Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Why I'm Not Jumping on 'The Social Network' Bandwagon

To quote a friend who actually was talking about a different film (The Kids Are All Right), I thought that The Social Network was a perfectly enjoyable way to spent two hours. But it didn't follow me around long after the credits rolled -- in fact, I didn't stick around to watch the credits roll. I didn't spend days, or hours even, obsessing over the engrossing story, the unforgettable characters, or the brilliant acting (though there certainly was some of the latter). When it was over, it was over.

So as the movie hogs the critics prizes and collects multiple nominations for prestigious awards, I ask, "How does a well-made movie but one with such a weak emotional core become the year's critical juggernaut, steamrolling its way to a guaranteed Oscar nomination for Best Picture and a likely win?" My only explanation is that the zeitgeisty subject matter -- the creation of Facebook -- is working overtime in its favor.

I don't have a problem with the film's much-discussed inaccuracies. Aaron Sorkin based his screenplay on The Accidental Billionaires, a widely disputed book that was accused of being very loosely based on a true story. So hyper-realism obviously wasn't the movie's goal. Most biopics bend facts anyway. I watch films, even those based on real people or events, to be entertained and moved emotionally or intellectually. If I want just the facts (or the major players' interpretation of them), I can dig up court transcripts, check out old interviews, or read a history book.

My big gripe with The Social Network (or La Red Social, as it's called here in Argentina) is that the story as presented by Sorkin and director David Fincher wasn't strong enough to really suck me in. Because I was never 100 per cent invested in the plot, I wasn't anxious about the resolution. The deposition scenes that framed the movie were outstanding, but since Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the defendant in two lawsuits, is the youngest billionaire on the planet, there was no real suspense because all of the money that was at stake was only a drop in the bucket for Zuckerberg. Even he seemed uninterested in the outcome.

As for his moral and professional conflict with Facebook cofounder and CFO Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), it was hard to root for either side because Zuckerberg was presented as such a jerk (though one with whom the audience should sympathize -- note the junior lawyer's ultimate assessment of him as a decent guy who tries too hard to be an asshole -- when a full-on villain would have made for a more interesting film), and I never knew enough about Saverin to really care about him. Despite the limitations of the role, though, I think Garfield is the one player worthy of his Oscar buzz.

I wish I could say the same thing about Jesse Eisenberg as Zuckerberg. I still haven't figured out if the problem lies with the performance, the filmmakers, or both. I really loved him in the opening scene (the movie's best), the desposition scenes, and the classroom scene where he walked out of the lecture but not before letting the professor know that he was leaving because he was bored, not because he couldn't handle the material. This is where he let Zuckerberg be as bratty as he wanted to be, the kind of guy who would send anyone running in the opposite direction. In these scenes, everything came together: the acting, the screenplay, the direction. It's easy to understand why his girlfriend would say that dating him is like dating a treadmill. I was out of breath after those first few minutes with him.

I wish there had been more of that guy. Where the presentation of Zuckerberg was lacking was in the scenes about the actual creating of Facebook. He came across as brilliant, sullen and kind of dull. Neither heroic nor villainous, he was so inscrutable that it was never quite clear what drove him to create one of the biggest Internet phenomenon's ever. Zuckerberg himself says that he just likes to build things, but that doesn't easily lend itself to compelling cinema. Since The Social Network's Mark Zuckerberg is basically a fictional character based on a real one, I wish Sorkin and Fincher had taken the creative license to let him be driven by greed, lust for money, power, or sex. None of these things, however, were presented as being particularly important to him.

Was his rejection by the final club the prime motivator? Being accepted by Harvard's student body meant more to Saverin (and Garfield is way too cute to be playing the outcast, by the way) than it did to Zuckerberg, who came across as being more passionate about impressing Napster founder Sean Parker than anything else. And if jealousy over having to watch Saverin get into the final club is why he started to turn on him, the film, which pinned the blame mostly on Parker, offered precious little evidence. Because the plotting against Saverin happened mostly offscreen (he already was being edged out by the time he withdrew his funding, almost destroying Facebook), the film lost what could have been the most riveting element of its Facebook creation theory.

Despite the brilliant irony of the final scene, I didn't buy that launching Facebook was all about a girl either. That's not because the girlfriend in the movie doesn't actually exist, but because the film offered no evidence that the onscreen Zuckerberg's relationship with the Erica Albright character was particularly deep, or that she was worth more than one silly online prank and a weak attempt to get her to leave a dinner with friends to talk to him. I thought the scenes with Albright were strong, but there should have been more of them. The Facebook sequences would have had more impact had they been juxtaposed with a few more personal ones -- Zuckerberg and his family, Zuckerberg and fellow students not associated with Facebook, Zuckerberg being torn up about the break-up with Erica and trying harder to woo her back. The latter also would have given the movie the strong female presence that it lacked.

I'm still on the fence about Justin Timberlake's interpretation of Parker, who became Facebook's first president. I don't know what Parker is like in real life, and I'm not sure why Timberlake played the coke-snorting womanizing party monster as being slightly swishy. Still, it was an interesting performance, and Timberlake really owned every scene he was in. I can see why Zuckerberg was so taken and why Saverin was so threatened, and that's credit to a performance that convincingly brought out the charmer and the snake in a guy who might be just as fascinating as the one at the center of the film, if not more so.

Yes, The Social Network was a perfectly enjoyable way to spend two hours, but a biopic about the founder of Napster is the movie that I really want to see.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Has anyone had a stranger, better 2010 than James Franco?

What a difference 12 months can make? Last year around this time, James Franco, snubbed by Oscar in early 2009 after charming the pants off of Sean Penn's Harvey Milk in Milk, was starring on General Hospital. Everyone watching in Hollywood or at home either seemed to be asking "Why?" or screaming "Career suicide!"

I still haven't figured out what net effect GH has had on Franco's career, or what he was doing in Date Night (or totally lacking any apparent chemistry with Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray; Love, for that matter). For a while, I wondered what had happened to the leading-man-in-the-making who won a Golden Globe for portraying James Dean on TV, starred in three Spider-Man blockbusters and took a well-received detour into comedy with 2008's Pineapple Express. The GH thing did little more than enhance Franco's reputation for being a bit of an unpredictable nutjob, but that didn't stop him from giving GH another shot midway through 2010 and signing up for a third run as serial killer Franco early next year. That's just around the time that Franco the actor will be cohosting the Oscar's with Anne Hathaway.

That's nice work if you can get it, and even if Franco hadn't, he probably still would be invited to the Academy Awards as a nominee. He's practically guaranteed a nod for his one-man show as a trapped mountain climber forced to amputate his own arm in 127 Hours. If former All My Children star Melissa Leo gets her expected nod for her supporting performance in The Fighter, that will be one former soap star and one current soap star nominated in the same year, no doubt an Academy first. Add to that one ex-prime-time TV star: Mila Kunis (That '70s Show), Franco's cameo scene partner in Date Night, is also a likely nominee for Black Swan.

Although some are probably still scratching their heads and asking, "Why?," about Franco's GH return engagement, who's talking "career suicide" now?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Strangest Week Ever

I've been saying it forever: Argentines always come back. Sometimes, though, they do so completely unintentionally and unexpectedly. Such was the case last Friday with Martin, a guy I met five and a half years ago during my first trip to Buenos Aires. Despite the fact that I didn't speak Spanish at the time, and he spoke no English, he and I had a solid rapport. We saw each other on each of my three subsequent BA visits and hung out together several times after I moved here in September of 2006.

Then, suddenly, nothing. As quickly as Martin entered my life, he exited it. An overzealous housekeeper threw away the paper on which I'd written his phone number, and he didn't respond to any of my emails. Over the years, I thought of him often, occasionally checking to see if he was on Facebook. He was one Argentine who didn't come back, and I figured we'd never meet again. That is why I was so startled last Friday afternoon when I was walking down Avenida Santa Fe en route to order blackout blinds and walked right into him (which was kind of ironic, because Martin makes and installs curtains and blinds for a living).

As we hugged and engaged in brief small talk, I was uncomfortable because I had been taken completely by surprise and because passersby were staring at me even more than usual. (It must have been the sweat running down my face on this unbearably hot day.) Martin gave me a cell phone number and a land line where I could reach him, and we said our goodbyes. Later when I checked the numbers, I realized that the cellular number was missing a digit. Since I'd rather dine on glass a la suiza than call some guy on the phone, I figured that was that and moved on.

Then a few days later, I received an email from one of Martin's colleagues on his behalf. I wondered why he'd gotten his co-worker to write me, and why he had kept my email address all this time without using it. I was confused, but decided to send a text message to the first of the three phone numbers provided in the email. Seconds later, Martin responded: "Jeremy mi amor." Thus began two days of voice messages and texts, each saying one of two things, sometimes both: "Merry me" and "Te quiero."

When he finally managed to get me on the phone, the flashback hit me. I'd heard/read it all before. Martin's ardor had always been over-the-top (within five minutes of meeting me in 2005, he declared his undying love for me), and five years hadn't cured him of that particular malady. Five years ago, I found that extreme Argentine romanticism charming, refreshing, endearing, but now, especially coming from a guy in his mid-thirties who really ought to know better, it just sounds silly. He needs to get some new material.

More strangeness followed the night after I ran into Martin (literally), at the rooftop party of a friend. One moment, I was sitting there being grilled by an attractive, blonde Argentine girl (you know, the usual: "De donde sos?" "Te gusta Argentina?" Yawn), when a guy I presumed was her boyfriend (after all, they'd been getting it on in the bathroom earlier) came towards us, nostrils flaring, and lunged at me.

My reflexes were surprisingly dependable, and I moved out of the way before he could make any significant body contact. In the process, my watch flew off my wrist and landed on the floor. I don't know what surprised me more: that a guy would actually attack me for hitting on his girlfriend (I've never even been taken to task for coming onto someone's boyfriend, though I probably should have been), or that my watch was pretty much undamaged save for a clasp that was missing from one side of the wristband, or that almost as suddenly as he'd come after me, the guy was now apologizing profusely for his brutish behavior.

He spent the rest of the night apologizing and promising to pay for any damage to the watch. I quickly accepted his apology and went on to have quite the wild Saturday night (exhibit A: the photo above this post). The next day, the guy, whose name is Fernando, sent me a text message, apologizing again and once again offering to pay for the watch.

Now I won't bore you with the details of how in Argentina you have about as much of a chance of fixing or replacing a metal watch band as you do of booking a flight to the moon. Fernando offered to either track down someone who can fix the watch or give me money to buy an identical one. (Alas, it's a Storm Qasar XL, see above, available only in the UK). We may not have met under the best of circumstances, but I was taken by his diplomacy and conscientiousness.

And perhaps the grandest irony of the entire week before Christmas is that had I made the first move to chat up anyone at that roof party, it probably would have been him. Next time I'll go with my instincts. The watch I save may be my own.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Nicole Kidman's grieving mom in "Rabbit Hole" hits close to home

Last night while I was watching Rabbit Hole, I couldn't stop thinking about my mom. Like Nicole Kidman's Becca, the bereaved parent in the taut, 90-minute drama, my mother has had to bury a child. I've always heard that there is no greater pain, and after watching the film, I understand why a little better. As close as my mother and I were when I was growing up, she and I never really talked about my sister, who died before I was born. Watching the film made me want to reach out to my mom somehow, but like Becca's friend who never called to offer any kind of consolation, I didn't really know what to say.

Rabbit Hole reminds me of In the Bedroom, another contemplation on loss, because its simple staging and small-as-life performances make you feel as if you're witnessing a real family's private pain. But while Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson's Bedroom characters' son was a grown man murdered by the jealous ex of his older lover, the son of Kidman and Aaron Eckhart's characters was a toddler struck by a car when he ran out into the street after the family dog. 

The film begins eight months after Danny's death, and the movie doesn't automatically reveal exactly what has happened, which adds another dimension to the early interactions onscreen. Why is Becca being so cold to her neighbor? Why do she and her sister (Tammy Blanchard) and mom (Dianne Weist, whose character also has lost a son, but in a completely different way) seem like such intimate strangers? And why does Becca appear to be almost repulsed by a husband as fine as Aaron Eckhart.

What impressed me most about Kidman's understated performance is that when Becca lashes out, she's rarely histrionic. Her barbs and observations are so rational, so calmly delivered and devastatingly on-target that when she finally snaps in the supermarket with a total stranger, it's the film's most shocking scene. There are hints that Becca might not have been a particularly nice person even before her son's death -- though certainly not as full-on bitch as Mary Tyler Moore's grieving mom in Ordinary People or Debra Winger's in Rachel Getting Married. Still, I found myself rooting for her throughout the entire film.

Eckhart's Howie initially comes across as the one who's dealing with the situation in the healthiest way, but bit by bit, we learn that the opposite might, in fact, be true. His trajectory is as interesting as Becca's and perhaps more vivid, though it plays out in less screen time. Meanwhile, although Becca's unexpected friendship with the teen who was driving the car that killed her son reveals another interesting layer of her personality, her level of haunted varies only slightly from start to finish.

In the end, Rabbit Hole offers no easy answers, no neat wrap-up. And I'm still not sure what to say to my mom.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Is a Golden Globe nomination on the verge of becoming a dubious honor?

The 2011 Golden Globe nominations were announced today, and this year more than in most recent years, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association demonstrated why it's largely seen within the film industry as a celebrity-ass-kissing joke. I'm surprised Julia Roberts wasn't nominated for Best Actress, Comedy or Musical, for Eat, Pray, Love. It wasn't a funny movie, but recognizing it would have been less embarrassing than throwing Angelina Jolie into the mix for The Tourist. At least that nomination goof probably provided more of a guffaw than all of the comedy-nominated films put together.

But seriously, the HFPA has some explaining to do. I'll try to keep my list of questions short and relatively sweet, which won't be easy, considering how confounding many of the nominations -- and omissions -- were. And I'm skipping the TV ones because they always bore me. (The awards will be broadcast live January 16 on NBC -- in HD!)

1. In what world is The Kids Are All Right a comedy? Okay, so the HFPA isn't the first group to deem it so, but perhaps everyone saw a completely different movie than I did. The Kids had some amusing moments, most of them courtesy of GG nominee Julianne Moore, but overall, it was a pretty serious film. In fact, I can't recall a single funny word uttered by Annette Bening, the star with the most awards-season traction. Her character was the quintessential humorless, everything-in-its-place-type A pain in the ass, and by God, she nailed her.

2. Speaking of The Kids Are All Right, why wasn't New York Film Critics Circle honoree Mark Ruffalo nominated for Best Supporting Actor? Maybe someday this great underrated actor will get the industry respect he deserves. Look how long it took Christian Bale, finally a GG nominee and an Oscar frontrunner this year for The Fighter.

3. Did Ruffalo's spot go to Michael Douglas for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps? Maybe it's a sentimental nod for the cancer-stricken star, and the HFPA is praying that Douglas will be well enough to show up. I'm hoping so, too, but the HFPA should have pretended that Solitary Man was funny and nominated him for Best Actor, Comedy or Musical, instead.

4. Ah, yes! There was no room in Best Actor, Comedy or Musical, for Douglas because Johnny Depp is hogging two spots (for Alice in Wonderland and The Tourist). Sure it looks good on paper: two Golden Globe nominations in one year -- and in one category. It's so Meryl Streep in 2009. But how's Depp going to look when he loses to Paul Giamatti (for Barney's Version) and doesn't even score an Oscar nod?

5. Is Halle Berry's Best Actress, Drama, nomination for Frankie and Alice more ass-kissing, or does it mean that she actually has a shot at some Oscar love? I've heard very little about this movie so far, but the trailer is fascinating, and I love the film's poster.

6. What happened to Lesley Manville, already a precursor frontrunner for Another Year? Maybe the members of the HFPA still haven't seen Another Year or True Grit, also curiously missing from the GG noms.

7. Do the Critic's Choice and Golden Globe nods of a certain former That '70s Show star mean that the Academy might be into her, too? I recognized Mila Kunis as a potential Oscar nominee for Black Swan early on, but I didn't expect anything to actually come of it.

8. Since it's so unashamedly star-baiting anyway, couldn't the HFPA have tossed Cher a little consolation bone for Burlesque? At least if "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me," a Best Original Song nominee, makes it to the Oscars, we might get to see Cher perform it live and in the flesh -- or even better, baring much flesh.

9. Not that it means much, but do Christina Aguilera and Carrie Underwood really get to call themselves Golden Globe nominees now? Aguilera is listed as a cowriter of Burlesque's "Bound for You," and Carrie Underwood had a hand in Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader's "There's a Place for Us," but the extent of either singer's involvement in the songwriting process of either song probably should be open to debate.

10. Does Katie Holmes feel even a twinge of jealousy towards Michelle Williams? Surely the actress, who announced the nominees with Josh Duhamel and Blair Underwood, isn't crazy about the fact that the movie career of her former Dawson's Creek costar, up for Best Actress, Drama, for Blue Valentine, is going so much better than hers.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Rules of disentanglement: Is it possible to let him down easy?

To dump or not to dump, that is the question.

And once you decide to give him the old heave ho, how do you go about it?

My friend and I had a lively debate the other night, trying to determine the best way to let someone know that you're just not that into them. I've always done unto others as I'd have them do unto me, and in my break-up book, there's no line worse than "Hey, I'm not really feeling you. Can we just be friends?" -- or some variation on that basic get-lost theme.

It's actually the polite thing to do, come clean with the person who's constantly texting or calling or emailing or sending instant messages. (Damn, there are so many ways to be stalked these days!) Fortunately, I've rarely been on the receiving end of such brutal honesty. I field rejection as often as anybody else, but I'm a smart guy, and I pick up on disinterest easily. One unreturned text, or phone call, or email, and I'm outta there. Moving right along. If you seem bored on a date, it's because you probably are. I won't ask, and please don't tell. Have a nice life!

Unfortunately, many of the guys I have met in Buenos Aires haven't seemed to see things the same way. Either they don't take hints very well, or they are hopeless masochists who thrive on the sting of flat-out rejection. Whichever it is, something about my friend's argument -- that the only honorable way to make a good, clean break is to be as straightforward as possible -- swayed me. I decided I would have to tell Mario how I really felt.

Mario and I hadn't even been dating. We'd gone out exactly one time, and never made it to first base. I'm not really sure what he saw in me. I wasn't particularly "on" the night we'd hung out. I'd been tired, and I had a lot on my mind. And yeah, I'll admit it, he bored me a little. A lot. He asked so many questions, none of them particularly original, that the date felt more like work than play. He was one of those people who is uncomfortable with silence and tries to fill it with chit chat. I was surprised when he asked me flat out the next day what I thought about him. He sensed my disinterest, and called me on the fact that I'd occasionally get very quiet and stare off into space as if I wanted to be somewhere else.

I gave him points for his intuitiveness. I should have been honest with him and told him that I wasn't interested, but I'd been down that road before. Guys here don't know what to do with rejection, and I wasn't in the mood for battle. So I used that old tired "I was tired" excuse. He bought it, and in the days that followed, began to pursue me with total abandon -- or what passes for total abandon in Buenos Aires. Every time I turned on my computer and logged into MSN Messenger, there he was. Sometimes I responded, but usually I didn't. He started to get the hint, and even asked why I was ignoring him. I didn't answer, but he was not about to go gently into that good night. It was as if he was daring me to man up and dump him.

So I practiced my kindest rejection line. I told him that because I will be leaving Buenos Aires in a couple of months, I didn't want to start anything new with anyone, which is actually the truth. Unfortunately, Mario was undeterred. He was okay not starting anything serious, if only he could get to first base, and possibly beyond. My skin crawled at the thought of being bored to tears by another round with him, or having him spend hours looking at me, expectantly, as if he had paid top-ticket price to the greatest show on earth. Who needs that kind of pressure?

Was he doing all this just for the nookie anyway? If so, why was he acting like I was his only hope? Surely a smart, nice-looking guy like him had other options. I probably would have indulged him had I been even slightly attracted to him, but I wasn't. And the whiff of desperation wasn't doing him any favors.

As I stood my ground, he stood his. He called me selfish, wished he had had never met me, and threatened to delete me from his MSN. It was all very Days of Our Lives! I thought he was overreacting (and overacting), but I'd been down this road many times with guys in BA. Part of me felt badly, because I don't like for anyone to think the worst of me. Another part of me, the one that realizes that life is not a popularity contest, felt relieved. He was justifying my desire not to have anything further to do with him.

Before I said something cruel that I might regret, I beat him to the punch and deleted him. A few hours later, he sent me a text message reiterating that he wished he'd never met me. I was tempted to tell him that the feeling was mutual, but I figured why start responding to his theatrics now? Sometimes the best rule of disentanglement is to simply press delete and never look back.