Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Social Network (2010)

You don’t have to look far as a Hollywood executive before you see that a film about the origins of facebook is an almost surefire endeavor. As social media marks its territory on human consciousness and history, facebook is THE juggernaut. With more than 500 million active accounts, facebook has almost single handedly changed the way we communicate. I would wager a guess that the average facebook user checks his/her profile page (from home or mobile device) at least 10 times per day (I’m being stubbornly conservative with this guess). All things considered, now seems like almost too perfect of a time for a facebook movie.

I would be lying if I claimed not to be flabbergasted by the amount of critical praise The Social Network has received. Generally speaking, the only movies to garner 98% positive reviews on are animated pictures that guilt critics into giving positive criticisms. It is almost unheard of for a live-action, dramatic film to receive a score of 90% of above. Needless to say, my expectations were elevated for my screening of The Social Network. Although there are some extremely positive thins to say about the film, such critical praise is unwarranted.

Producers of The Social Network are lucky they got David Fincher on board to direct, because without his presence, the film would cease to make any sort of impact. Although the origins of facebook are interesting, the film appears to trade in authenticity for emotionally devoid dramatics. Although I expect such a thing from a major Hollywood production, the film’s narrative winds up being an insulting caricature. The caricaturing comes predominately from the film’s lead performances. Jesse Eisenberg provides the most vulgar caricature, depicting facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as weakling and anti-socialite. Not since Antitrust have I seen a young computer programmer depicted so uninterestingly. The lampoons continue with characters like the Winklevoss twins. And, although I feel strongly for Justin Timberlake’s ability to hold his own with other entertainment personalities, his portrayal of Napster founder Sean Parker is a complete joke, and undermines whatever credibility Fincher sought for his characters to contribute.

Luckily for the film, David Fincher demonstrates again why he is an elite director. His talents as a filmmaker should never go understated, and he put forth an honest effort in doing justice to what may be the most attractive film plot in recent memory. From scene-to-scene, Fincher makes the film come alive. At times, you literally feel like you are a fly on the wall of a dorm room, watching eccentric programmers do what they do best. The film’s editing was also quite effective, switching from a linear narrative and the aftermaths of court litigations. Praise should also be given to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for their contributions to the film’s score, which at times is hauntingly poignant for such topic matter.

As many critics have pointed out, this film isn’t so much a tale of the history of facebook as it is a commentary on wealth, power, greed, and life. Unfortunately, it contributes little insight into any of these salient issues. The scenes that should serve to debate some of these issues are sacrifices for unconvincing arguments between any numbers of underdeveloped characters.

Unfortunately for The Social Network, its attempt to narrate a convoluted story leaves it falling short of the many insights it could have made. Through the inclusion of characters and plot elements that go underdeveloped, the film falls short. Apart from the genuinely stellar work from Fincher and faculty, there are few reasons to see this movie. You’d be better off getting your fill of moral lessons from films that don’t try to be too many things at once. I feel it is important for a film to have identity and purpose. Although efforts are certainly made, The Social Network has neither.

Rating: 5/10

© 2010 Brent Bracamontes

Monday, July 19, 2010

Inception (2010)

It’s always nice to see a major Hollywood film have guts. In this regard, I do not mean guts as the promotion of a political or social issue. Rather, taking on the task of presenting something unique and complex to moviegoers with… less than par cinematic intellect. Frankly, I feel as though film audiences (particularly American audiences) demand spectacles and cheap fun rather than legitimate, artistic motion pictures.

Inception is, by all regards, a spectacle. It looks and feels like big budget Hollywood, it is written, directed, and produced by high profile personnel, and is comprised of quite a prominent cast. However, Inception is also quite brave. Brave, not because of some self-proclaimed style or look (I’m looking at you, James Cameron), but because of a genuinely fresh, well-executed plot/story. The term inception refers to the act of supplanting an original thought in the mind of a human being through the navigation of their dreams. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Cobb, a man known for his ability to navigate people’s dreams in order to obtain suppressed information from the unconscious mind (extraction). Yearning for the chance to return stateside to see his children, Cobb (against the advisement of his partner-in-crime, Arthur) accepts a job proposal from Saito (Ken Watanabe), a businessman who is desperate to see his business escape the perils caused by a business rival. The job that Saito offers Cobb involves planting a thought in the mind of Saito’s business rival (Cilian Murphy). The film follows Cobb and his team of elusive misfits as they weave themselves through layers of dreams in order to accomplish their goal.

Inception looks and feels like a Christopher Nolan film. It possesses the same darkish grit that characterized Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and feels just as epic. The film’s score is a stunning accompaniment to the genuinely heart-pounding drama involved in following the interwoven dream realities. As far as production is concerned, Inception belongs in a master class. The writing, specifically, is the component that gives the film an edge over other spectacle films. I can only imagine the first impressions of studio executives when they heard the proposal for a film with such a premise… “We want to make a movie about dreams… but there will be dreams within dreams, and then dreams within those dreams… sound peachy?” I’m sure the actual exchange was something of the sort. In any case, the intricacies of the storyline are handled masterfully by Nolan and company. Presently, I can’t think of many other individuals I would trust with such a complicated narrative (see Nolan’s Memento if you don’t understand where I’m coming from). As the expression goes, he dotted his “i’s” and crossed his “t’s” Although I’m sure there will be some Wikipedia message board populated by goofs in the narrative (most likely from the same characters who previously brought you, I doubt there are many to be observed by most viewing audiences.

While acting is generally lost (or at the very least considered an inferior priority) in Hollywood spectacle films, there is some decent work done here. Leo DiCaprio has paid his dues and proven that he can be the main focal point for practically any kind of film. I know many who have been hesitant to give the former Mr. Jack Dawson credit (even I was skeptical for a while), but he really has earned it. In Inception, he plays his role to a tee – a determined agent with a fair share of demons to control. Although no one in the supporting cast really outshines any other, there are excellent supporting performances across the board. Ellen Paige delivers a convincing performance as Ariadne, the newcomer who must suddenly play a pivotal part in the execution of the inception. Tom Hardy and Cilian Murphy are equally successful in their respective characterizations, and a warmhearted kudos to Joseph Gordon-Levitt who has clearly transcended his previous screen credits (most notably 10 Things I hate About You and the successful television series, 3rd Rock From the Sun). The ever-circulating rumor mill hints at Levitt as the front-runner for the role of The Riddler in the next Nolan Batman film. While I’m not sure I “buy” him in such a role, I can be no less convinced of his merits as an actor after seeing Inception.

My only problem with the film has to do with its complicated narrative. Although the film takes great care in making sure the storylines work coherently, I felt as though the first third was slightly awkward based on the amount of explaining that needed to be done in order for audiences to comprehend what was really going on. Granted, a film must explain its premises before it can develop them. However, there were points when the explanations of the different variables associated with dream navigation came in too rapid succession. It was almost too much detail to digest in too short a time frame.

I must confess, I was worried by all of the positive criticisms of this movie both by professional critics, as well as from my legion of facebook friends who were not shy about proclaiming it “prolly the best movie ive ever seen” and a movie that “blew my mind in like 12 different ways.” I can’t bear to count all of the times I have heard massive praise for a film only to be let down as a result. To my delight, Inception actually lived up to all the hype. Now, a few days after the film’s theatrical release, I am reminded of the days and weeks following the release of the original Matrix film. It really is exciting being able to see a big-budget American megafilm that doesn’t severely lack in important areas. I have a feeling people will be talking about Inception for a good deal of time to come. I just hope there is no talk about a sequel… let greatness rest. I implore you.

Rating: 9/10

© 2010 Brent Bracamontes

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Toy Story 3 (2010)

The folks at Pixar have developed quite a positive reputation, and rightfully so. With titles such as Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., and The Incredibles under its belt, Pixar animation has attracted a loyal following not from some form of na├»ve devotion, but by producing quality animated films. The Toy Story franchise has, possibly more than any other Disney associated work, become a truly cherished member of the Disney film family. With the recent addition of the Toy Story Mania ride at Disney’s California Adventure theme park, park patrons and Disney fans alike have certainly been in the “mode” for a new film following everyone’s favorite clan of collectible toys. The question, however, was never whether fans wanted a third Toy Story film, but rather, whether or not it would live up to the standard set by the first two. It did. It really did.

The plot behind Toy Story 3 is one of understandable concern for any childhood toy. Andy, the toys’ owner, is leaving for college. Although Andy’s prime toy-playing days are long gone, Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the gang are determined to be noticed by their young adult owner, in hopes of resonating a kind of nostalgic affection. The ultimate goal is to “convince” Andy to take the toys with him to college. Through a series of accidental misfortunes, the toys end up at Sunnyside Daycare, a place that initially seems the perfect destination for affection-seeking toys, but ends up a “newcomers” worst nightmare. All the while, Woody is determined to return to Andy, the boy to whom he has always belonged.

You would think that Toy Story 3 is a film exclusively suited for young children. This is not the case. Pixar’s jaw-dropping animation and wonderful storytelling abilities remain active in this third installment of a truly beloved franchise, and makes the film entertaining for all ages. Although (sadly) the Disney label has recently become indicative of sub par cinematic entertainment, Pixar’s reputation looks to be trending upward, consistently. Again, this trend reflects nothing but the quality of Pixar’s movies.

The qualities of the writing and voice acting in Toy Story 3 certainly contribute to its financial success and critical reception (I’m almost shocked this film doesn’t have a “100 % fresh” rating on rottentomatoes). The story is intricately composed both in major actions and brilliant subtleties (some excellent references to “old school” toys). Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, and the rest of the cast breathe life into their characters, regardless of 100 spoken lines or merely a few. Fans of the series will appreciate seeing all of the iconic toys back in action, but will also be impressed by the seamless integration of new, memorable characters (Plotso, the film’s villain, is especially noteworthy). As I read reviews of this film from both professional critics and “average” moviegoers, I noticed quite a few individuals from both sects claiming that they had shed some tears at points. Frankly, I was curious whether these accounts were exaggerations… they are not. Toy Story 3 demonstrates versatility in being able to provide laugh-out-loud entertainment (Don Juan Buzz was especially entertaining) as well as resonate sincere emotional responses from audience members (I can make this claim based on my observation that there was probably one person in my full screening not crying at some point).

I thought this film was wonderful, and frankly, I was never a true devoted fan of the Toy Story franchise. Beyond my appreciation for this film as a critic, however, I am pleased that devoted Toy Story fans have a “threequal” to be proud of. I find it impressive that Pixar continues to produce quality entertainment. It should be especially noted that quality Pixar films don’t come about sporadically after three or four missed attempts. Each and every film is a keeper.

Rating: 9/10

P.S. The short film attached to the feature, titled Day and Night, is fantastic as well.

© 2010 Brent Bracamontes

Shutter Island (2010)


Although I will not blatantly reveal elements of the film’s plot in this critique, something may “slip” that could potentially be unpleasant to you.

Shutter Island is a catalyst for a much larger discussion about the critique of film, or more simply, the evaluation of a given picture. In an ideal world (or perhaps not) we would be exposed to films in a societal vacuum. Although a vacuous state of being may seem unappealing to most, it would significantly impact the way we construct thoughts and judgments toward the movies we see. Films evaluated in this “bubble” would be assessed on their own merits and shortcomings without comparisons to other works. For better or worse, however, moviegoers do not “digest” films in this way. The reality is that we compare every new film we see to others we have already seen. When the Academy awards the “Best Picture” honor to a film, it does so not only on the individual accomplishments of that work, but in relation to all other nominees in the category. To put it simply, comparison is a part of criticism.

Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island is a prime example of a film that is evaluated by comparison. More specifically, it is a film hindered by comparisons. By hindered I do not mean that the film pales in comparison technically to other films of its “kind.” The hindrances of this film come from filmgoers’ peripheral evaluations of its predominant feature: its “twist.” Unfortunately for Scorsese and others associated with this picture, the fact that it attempts a “twist” ending acts as a curse. If viewed in a “bubble” twist endings would be consistently well received, based on shock value. Unfortunately, a film that incorporates a twist ending will inevitably be discussed and “hyped” on the merits of that twist alone. This type of publicity creates a sense of anticipation in the viewer, so that the entire cinematic experience (the actual film included) is meant for nothing more than to set up the twist. Ironically, this type of publicity takes all of the genuine suspense out of the twist, making way for harsh, unjustified evaluations of the film in all its aspects.

Shutter Island is a beautifully executed film. This should come as no surprise considering the man responsible. Martin Scorsese is a man of remarkable talent. More than for talent, I respect Scorsese on his directorial breadth. Taxi Driver (1976), Goodfellas (1990), Gangs of New York (2002), and The Aviator (2004) are examples not only of powerful cinematic works, but also of Scorsese’s brilliant breadth and variability. As far as his directorial achievements go, Shutter Island is noteworthy. I don’t lightly make comparisons to the late Stanley Kubrick, but the way Scorsese crafts the setting for this picture is incredibly reminiscent of Kubrick’s establishment of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining (1980). Specifically, Scorsese does a marvelous job of emphasizing feelings of eerie isolation (which contribute significantly to the effectiveness of the narrative). The film truly does act as a psychological thriller. There are very few “boo” scares, resorting much more to fear based on psychological (leading to sometimes physiological) discomfort for the viewer. The film’s blood-curling camera work does wonders in entrancing audience members into giving complete attention to the next narrative “clue.”

The role of the actor in a film like this one is somewhat muddled. Of course, the performances must be convincing, but they should never once be the audience’s primary focus. Leonardo DiCaprio (Marty’s new De Niro) comes through again with a perfectly composed performance, not too big, not too small. Supporting actors Mark Ruffalo and Ben Kingsley are also quite effective in their respective roles, advancing the narrative appropriately without taking over.

Shutter Island is, by my standards, an excellent thriller. When evaluated as a thriller, the film stands on its own by ways of near-flawless execution. The problem comes from the necessity to also evaluate the film based on how its ending compares to others of its kind. After all, this is the method by which most filmgoers will react to it. By this standard, Shutter Island falls a tad short. Although extremely well executed, the film’s “twist” did not leave me quite satisfied. Still a good, solid film by my recommendation, Shutter Island may have been considered truly great… if it had been released ten years ago.

Rating: 7/10

© 2010 Brent Bracamontes

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

An important question: How long after doing something truly great, is someone tolerated to be mediocre, or even inept?

Tim Burton is one of Hollywood’s cult figures. The mention of his name in relation to any project produces the “hmm” effect amongst industry professionals and common filmgoers. To his credit, his name has been attached to a number of memorable projects. Of his noteworthy directorial endeavors, Ed Wood (1994), Batman (1989), and Beetlejuice (1988) are perhaps his most famous. And, if nothing else, these films stand as iconic “Burtonian” works, characterized by Burton’s distinct creative style. The most notable of Burton’s projects, however, is one that he didn’t even direct. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) is arguably the most famous of Tim Burton’s cinematic contributions, and certainly the one that has created (and maintained) the greatest cult following. From my perspective, Nightmare is Tim Burton’s masterwork.

This returns me to the question I posed at onset. How long (and for how many films) should Tim Burton be allowed to ride the coattails of Nightmare? Is there a statute of limitations concerning how long filmgoers must worship this man? Based on Burton’s four feature-length films preceding Alice in Wonderland (Sweeney Todd, Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Big Fish), not a single one has come close to rivaling the striking brilliance of Nightmare. Whether it is unfair to hold Burton to such a standard, the fact remains that he, from my viewpoint, has had a recent history marked by underachievement.

Alice in Wonderland is no exception. The film reeks of Burton’s ego and self-indulgence. One of my primary concerns (as well as complaints) with this film is similar to the issues I take with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). Tim Burton’s eagerness to “reinvent” or “re-imagine” popular tales is becoming tiresome. The necessity or compulsion to reinvent these stories plays testament to Burton’s fascination with his own “brilliance.” Further, it appears that Burton justifies his lack of invention by providing audiences with films that follow traditional narratives. The issue I take with Burton bringing the original stories to the masses is the implication that the films prior (which deviated from the original story) are somehow unsatisfactory because of their alternative storylines. The fact that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) deviates from Roald Dahl’s original story in no way bestows Burton the task of redeeming it. The fact that Burton’s Charlie and Alice stayed true to literary works in no way excuses them from being over-stylized garbage.

Alice is riddled with Burton’s egomaniacal flare, and suffers for it. Although Burton creates an aesthetically appealing “world” for the film to take place, the narrative is simply uninteresting. The feud between the two queens is hardly a memorable conflict, and the characters presented therein are just not appealing in the slightest. Of all the fruitless action taken by all of the characters in the film, not a thing struck me as memorable. Not even the film’s aesthetic appeal could make up for its complete and utter lack of distinction.

As far as the cast is concerned, you can expect to see Burton’s typical band of Hollywood misfits immersed in unexceptional performances. This is not to say that these individuals are not good or great actors, but simply that they did what they could (and inevitably stumbled) with what they were given. Even the wondrous Johnny Depp was crippled by the Burtonian characterization of the Mad Hatter. I have the utmost respect for an actor such as Johnny Depp, but he is becoming quite hindered by the charity roles being given to him by pretentious friend. I would also like to give mention to Mia Wasikowska (Alice). Her performance was dreary and uninspired, but I am not giving up on her just yet. What she lacked in zealousness she made up for in charm and quirk. I look forward to seeing her in future, non-Burton roles.

I am still not sure whether this film is really as bad as I made it out to be in this critique. It could just be that it was the most recent catalyst for my issues with Tim Burton. Regardless, it is most surely a film to pass on… unless of course your shopping spree at Hot Topic left you with a desire to actually see the film that “inspired” your newest T-shirt and handbag.

Rating: 4/10

© 2010 Brent Bracamontes