The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010, USA)

It ought to come as little surprise that The Social Network opens with a bad date which culminates in the ending of a relationship, since the protagonists in David Fincher’s films seldom seem to be having a good time in the amour stakes. If they are not recently divorced (Nicholas Van Orton in The Game, Panic Room‘s Meg Altman) then their marital relationships are showing signs of undergoing severe strain (David Mills in Seven, Robert Graysmith in Zodiac); if they are indeed ‘getting some’ at all then they are either not cognizant of the fact (Fight Club‘s unnamed protagonist), fatally unable to complete their Oedipal trajectory by dint of ageing backwards (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) or, most unfortunately of all, subject to impregnation by a xenomorphic alien creature (Alien 3).

It is worth focusing on the opening scene for a number of reasons. Firstly, it illustrates how surprisingly well the combination of writer and director – both distinctive artistic voices in their own right – are well matched here and enhance each others’ strong suits rather than compromise them. The Aaron Sorkin-penned brashly-inarticulate dialogue sits perfectly with David Fincher’s famously frenetic visual style, though the real standout in this first scene is perhaps the rapid cross-cutting of co-editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, a breathless velocity which sets the pace for what will become a whirlwind trip through the time between Facebook’s inception and its rapid spread across the globe.

The second function of the scene is succinctly to introduce us to the character of Mark Zuckerberg. What we can immediately glean is that he is a spiteful, sharp-tongued yet socially awkward high-achiever whose apparent main concern is not the enjoyment of life and study on the campuses at Harvard, but a zealous desire to gain entry into the freemason-like social sphere of its final clubs which he believes will be the making of him. If this is more than enough for his appalled girlfriend Erica to call time on their relationship and seize the opportunity to jump ship, the scene for the viewer foregrounds the question of the film’s main character’s curious motivations, which in two flash-forward time frames will be repeatedly called into question.

This initial scene also facilitates the first plot point: the drunken, spurned Zuckerberg is spurred into setting up the ‘Facemash’ website which will quickly gain him enough notoriety to bring him to the attention of the blue-blooded Winklevoss twins, whose proposed Ivy League dating site plants the seed for the idea which he will make his own. But so too does it confirm the film’s existence as a work of fiction, given that the date we are witness to could never have occurred in reality since the character of Erica has no real-life counterpart. If the factual accuracy of The Accidental Billionaires – Ben Mezrich’s book upon which the film’s screenplay is based – is questionable then evidently so must be Fincher and Sorkin’s account.

This is no sleight against the film. If the prospect of a narrative based around two injunctions brought against the maker of a website hardly sounds enticing, then the fictive world which is rendered is anything but. As Zuckerberg drunkenly codes his initial site, the film cuts between him and scenes of final club sophomores partying with local nubiles specially shipped-in for their entertainment, the scene more closely resembling the glossy abandon of an alcohol advertisement than anything approaching reality. The worlds of Fincher’s films often have a sense of the unreal about them, and that this time his story does not centre on serial killers, paranoiacs or sado-masochistic basement brawlers does not mean that it has any greater degree of fidelity to the real world.

In many ways, The Social Network is an interesting companion-piece to the director’s previous works, most obviously Zodiac, another film ostensibly based on ‘facts’ but introducing a large degree of conjecture about events which may remain unknowable. But that film functioned in a different time, one in which information dissemination was slowed by technology – the scene where the police admit not to having a fax machine springs most readily to mind – and time passed laboriously with no progress. By contrast, The Social Network plays out in an age of instantaneous worldwide communication and global viral memes. If the protagonist of Fight Club is astonished to discover how quickly his titular phenomenon has spread, it comes as little surprise to Zuckerberg.

That the film’s events take place in the very-recent world of near-instantaneous communications technology is what lends the film its feeling of suspense, and the sense that the events taking place are metonymic of the zeitgeist is underlined by the key difference between the ‘mirror identical’ Winklevoss twins (other than their handedness): their attitude towards pursuing the individual who they feel has stolen their idea. While Tyler Winklevoss is keen to be seen to behave according to the more old-fashioned, gentlemanly mores of Harvard social convention, Cameron Winklevoss seems to be more aware of the fact that the more time they allow Zuckerberg’s TheFacebook to gain the ascendancy, the further they set back their chances of pursuing him for theft.

Zuckerberg’s eventual ‘triumph’ over the Winklevoss twins in getting his Thefacebook out first and into social network hegemony is representative of a strange changing of the guard; the blue-blood Ivy League social groups which he so wanted to penetrate at the start of the film no-longer have relevance for him, as he moves his operation first to universities across the globe, and then to millions of public users. Facebook expands out from the cloistered intelligentsia to the wider proletariat, representing a triumph of bourgeois-capitalism over an antiquated quasi-feudal oligarchy. Ironically, the most humiliating evidence of the twins’ defeat comes at alongside a more literal defeat at that most bourgeois of occasions, the Henley Royal Regatta.

If The Social Network is about a character driven by his inability either to enter into the societal circles he wishes to inhabit or hold down a relationship, then it is not for long a sexless world which he and his co-founder Eduardo Saverin inhabit. Indeed, a key plot point is Zuckerberg adding the crucial element to Thefacebook: the ‘relationship status’ section. As membership of their site spreads across campus, so too does their own fame, and the former losers become unlikely lotharios. The real seduction, though, occurs later on when Zuckerberg meets Sean Parker, the Napster co-founder whose suave charm lures him away from Saverin and the stuffiness of New England academia and out to the more laidback, pseudo-bohemian lifestyle of California’s Silicon Valley. It feels analogous to similar events in Annie Hall, Parker very much the Tony-Lacey-like underhand villain, and Saverin’s evident distaste for West Coast hedonism the equal of Alvy Singer’s.

The film defies easy categorization. The pacing suggests a kind of thriller, though the subject matter makes this seem absurd. As a character study it is hardly a tragedy, nor is Zuckerberg’s story anywhere near a clear-cut one of rags-to-riches or of triumph against adversity. At its best it is actually closest to farce – the seriousness of the settings of the deposition hearings hilariously bearing witness to the petty squabbling and juvenile prankery of young adults – even to the point where a lawyer threatens to use one character’s supposed treatment of a live chicken to blacken his character. If Zuckerberg and Saverin are largely played straight, it is the exaggerated, cartoonish secondary characters which linger in the memory longest – the pathetic seriousness brought to the Winklevoss twins by Armie Hammer, and Justin Timberlake’s irresistibly debonair Sean Parker.

Ultimately, the sheer surface excitement of the story disguises the complexities of the film underneath; its three time-frames – the linear narrative of the main story and the two separate deposition hearings seen in flashforward – fit together so cohesively that their temporal relationship to each other is never muddied. What, though, is the message we are to take from the film? The deliberately deadpan ending makes clear that, in spite of his financial success and popular fame, Mark Zuckerberg has alienated himself from those who sought to get close to him, and even from this experience he has ultimately learned nothing. His response? Look up an old flame and click ‘add as friend’. What we do know is that he’ll be in for a long wait.

Predators (Nimród Antal, 2010, USA)

After the pedestrian turgidity of the Alien vs. Predator (2004) sub-franchise it became clear that all the demonic killing machine of Predator (1987) needed a metaphorical fresh lick of paint and to be sent back out into the jungle to tangle with another group of hapless marines without too much trouble: the formula worked, while attempts to stray from it proved unworkable. This is, in essence, what this Robert Rodriguez-produced action film offers, though coming post-Lost, there is the inevitable need to contrive a plot which throws together a seemingly arbitrarily-selected group of strangers and literally throw them into a deserted wilderness where they come to overcome their initial suspicions of each other and try to figure out where they are and what has happened to them.

And so Predators does, and for a few of its opening scenes there appears to be some life in the simple rehashing of John McTiernan’s original action thriller, but unfortunately this promising setup of disorientation and team-building quickly descends into farce as soon as it becomes obvious that the characters within the film are mostly little-more than borderline-racist caricatures of broad national stereotypes. There’s poor Danny Trejo, playing yet another comedy Hispanic muscleman, the kind that even a Spaghetti Western hack director might have balked at for being too one-dimensional. There’s the big Bond-villain-sized Russian half-wit who is sure to turn out to have a heart of gold before dying violently. Then there’s the stern-faced but sexually alluring Latina who obviously has to make it through to the last reels in order to sustain some sense of sexual tension as a character motivation for the protagonist. Worst of all, there’s the silent Yakuza inevitably handy with a samurai sword, and a lumbering African tribal warrior who is (of course) more in tune with nature than the rest of the troupe and therefore more able to sense danger than the others.

Throw in a knowledgeable doctor and an ex-Black Ops marine for regular expositional helping hands, as well as a wisecracking jocular type for levity (though an obviously inferior aping of Aliens’ Hudson) and you have the gang whose plight Predators asks us to sympathise with. The sheer cardboard simplicity of these archetypes gives a sense of the ambition of the film, which is ultimately very limited indeed – with depressing predictably they swiftly come face-to-face with the dread-locked trophy hunters and face routine fights to the death for their survival. Somewhere in the combination of the utter lack of sympathy for any of the characters and a leaden script which never rises above the run-of-the-mill , Predators somehow manages to be crushingly dull, despite director Nimród Antal’s fairly competent handling of the action set-pieces. As opposed to the creeping sense of dread that McTiernan’s film successfully inspires, the story offers a near-complete lack of physical menace here, quite an acheivement given the inherent menace of the titular ruthless extra-terrestrial assassins. In the UK, the film has been rated a 15 (in comparison to the original’s 18 certificate) redolent of the fact that this is ultimately a film designed to scare adolescents rather than adults.

Predators, then, proves to be an utter waste of time, though it will undoubtedly take money and, by extension, spawn a host of unnecessary sequels and prequels. The concern on Adrien Brody’s face throughout speaks not of his character’s travails but of an Oscar-winning actor who has been reduced to doing bilge like this and the only marginally worse Giallo (2009). Lawrence Fishburne appears midway-through, but appears to be watching an off-screen video of Apocalypse Now (1979) in order to pick up acting riffs from Marlon Brando, as well as just-as-unsuccessful dietary tips. I can’t help but mourn slightly for what has been lost in the transformation the original’s post-Vietnam paranoia into this bland, meaningless game of intergalactic cat-and-mouse; a symptom of a wider malaise in action movies, or just a plain lazy cash cow? Either way, avoid.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (Werner Herzog, 2009, USA)

Werner Herzog has presided over what might loosely be termed ‘remakes’ before: Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979), his predictably odd re-imagining of F.W. Murnau’s silent classic actually seems to sit quite comfortably in amongst his other classics of the 1970s, and while Rescue Dawn (2007) could hardly be termed a replica of his earlier documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), their similarities do reflect the always fine line between fact and fiction that all of his best films carefully tread. This last point has always struck me as the major value of his work; as such, Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams (1982), for all of its merits, seemed only to be the second best documentary about the making of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982), the first being the film itself and its self-reflexive examination of the director’s relation to his chosen artifice through the proxy of Kinski’s titular character.

If there is reason to be disappointed with his latest film, the mouth-numbingly wordily-titled The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, then it is for an absence of this sense of Herzogian ambiguity between fiction and fact; one might question why this usually picky auteur plumped for making what is a reasonably straightforward thriller in the first place, save for the possibility of working with Nicolas Cage, whose gloriously deranged central performance – bouncing around from scene to scene and from score to score – rivals virtually anything that the Bavarian director’s famously lunatic collaborative partnership with Klaus Kinski committed to celluloid.

That aside, there is very little of note; none of his famous eye for establishing an extreme sense of location, whether through visuals or diegetic sound, surely a waste considering both the architectural specificity and the unparalleled musical tradition of the city of New Orleans. Indeed, as lensed by long-time DP Peter Zeitlinger, the film looks much like a bog-standard cable TV police drama. Neither does there seem to be much in the way of an overarching theme, unlike in Abel Ferrara’s original Bad Lieutenant (1992) which was much more obviously steeped in a strongly Catholic sense of sin, foregiveness and redemption. Herzog himself has said the film is about “the bliss of evil”; the bliss certainly shines through in the film’s sheer enjoyability, but the near-slapstick tone detracts from the idea that its protagonist is genuinely evil, particularly when one remembers just how bad Harvey Keitel was in the earlier film.

As a standard crime drama, the film is hard to fault thanks to a tight and at times highly amusing script from veteran scribe William M. Finkelstein, save for some horribly shoehorned-in clunkiness towards the end about a childhood spoon. As one might expect from a Herzog film, the emphasis is very much placed on just the one central character, putting what is one of Cage’s career-best performances in the full spotlight but at the cost of marginalizing an under-used supporting cast. Eva Mendes has little more to do than Isabelle Adjani did Nosferatu; as if we needed reminding, Herzog’s is worldview is unmistakeably male-centric.

Except maybe it isn’t. Outside of the narrative there are some genuinely odd moments, all seeming to involve animals. Iguanas are filmed in extreme close-up while Johnny Adams sings Release Me on the soundtrack, a camera views the scene of a car crash as if through an alligator’s eyes, a family dog seems to cause characters more trouble than one might suspect, and the film ends with a shot of its main character being dwarfed by a background of sharks swimming in an aquarium tank. What is the relevance? Perhaps, when all is said and done, Herzog cares little for this silly world of cops, drug dealers and hookers; it would seem to be an opinion which shared by these animals, indifferent and largely undisturbed by the petty goings-on of the human world. Maybe this is why Bad Lieutenant feels hardly like Werner Herzog’s film at all; it just is not in the world he is interested in. Regardless, it is an amiable-enough piece of popcorn entertainment and, along with Kick Ass (2010), a welcome reminder of just how much fun Nicolas Cage can be.

Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughan, 2009, USA/ UK)

“With no power comes no responsibility” seems to encapsulate pretty well the irreverence of this sometimes-gleefully entertaining adaptation of Mark Millar’s graphic novel deconstruction of the superhero genre. Aaron Johnson is likeably naive as Dave, a shy high school geek who creates an alter-ego of a would-be crime-fighter Kick Ass, kitted out in a garish green and yellow spandex bodysuit and much too optimistic about his chances of taking on New York’s criminal fraternity. He also didn’t count on encountering Big Daddy (an extraordinarily morose Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl, a father-daughter vigilante duo armed to the teeth and seeking revenge on major crime lord Frank D’Amico, nor very modern problem of becoming an overnight Youtube celebrity.

Matthew Vaughan keeps everything within the realms of the cartoon-like, with bad, bad villains meeting their comeuppance and good guys striving to get the girl, although the occasionally Miike Takashi-like levels of ultra-violence and the inappropriately foul utterances of the pre-pubescent Hit Girl suggest this films precedents are more in exploitation cinema rather than Marvel adaptations. The old difficulty of adapting from a graphic novel source resurfaces: in trying to recreate the source’s feeling of a fully-formed world, the first half has to set up three different story strands, and switching between these leaves the narrative initially a little stop-start. However, they converge come the eventual denouement, resulting in a more coherent and satisfying watch than Zack Snyder’s muddled Watchmen (2009). A bigger-budget sequel inevitably beckons, but it will lose this film’s easy lo-fi charm.