’s given since the original.

Then the film gets around to the complete financial meltdown of 2008. While fictionalized, Stone blends the technical talk with his well-established characters to create a simplified but sufficient breakdown of how this really happened. Here, Stone reveals the larger thesis of “Money Never Sleeps”: If the Reagan Era was about greed, the Bush Era was about envy.  Or, when Brolin’s corporate raider is asked how much it would take for him to walk away, he answers “more.”

Stone seems to argue that Wall Street and, in turn, our country has evolved from the greed of the first film to this more dangerous sin. The difference is that greed is intrinsic, a self-defeating impulse emanating from inside us. Envy is extrinsic, communicative like a virus which, Stone argues, corrupts the integrity of an entire population. Then, once the government bails out some of the larger firms, Stone shows how this virus evolves into another deadly sin:  gluttony. Greed is simply the root of these evils.  

Balancing this philosophizing is the more inviting chord struck between Jake and Gordon revolving their relationship with Winnie (Carey Mulligan), Jake’s fiance and Gordon’s daughter. Their relationship is much better than the dueling father scenario created for Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) in the original “Wall Street.” Instead aiming for high, Oedipal drama, Stone soft pedals the plotting and lets LaBeouf, Douglas, and Mulligan do the work. This is rare restraint and greatly appreciated.

Still, if a sane filmmaker made something with these ingredients, it would be masterful. Since we’re talking about Oliver Stone, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” suffers from his artistic “choices.” Remember that bubble analogy from the opening? You can’t forget it after endless visual shots of bubbles floating into the sky and popping. Yes, it’s that obvious. The dominoes falling over during the crash comes fairly close to insulting your intelligence as well.

And then there’s the ending. Without giving it away, let’s just say that a film has to earn its conclusion.  In a comedy or heroic film, have a happy ending; in a tragedy, have a sad ending.  You can’t mix the two without some build-up or transition.  In short, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” does not deserve its ending. You would swear you were watching a Spielberg flick.

To the last ten minutes, though, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” does a nice job of taking the audience through this most recent financial crisis and provides an interesting contrast to the original film. It seems Stone is fighting off his own dark artistic forces and still making challenging, interesting cinema. Crazy? Sure, but who ever said smart had to be sane?

The Pitch:

2 Natural Born Killers

2 Natural Born Killers

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Mad Money

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

3 Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

3 Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

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