Two new awards-caliber film releases couldn’t be more different. One of hyper-literate in a high-stakes world of drama, gambling, and crime, and another is somber, lackadaisical, and personal, chronicling a summer love that changed lives. One movie has scads of plotting it zooms through with high-powered visuals and voice over, and another luxuriates in the moment, a placidity on the surface interrupted by rising passions. One of these movies I found captivating and the other I found perfectly nice but unremarkable.
Molly’s Game is Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, clearly having studied at the altar of David Fincher, and he packs a lot into his 140 minutes chronicling the rise and fall of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former Olympic hopeful who found herself running an expensive, private series of poker games. She’s drawn into an unfamiliar world and through her tenacious grit, preparation, and fortitude, she is able to become a fixture amongst the rich. Then the FBI comes knocking and wants to charge her in conjunction with being part of a Russian money laundering operation. Driven by a fierce performance from Chastain, Molly’s Game is a gloriously entertaining movie that glides by. It burns through so much plot so quickly, so much information, that you feel like you might have downloaded Bloom’s book while watching. The musical Sorkin dialogue has never sounded better than through the chagrined, take-no-prisoners Chastain. The snappy dialogue pops, the characters are richly realized, and even during its more outlandish moments, like a surprise paternal reunion therapy session, Sorkin packs multiple movies of entertainment in one brisk, excellently manicured production.
In contrast, Call Me By Your Name is a slower peak into the discovery of romantic feelings between 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer). Set amid the sunny countryside of northern Italy, the film takes it sweet time establishing the lazy world of its characters and their closely intersecting orbits. I became anxious because the characters kept me at arm’s length, leaving their burgeoning romance to feel distant and tame. I understand the hesitation of both parties and the age difference complicating matters. I understand caution. But it feels like the film is cautious to a fault, to the point that one of them laments later why they wasted so much time. The acting is pleasant if undistinguished. The best scene is a terrific monologue by Michael Stuhlbarg as the world’s most lovably accepting father. For an earth-shattering romance, I too often felt unmoved and restless. If we’re going to spend this much time hanging out with these people we should get to know them more intimately, and not just in the physical sense. I missed the compelling artistic charge of something like a Moonlight. I’m a bit stupefied at all the praise heaped upon Call Me By Your Name, a fine indie drama that, for me, too infrequently delves below its pretty surface into something more substantial.
I don’t know if this recent comparison sheds light on any personal insight, but perhaps I just love big, showy, obvious plot that calls attention to itself, with characters that fill a room, rather than an airy romance that moves at the speed of its own breeze. Anyway you have it, one of these movies makes my Best Of list and the other just makes me shrug.
Molly’s Game: A-
Call Me By Your Name: B-
Dizzying with its dialogue, Steve Jobs tells the story of its titular man through three Apple product launches, 1985’s Macintosh computer, 1988’s Apple rival and failure, Next, and 1998’s iMac, the beginning of the re-emergence of Apple into ubiquity. It’s really an Aaron Sorkin movie above all else, which means we get absurdly intelligent characters walking and talking at rapid-fire with brilliant one-liners and snappy dialogue that bristles with musicality to it, the kind that your ears perk up for. It’s a feast for the ears; however, Steve Jobs is really an emotionally cold stage play on film. Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) is the director but the staginess of the conceit is too much for the visually nimble filmmaker to overcome. There are a few small visual flourishes as inserts but the star is Sorkin’s verbose screenplay. We get a glimpse into the prickly, egotistical, bullying, visionary, and curious man that was Steve Jobs. His continual denial of being the father to his daughter is a source of great contrarian insight. The structure of the script lends itself to repetition and artificiality. All these characters keep turning up and having these important conversations at these moments? After a while it feels like the characters are talking in circles and waiting for catharsis, and the concluding ten minutes is a detour into unearned sentiment. The movie and its major themes just do not come together with the clarity or force that the filmmakers believe. Michael Fassbender is superb as Jobs and there isn’t a bad performance in the bunch. It’s an engaging movie in the moment but I don’t feel like I know Jobs any better than before. In attempting to tell the life of one influential man, Sorkin has made the movie about himself, but The Social Network this is not.
Nate’s Grade: B
In 2001, the New York Yankees (team payroll: $125 million) have just knocked the Oakland As (team payroll: $41 million) out of the playoffs. Oakland General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) also has to suffer a summer where his biggest players leave the team to sign hefty free-agent contracts with bigger teams. He’s left with sizeable holes, a meager payroll, and the expectations to carry on winning. Beane is convinced that his group of paid scouts will be of no help. They’re men of an older era, sticking to the old ways of selecting talent (why the hell do these guys even calculate stuff like “good face” and “ugly girlfriend”?). Beane finds a kindred spirit in Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale grad with a degree in Economics. Brand’s mathematical data focuses on one all-important stat – on-base percentage. Without getting on base a player can’t score runs, and no runs make it hard to win a game. Brand and Beane calculate a series of players undervalued by other teams. Their more cost-efficient model for success becomes known as “moneyball.” Together they put together a team of castoffs and misfits to contend for a championship against teams that have three times the Oakland As’ payroll.
Moneyball could be described as a baseball movie for people who don’t like baseball, but that’s a little too glib by half. It’s very much a sports film but it takes the underdog approach in a new, sleekly modernized manner. It’s about a guy bucking the traditional mode of thinking, the established order, and the chaffing and nay saying of those entrenched in the traditional, outmoded, establishment. There’s always something inherently entertaining about an innovator fighting the system and eventually being proven right after all the trials and tribulations. And with Pitt, a major movie star, giving a movie star-caliber performance, self-effacingly charming with a twinkle and a swagger, Moneyball just seems to fly by like a spirited caper. We’re watching a smooth operator work the room, playing other general managers off one another and secretly accruing his talent while duping his peers. At its best moments, Moneyball feels almost like a breathless con game. The intelligent, stats-heavy dialogue doesn’t stoop for much exposition. The stats and acronyms whiz by, with Social Network-style crispness thanks to Oscar-winning screenwriters Steven Zallian and Aaron Sorkin. It’s a pleasure listening to top actors savoring the smart dialogue. You just want to kick up your heels and relax like you’re watching a game at home, rooting for your team to pull out an unlikely coup. Moneyball plays best for baseball fans who won’t bat an eye at the stat-heavy chat. For non-fans of the game, well, you can watch Pitt spit chewing tobacco into a cup a lot.
Beane chooses not to get to close to his players so that eventual roster cuts and trades will be all the easier without emotional involvement. The movie kind of follows suit. The characters are kept at a surprising distance. The movie seems practically ambivalent about people. Moneyball seems to lack an emotional center; and people thought The Social Network was cold. Beane is given flashes of back-story about his flameout in the majors, which supposedly provides the guy a motivation to prove himself against his legion of detractors. But these flashes are not enough. Director Bennet Miller (his first film since 2005’s Capote) incorporates way too many scenes where we watch Beane driving, silently contemplating his life-changes. The feud between Beane and his curmudgeon manager, Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman with the unkindest of haircuts), never comes to a head. Howe is upset at the thankless job of corralling a team of misfits and cast-offs into a competitive team. But like many other conflicts, the movie ducks from finding a real purpose for its integration. Howe just seems to be another naysayer who shakes his head at Billy. Surely the relationship between GM and manager should be more complicated than as presented. The Beane family flashbacks and his scenes with his daughter (the adorable Kerris Dorsey) are attempts to further humanize a man who has abandoned the advice of people for spreadsheets.
It’s easy to get caught up in the romanticism of the nation’s oldest sporting games, but Moneyball’s tone seems to toggle between reality and romanticism. For Beane, there are no small victories. Even success is deemed failure under the metrics of championship-or-nothing. “People only remember your last out,” he says despondently. So when the Oakland As fail to make a run into the playoffs (is a 2002 playoff series considered a spoiler?) the movie is left with a listless conclusion. Brand tries to prove to his boss the significance of what they have accomplished on their meager payroll, at one point winning a record 20 games in a row. But a winning streak of 20 games is not the same as a championship. Moneyball rightly proclaims the game of baseball as a rigged sport, where the divide between “haves” and “have nots” is vast. It is the only major league sport without a salary cap. The teams with the big pockets can afford the marquee talent. There’s a reason Lewis’ book has the subtitle “The Art of Winning and Unfair Game.” The implications of Beane’s accomplishments are unclear. His cost-efficient, stat-heavy approach was co-opted by the Boston Red Sox and turned into championships in 2004 and 2007. Is that a real vindication for Beane? It seems to me that the game’s issue of wealth disparity is still in full effect. Even if teams follow Bean’s approach, it still means that the bigger city, wealthier teams like the Red Sox or the Yankees can still outspend their competition. So it seems like to me that Bean’s moneyball approach simply meant that the focus changed on less costly talent. It did nothing to alter who could outbid their peers for the now-cheaper talent. It’s hard to squeeze a happy ending out of a story that concludes with the rich getting richer.
The movie is pretty much a buddy comedy, granted Beane is a much more dominate personality. Pitt feels like he’s coasting on charisma, though the actor gives a greatly entertaining performance. It’s not so much nuanced but he’s enjoying himself. The man looks eerily to be aging into Robert Redford, which begs the question about the nature of time travel. Hill (Superbad, Get Him to the Greek) gives a surprisingly adept dramatic performance. The comedic actor seems subdued next to the charisma of Pitt, like the character is continually awed by Billy. The Oscar-talk for the comedian seems a tad premature. He’s good but just because Hill delivers a good dramatic performance does not mean people should automatically start fielding his name as an award contender. That’s like saying let’s give an award to Paris Hilton because she could remember her lines. It’s also fun watching actors like Chris Pratt (TV’s Parks and Recreation) portray players that are still recognizable.
Moneyball says that baseball is not a game about heart, sweat, or the love of the game. It’s about numbers. That’s something of a cold message but Billy Beane is not one for false comforts. At its best, the film is a breezy caper with crisp dialogue and slick editing, but it’s also hamstrung by an inconsistent tone, a methodical pacing (133 minutes!), and a dearth of strong characterization. Beane was destined to be a baseball star but it wasn’t to be. Baseball is the most mental of all national sports, and it’s hard to crack such an insular model of play. That’s why baseball movies resort so much to romantic staples about the lore of this game. This is not a romantic movie; it toys with romanticism but ultimately sides with the science and number crunching. The emotion seems to have been squeezed out of the story thanks to the statistics. Moneyball is a baseball movie that fantasy baseball nerds have been waiting for. I’m not particularly a baseball fan (too slow), but I still found the movie to be a rewarding night out sans crackerjacks.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Dismissively branded as “the Facebook movie,” the whip smart and hypnotic, yet poorly titled, The Social Network is much more than a rote TV-movie on the start of a popular website (coming out next year: Twitter: The Musical in 144 Characters). Yes, the film chronicles the people responsible for the Internet’s most ubiquitous time waster and their very varying accounts of who was responsible and who was unscrupulous. But the backdrop could be just as much any start-up business. Truth be told, the “Facebook movie” bares a striking resemblance to Citizen Kane. It is the story of one man who may be a genius in some regards but can?t help but push everybody he cares about away. It’s about powerful men who don’t know what to do with power. It’s about ambitious men who dedicate their lives to that ambition. It’s not about terabytes and html coding, this is a movie about people, betrayal, ego, greed, jealousy, and the great irony that Mark Zuckerberg created the world’s most dominant social network and yet he himself cannot hold onto a single legitimate friend.
In 2003, Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is a Harvard student obsessed with getting into the prestigious clubs and fraternities on campus. But he’s not well connected or athletic or close to being rich. So after being dumped on night, he goes home and hacks into various Harvard sorority websites and steals pictures of coeds. He then creates the crude website Facemash (while also drunk, mind you) where Harvard undergrads rank their fellow classmates side-by-side two at a time. It’s an immediate hit and crashes the Harvard server. Zuckerberg is then approached by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence), handsome blue-blooded WASP twins who have an idea. They want to create their own social website just for Harvard students to communicate with each other. They are impressed with Zuckerberg’s tech skills and want to hire him to build the site. Zuckerberg takes the idea to his roommate and best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), proposing to make their own site with Saverin’s limited means.
From there is where the different parties diverge on their versions of truth. Zuckerberg secretly works on his own side project while stalling and dodging the Winklevoss twins. He offers to have Saverin be CFO of the company and split the stakes. Then as success mounts, the Facebook website gets the attention of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), notorious for co-founding Napster at age 19. Parker immediately has the ear of Zuckerberg, and it isn’t long before Saverin starts feeling on the outskirts of his own company, and then eventually shut out completely. The Winklevoss twins and Saverin each file multi-million dollar lawsuits accusing Zuckerberg of intellectual theft and underhanded business tactics.
Watching The Social Network feels like you?re downloading an entire semester?s worth of information directly to your brain. Adapted by uber wordsmith Aaron Sorkin (TV’s West Wing, Charlie Wilson’s War), this is a story that gallops at full speed and leaves you spinning. The dialogue flies by so blazingly quick that it?s easy to get left behind. I would not advise eating any concession snack with this movie or else you might miss reams of dialogue. Sorkin smartly weaves together a murky and litigious tale of alternate truths, showing different sides when it comes to the creation of Facebook. Was it really stealing or did the Winklevoss twins merely inspire Zuckerberg? Is he truly indebted to them? “Does a guy who makes a chair have to pay a fee to every person who ever made a chair before in history,” Zuckerberg snaps. How deep did Saverin?s involvement go, and was he naïve or just thinking too small in scope? How much is a friendship worth in dollars and cents? Sorkin gives a definite impression to these answers, and it should surprise nobody that Saverin comes across as angelic and the obviously wronged party here. But the script as a whole is meticulous with detail, characters, and dates. It almost feels like the content of a miniseries has been squeezed into a brisk two-hour time frame. The characters are just as layered as the plot. The opening scene where Mark is dumped by his girlfriend (Rooney Mara, soon to be Lisbeth Salander in Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) sets the tone of the movie. The dialogue feels like an assault and it is unrelenting. You openly wonder how Eisenberg can breathe reciting his verbose lines with such lightning speed. Mara is aghast at her hyper-literate yet bitter boyfriend spewing bile at the elite and yet unashamedly pining for that life. He’s brilliant and cutting but socially awkward and unable to understand the feelings he’s hurting. Mara has had enough and dumps him right there, spurring Zuckerberg into a drunken night of revenge that will set the stage for Facebook. Sorkin can pretty much start clearing shelf space for his Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar right now.
Many will find Zuckerberg to be unlikable from the get-go, but I never could bring myself to actively dislike or loathe the man. He’s really more of a figure of Greek tragedy. Zuckerberg is a blissful conundrum of a character, a walking contradiction. He can be sullen and wounded one minute and the next casually cruel. He seethes at deposition hearings; unable to control the contempt he has for others. Zuckerberg’s anger boils over, and his beady-eyed glares communicate an incredulous, “You are worlds below me.” He can?t stand people who have easy breaks, the select and privileged, and yet he nakedly longs to be apart of that group and meet their approval. He can be childish and narcissistic, insular and insecure, and then he can be charitable. Zuckerberg created a music application that Microsoft was willing to purchase. “Why didn’t you sell?” asks one of the Winklevoss twins. Zuckerberg just shrugs his shoulders. He doesn’t want to sell ad space on Facebook and get rich quick because it would ruin the site experience. He is a champion of the democracy of the World Wide Web; a modern-day Thomas Paine? Probably not, but Zuckerberg’s hard-driven ambition and crooked tactics make him a modern-day robber baron, a titan of industry. Rockefeller and Carnegie and J.P. Morgan are all men that don’t seem any different in practice than Zuckerberg, though they probably had more family money as a starting point. That’s not an excuse for Zuckerberg’s behavior, but I want to add some perspective before the world tars and feathers the guy. Zuckerberg is the Internet’s first self-made billionaire, but what are the costs? By sacrificing all, and burning personal relationships, Zuckerberg may have advanced Facebook to unparalleled heights. But whom does he get to share his success with? It’s a little simplistic to boil such a complex film to the greeting card-esque moral “It’s people that matter most?” but the film always circles back to the question of cost. It’s also rather simplistic to chalk up the creation of Facebook as a means of impressing a girl, but then operas have been written, art has been sculpted, and wars have been fought over the need to impress a woman. Zuckerberg is a fascinating creature and brilliantly played by Eisenberg. This is a character Ayn Rand would love.
It seems that Zuckerberg’s instincts about human obsession with being apart of something exclusive were right on the mark. What separated Zuckerberg’s site from the likes of MySpace and Friendster is that you needed a college-based web address to get inside. It was a closed community, which made it cool and desirable. It started as a restricted club that all the cool kids wanted to belong to, then everyone joined, and now it’s damn near impossible to resist. First it was college kids, then college kids from other countries, then high school kids, then adults, now everybody on the planet has a Facebook page making sure the world doesn’t miss a single detail about their personal lives. I resisted as long as I could but broke down and got a Facebook account earlier this year. The Social Network is not concerned with the business angle of success unless it related directly to how it impacts the characters. You’re not going to find many insights into why Facebook took off or became entrenched in our navel-gazing society, which is a pity. The film also doesn’t concern itself with outright social commentary. Sure by exploring the micro personal struggles and betrayals of Mark and Eduardo the film marginally comments on the macro idea of generational self-absorption and ego, but so much more could be said about society as a whole. The film’s one clear moment of social satire is when Eduardo’s girlfriend berates him about his Facebook relationship status remaining single. She’s incensed and wants to know what he truly means by this outrageous declaration. He says he’s embarrassed but he doesn’t know how to change it, plus he’s hardly ever on the site. She responds to this by setting his gift on fire. Ah, petulant and jealous and self-absorbed concerning what a few scraps of digital bits say rather than direct, personal, face-to-face communication. It’s a brief, albeit nice slam on the myopic self-absorption of millennials, who came out of the womb with something electronic attached to their fingertips. The film doesn’t even touch the idea of millennials’ free sense of privacy and over sharing. This is not a generation -defining movie, folks.
This is all strange ground for director David Fincher (Seven, Zodiac), a visual stylist with few peers. Nerds creating a website doesn’t exactly strike anybody as fertile ground for a visually exciting drama, and yet Fincher proves once again that he is a masterful artist. The film looks beautifully sleek from beginning to end with Fincher’s typical green tinted, deep focus cinematography. Fincher also makes the best use of special effects I’ve seen this year. The Winklevoss twins were not played by actual twins. Hammer had his face digitally placed onto a stand-in’s (Pence) body. The digital cut-and-paste was remarkable in Fincher’s Benjamin Button but it also called attention to itself. Nobody would walk in believing Brad Pitt’s face somehow was on the body of a three-foot tall old man. However, in The Social Network, you would never once doubt that there are two twin actors on screen the whole time. Hammer manages to make each twin distinct and frustrated without coming across as jerky or entitled. The rest of the actors do fantastic work as well, and special notice to Timberlake who plays his mercurial role with glee.
So what does the real Mark Zuckerberg think about all this attention? Well, in a surprise to people who do not have a firm understanding of the word, Facebook has declined all advertising for The Social Network and is staying mum on the film, hoping to ride out the critical storm. I don’t think anyone is going to be using Facebook less now that they have learned the ethically murky beginnings of the website. But Zuckerberg and his Facebook crew might want to think of formulating some response strategy because this movie, and talk of this movie, isn’t going away any time soon (Zuckerberg recently donated $100 million to Newark city schools on Oprah coincidentally the same week Social Network was opening). It’s rare to find a studio film that is as polished across the bard as this film. The writing is sharp, the direction is sleek, the acting is top-notch, the film rollicks with intrigue and suspense and juicy drama, and the film can’t help but be relevant in our modern society. You do not have to know a lick about coding and websites and whatever to get absorbed in this high-stakes drama. It may not be the generation defining experience some critics are wetting themselves over in hype, but The Social Network is easily one of the best films of 2010. Perhaps the Academy will give it the ultimate “friend request” come this winter. In the meantime, log off and get yourself into a theater to see this great American movie.
Nate’s Grade: A