Sunday, October 24, 2010

Eastwood's 'Hereafter' is heartfelt, sensitive storytelling

By Steve Crum
Clint Eastwood has chosen to tell the compelling Hereafter as three stories set in a like number of international locations with Matt Damon’s character serving as the interconnecting lightning rod. As its title suggests, Hereafter deals with death; however, its focus is on departed souls’ influence on and communication with the living. Although various precepts of love are plot elements, the film is not so much a love story as it is a story of loving in humane ways. Hereafter is a heartfelt, sensitive film, qualities inherent in most of Eastwood’s directed work, particularly over the past decade.
Matt Damon is George Lonegan, a laborer working in San Francisco with his brother Billy (Jay Mohr). Lonegan used to have a much more lucrative job, at least potentially so, when he discovered his ability to connect with the afterlife. His brother relentlessly encourages him to take advantage of his gift, but George has found it to be more of a curse. The emotional impact of his readings (he merely touches the person to connect with his or her dearly departed) has worn him down to the extent he avoids socializing with virtually everybody. Yet potential clients seek him out to speak to a departed loved one.
There is a particularly telling sequence wherein George takes a chance in exposing his celebrity as a psychic, and enrolls in a cooking class, which he feels will be a safe and fun way way to socialize while avoiding death issues. What he does not count on is being partnered with cute redhead Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard--Ron Howard’s daughter). Their blindfolded, taste-testing scenes are charming and funny. In fact, they border on the erotic with close-ups of lips and tongues, reminiscent of the eating scene in Tom Jones. (This is a new Eastwood turn.) As their food partnership segues into a serious relationship outside of class, the plot takes serious, sad turns.
Concurrently, French journalist Marie Leley (Cecile de France) is vacationing with her boyfriend when a Tsunami hits their island resort. (Actually, this spectacular sequence opens the movie.) The tidal wave hits while she is shopping downtown, with disastrous results. Without giving away far too much, I will say her experience will later inspire her to write a memoir about the incident. Eastwood’s recreation of the Tsunami is realistic and terrifying, certainly an achievement for his digital/special effects gurus.
Eastwood and screenscribe Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon) add the story of London schoolboys Marcus and Jason, well acted by twin brothers Frankie and George McLaren, to the plot triad. Not long into its initial sequence, wherein the boys’ wretched life with their alcoholic mother is depicted, a turn of events puts Marcus on his own. Without getting too specific, this eventually triggers a search to personally meet with George, whose reputation as a legitimate psychic is well known. Scenes of Marcus as he stubbornly pursues George are alternately humorous and disturbing. Eastwood handles the material superbly.
It is no coincidence that George Lonegan a super fan of Charles Dickens, and that Hereafter plays out much like a Dickens novel. Chance meetings, coincidence, characters (in this case George, Marie and Marcus) crossing paths later in the story, a search for the truth, and destiny are elements familiar to Dickens’ readers.
Eastwood has used subtitles before, as in the Japanese sequences of Letters From Iwo Jima, and he uses them here, sparingly, in the French portions. Factoring in the on location filming in Paris and London, low key dialogue-speak, the multiple plot structure, and long takes, Hereafter has a foreign film look and feel.
It should not be surprising that Clint Eastwood has created a thoughtful work with exemplary acting (Damon, de France and McLaren), and a compelling story that wrenches and tugs at tears and heart. He continues to reinforce his reputation as one of the most important filmmakers of our time.
GRADE: On an A to F Scale: A

Friday, October 1, 2010

Absorbing 'Social Network' is high profile, fascinating

By Steve Crum
Ironies abound in The Social Network, a fact-based, fictional film about the creation, impact, and financial gold strike of Facebook. The first irony is that I had to tear myself away from Facebook at home to drive to a screening of a movie about the very addictive site I just left. Irony 2 involves the story’s main character, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), who conceived the idea for the world’s largest Internet chat room, yet has scarce public social mores himself. In fact (Irony 3), virtually everyone involved with the technical and business parts of Facebook appears to have negligible one-to-one communication skills.

The Social Network is a fascinating, absorbing film well worth friending.

Opening at a Boston bar in 2003, the story focuses on nerdy Harvard sophomore Zuckerberg as he repeatedly, dare say intellectually, insults his girlfriend (Rooney Mara). After she sharply tells him off and leaves, he storms back to his dorm room, determined to revenge himself by posting negatives about her on his blog. It turns out to be a near lethal move on his part. His displeasure then turns to rampage against all female students. Zuckerberg hacks into Harvard’s main frame to access sorority photos he then exploits via “Hot or Not” beauty contests posted on Harvard’s network. Feedback is immediate and lasting; thousands of Harvard students are viewing his postings.

A couple of steps down the line, Zuckerberg’s genius computer skills further refined, the origins of Facebook emerge. Like Facebook, the plot is about the step-by-step connections that led to its creation and popularity.

The Social Network’s credentials are stellar. Director David Finch also helmed Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, two superb films noted for their innovative, precise storytelling. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin penned Charlie Wilson’s War as well as 154 episodes of TV’s The West Wing. Sorkin has taken Ben Mezrich’s book, The Accidental Billionaires, and structured TSN around the numerous lawsuit hearings that occurred as Facebook grew to worldwide popularity. For example, litigant Zuckerberg and his attorney face off behind closed doors against former Facebook partner Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and his counsel. Flash back to the origin of their conflict when the two were Harvard roommates just beginning their website.

The flashbacks reveal the growing problems, many of them ego-based, that led to to mistrust and legal backstabbing. Amongst the fray is Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), who befriends Zuckerberg not long after Facebook launch, and immediately causes more rifts within the growing Facebook empire. Timberlake, incidentally, does a fine job as the Napster music site entrepreneur.

The two leads, however, give the film its credible base. Saverin portrays Garfield as an insecure, constant whiner, contrasted to Eisenberg’s rapidly speaking, distant, and pretty much emotionless egghead, Zuckerberg. He comes across as a close cousin of The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper, minus the humor.

It is difficult to feel empathy when the lead characters are millionaires beset by lawsuits threatening their megabucks. An on-screen tag informs us that Zuckerberg is the youngest billionaire in the world.

Witnessing their ego-based tantrums certainly does not trigger our tear ducts either. It is sort of like observing a fender bender between two Rolls-Royces. However, the attraction of wealth colliding with wealth is unique voyeurism. Fincher and Sorkin understand that tableau quite well, being very good storytellers.

GRADE on Scale of A to F: A-
Trailer of The Social Network: