I have history with Countdown. Nothing personally with this movie written and directed by Justin Dec but because of the concept, a killer countdown ticking down to a specific person’s ultimate demise. In 2015, a screenwriting pal of mine Joe Marino and I were developing a TV series pitch for… a mystery involving a website counting down to the specific second of specific people’s deaths. We even called it… “Countdown.” Our pitch, which we presented to a producer and, as far as I know, never got further than that, would have opened bigger and bigger, starting with a mysterious slasher killer on a college campus that opens up to, eventually, a self-aware machine arranging life-and-death judgements and manipulating technology to see it through. I still have the pitch document and, if I do say so, it’s not bad. I don’t hold any suspicion with Dec and the filmmakers behind this version of Countdown. Anyone can independently come up with the same high-concept premise, it’s just funny to me the similarities between the two. It’s also unfortunate because, after having seen this 2019 Countdown, that there won’t be any other versions of this worthwhile premise.
Quinn Harris (Elizabeth Lail) is a nurse who is still coming to terms with her mother’s tragic death, her feelings of guilt over the accident that caused it, and being harassed by her boss (Peter Facinelli). Her younger sister downloads a new cool app that predicts when a user will die. It’s only a countdown timer and some people get ninety years and others get three days. Quinn tries deleting the app, even buying a new phone, but it cannot be stopped, and she’s now having strange visions and meeting up with other users who fear the app’s threats are very real.
There’s a reason Countdown almost kind of works. The premise has power. It’s a modern mash-up of The Ring and Final Destination, with a technological trap that curses the user like The Ring and then as the seconds tick closer it becomes a paranoid guessing game of what could befall the victim, much like the sneaky appeal of the Destination movies. This is all evident in the film’s opening eight-minute prologue, which is actually, genuinely a good watch. Had Countdown merely consisted of this opening segment, it could have been an enjoyable short film. It establishes its premise, some degree of rules, then simmers in the dread, and produces a few solid creepy moments and a clever conclusion that signals what Plan A had been for the victim’s demise. It’s got enough punch and dread that I could see it performing well on a fest circuit.
The problem comes when the movie tries to arrange a reasonable explanation for all the supernatural spookery. The mystery of the unknown, a haunted app, is going to be better than uncovering the secrets behind the app and its “terms of agreement.” The mystery behind the app is less interesting to watch than the question of how a character is going to die, which is why this would work better in a smaller time frame like as a short where it plays its trick once. The killer app cites breach in agreement terms if users “alter their acceptance of fate.” It’s legally vague but could basically apply to any time any person cancels plans (an introvert’s worst nightmare come true). This is a silly notion because why is a magical phone app so particular about plans? Then there’s the moment where we get the specs on the data for this app and it’s… bigger than expected (“Like a whole season of Game of Thrones on your phone”). I guess that’s slightly unexpected but who cares? It’s little things like this that start to break down the internal logic of the movie’s menace and Countdown was better off when it didn’t have to support a feature.
The movie starts to crack when it tosses in subplots to fulfill a feature-length running time. Again, this premise could sustain a movie (and even a series) but when the conclusion is simply that the app is demonic and uses divine evil powers, then any sense of mystery about the particulars around it feels like jogging in place. What does it matter when the app can justify any action, counter action, or outlandish scenario because of its demonic nature? Our characters gang together with the belief they can somehow break the curse if they beat the counter by one second, but why would they have any sense this could work and with a supernatural presence that can just change the rules? When you’re dealing with, you know, evil demons, they’re not trustworthy. This explanation means that whatever happens can change at any time just because. It makes it feel like all of the untangled mysteries and the determination to beat the system through some assumed understanding of agreed-upon rules as unsatisfying detours.
The most egregious subplot happens to be a very serious case of sexual harassment and assault by Quinn’s boss. This feels entirely out of place for “scary phone app” movie, and it very much feels grafted on by some studio executive who thought they would make their movie more relevant with the changing times. Like some exec said, “Hey, throw in some of that Me Too stuff. That will show we care. Bring in the women. It’s a very real problem.” I understand that the filmmakers wanted to present a villain who could be conquered in the place of an unknowably powerful demonic entity. It feels monumentally tacky to awkwardly cram in a real story of sexual assault as a questionable means of making the film more topical.
I think there’s an interesting story potential of people, knowing the exact second of their death, using it as a motivator good and bad. Perhaps it motivates them to quit their job and finally tackle a long list of personal goals, ask that one girl out, write that novel as some sort of legacy. Or perhaps it motivates them to live a life free of consequences and to take vengeance against others knowing full well their remaining years have been cut short. There could be an entire group of people who view themselves almost as spiritual warriors who have been blessed with foresight so they run roughshod over society’s rules. There could be lots of interesting sociological and psychological areas this degree of foreknowledge could provide, so it feels a little reductive to simply have it be a demonic curse that nobody thinks much more about.
After appearing on numerous Worst of the Year lists, a countdown in its own right, I was expecting Countdown to be an awful, intelligence-insulting experience. I didn’t hate this. In fact, I think it’s rather competently directed with some effectively eerie moments for a PG-13 horror movie. I enjoyed the TWO comic relief characters, a sarcastic and unscrupulous phone salesman (Tom Segura) and a nerdy priest who is eager to help (P.J. Byrne). I thought the opening eight minutes could have served as a complete short film that would have gotten attention. The film even presents some interesting ideas and complications with its premise. It’s not a good movie, especially with its lackluster conclusions to a lackluster mystery, but it’s not really a bad movie either. It’s 85 minutes of a killer premise but lacking necessary development to keep the interest level high, which is why the jump scares with grabby, clammy demon hands pop up. Countdown isn’t bad as much as it’s more disappointing, a premise that could have been so much more.
Nate’s Grade: C
Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) and his best pal Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman) must venture out of their arcade home once Vanellope’s game gets broken. She’s in danger of having her racing game shelved for good unless they can find a new steering wheel controller. Thanks to the installation of wi-fi, Ralph and Vanellope hop along the information super highway and visit an online metropolis bursting with life and possibility. It’s a world of advanced games, races, and interactivity and Vanellope might not want to go back to her old world, much to the chagrin of Ralph.
Fear not, this is not Disney’s rehash of The Emoji Movie, a slapdash gallivant through Internet culture, apps, and the most famous online brands. The first forty minutes or so of Ralph Breaks the Internet are silly and visually appealing as our familiar characters expand their horizons to the world of online gaming. Much like the first film, there are a lot of rules and mechanics to establish as a foundation before things can get too complicated. The first Wreck-It Ralph was a bit more structured and clean in this aspect whereas the sequel gets to feel a tad episodic. The Grand Theft Auto/Twisted Metal world of street racing provides a splendid contrast and plenty of satirical touches. It’s still amusing as Ralph and Vanellope discover the new worlds and we see how the filmmakers choose to depict their inner workings, like a concierge working a search bar or spammers as pushy street promoters. Although it also leads to some questions, like this world has Google but no YouTube, instead combining YouTube and Buzzfeed into one entity where hearts count as upvotes/likes. Is there a reason Disney might not want to have steered children to YouTube? Or is there something more corporate about promoting a rival media company when Disney is planning their own online streaming magical kingdom? It’s an entertaining beginning but I started to get worried about whether or not this was the extent of what we were going to get with a Ralph sequel. Is this really all going to be about raising money to buy an arcade controller wheel?
It’s about the forty-five minute mark where the film takes a welcomed turn, where it focuses far more on the character relationships between Ralph and Vanellope, and that’s when the film deepens into something much more special. The antics beforehand were colorful and amusing but too episodic, but once Ralph and Vanellope are split apart, now those same imaginative antics are used in the service of developing characters and exploring their inner conflicts. It’s like the movie went next level with its potential. Vannelope’s excursion into the Disney Corporate Realm leads to fun cameos (Groot), and newly sad cameos (Stan Lee, R.I.P.), but the meta interaction with the Disney princesses is a hoot. The film cleverly ribs the Disney traditions of old but, and this is the key part, finds ways to relate it back to character conflicts and assumptions. The Disney princesses lead Vanellope into a new soul-searching direction, which leads to an inspired musical number that’s filled with silly, ironic non-sequitors and a declaration of purpose, a wonderful melding of the Disney storytelling of old and new. From here, the movie gets better and better as Ralph goes to greater lengths to sabotage Vanellope’s plans to leave him for a new game. The final act grows from this misguided attempt to hold onto selfish needs and rebuke change, and it culminates in a climax that is built around the characters and what they’re willing to give up for one another. For a movie that starts with silly gags about eBay and Twitter, it grows into something that genuinely could bring some tears.
The overall message, that growing apart is okay and can be healthy, that friendships will inevitably change over time and to not stand in the way of change, is a lesson I was not anticipating from a “family film.” I was expecting Ralph Breaks the Internet to mostly cover the dark side of the Internet, in an albeit family-friendly manner, about the casual cruelty and lack of empathy that is magnified from the perceived anonymity. The movie does cover some of this material briefly when Ralph stumbles into a hall of mean-spirited comments (“First rule of the Internet: never read the comments”). I was expecting a more simplified and pat lesson about the evils of the Internet, but instead the filmmakers deliver something far more applicable and important for young people. They could have gone for easy life lessons about online behavior, and instead Ralph Breaks the Internet goes above and beyond to make its message more personal and sympathetic.
Reilly (Kong: Skull Island) provides a lot of heart to his doofus; enough to keep him grounded even when his character starts making bad decisions to keep the status quo. Silverman (Battle of the Sexes) has a harder time just because she’s asked to keep her voice at a childlike level, which can be grating at certain points. She is still able to convey an array of emotions. The relationship between Ralph and Vanellope is key to the series being more than the sum of its parts, and both actors help this through their sometimes warm, sometimes bickering interactions. The biggest new addition is Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) as Shank, the leader of a gang of car thieves. She’s a tough lady that takes an immediate shine to the attitude and gusto of Vanellope. The character and her world are more welcomed than Gadot as a vocal actor. She’s fairly limited in range. I did enjoy that they specifically animated Jason Mantzoukas (Netflix’s Big Mouth) as a nerdy question-asker and Oscar-nominee June Squibb (Nebraska) for five seconds each.
The Wreck-It Ralph franchise is another stellar plank in a growing armada of Disney animated franchises that could challenge Pixar for supremacy. Walking away from Ralph Breaks the Internet, I had to think it over but I concluded that I was more emotionally fulfilled and pleased than with Pixar’s Incredibles 2. I’m not going to argue that Ralph is the better of the two movies when it comes to storytelling, visual inventiveness, or action, but I was happier and more satisfied leaving Ralph. This is an imaginative, colorful, cheerful, and heartfelt movie with a valuable message and the understanding of narrative structure to see it through. I’m now thinking about a potential third Ralph movie (the director says there won’t be another, but let’s see what Disney says after those box-office grosses come in). We’ve gone to the realm of online gaming, so what’s next? Maybe Ralph’s game gets transferred to a collector’s home out of the country, like in Japan, and then it’s about Japanese gaming culture. Or my pal Ben Bailey suggested Ralph’s game gets relocated into a movie theater, one of the few places arcade machines are still present, and it’s Ralph in the world of the movies. The fact that I’m pitching sequels says something about the franchise’s potential and its accomplishment. Ralph Breaks the Internet is a worthy sequel with of equal parts compassion and wit.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Ditching the supernatural threat for something even scarier, Unfriended 2 follows the original film’s found footage-as-computer screen storytelling model but takes a dark dive into the Dark Web of the Internet, a playground for all kinds of shady criminal activities. A group of ethnically diverse friends gathers online to play a cross-country game and run afoul of a very vengeful man who wants his laptop back. Apparently our protagonist, Matias (Colin Woodell), stole it at a lost and found to better work on his sign language reading app to communicate with his deaf girlfriend. It was touches like that where the movie felt far more developed than I was expecting. The movie builds a nice sense of momentum and dread as the friends get further and further into uncovering the Dark Web conspiracy of for-hire snuff films and sex trafficking, and at every point there are moments they could turn away and avoid their doomed fates. The suspense sequences are well thought-out, like where the group has to quickly adopt a façade playing a game while a wifi connection is in play, and as soon as it goes out they breathlessly communicate their next desperate plan of action. There is one great kill and a few nifty twists and turns, especially as things get even more dangerous for our characters. Writer/director Stephen Susco finds ways to keep his film visually engaging and still character-centric in the decision-making, avoiding the escalations from feeling contrived and artificial. I enjoyed myself right up until the end, though the film does become more preposterous as it goes. The Dark Web as a whole is vague enough to be whatever the horror audience needs. The movie doesn’t have much to offer in the way of online culture commentary beyond a pretty standard “be careful what you wish for” warning. The characters aren’t terribly dimensional but they held my interest and contributed in small but meaningful ways. With Unfirended 2, it’s a fitting and palpable story engine for a clever thriller. If you enjoyed the recent indie hit Searching, check out some of the Unfriended films too.
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
The film chronicles the online relationship of Yaniv “Nev” Schulman. He’s a twenty-something New York City photographer who gets a painting in the mail one day. It’s a painting based upon one of his pictures published in a New York magazine. A 12-year-old girl saw the photo and was inspired to paint. She keeps sending more and more paintings to Nev in New York. He researches the 12-year-old, her family, and eyes pictures of Megan, her older sister. Megan is a strikingly good-looking model who also dances, plays the cello, writes songs, and raises horses. Nev and Megan have several conversations via phone, texting, online chatting, e-mail, and Facebook postings. It’s a relationship completely dependent on thumbs. Then Nev, along with his filmmaking friends Henry Joost and Nev’s brother, Ariel Schulman, start noticing peculiarities. Why does Megan pass off other people’s songs as her own? Why does she never seem to be around when other family members are? Is Megan really Megan? The guys start investigating and deconstructing this online romantic fable. Nev’s friends prod him into making an unexpected road trip to Megan’s family home in Ishpeming, Michigan. They’re excited and morbidly curious about what awaits them.
I suppose your ultimate feelings about this movie will depend upon whether you view Catfish as a work of fiction or non-fiction. In either case, there’s a lot of manipulation and exploitation. Even if you do some half-hearted Internet research, you can find real-life events mentioned in the film that actually happened. A real-life special needs child died in the town of Ishpeming, as described in the closing text of the film. That means that a character we see late in the film is either the genuine special needs child or was a stand-in for one and the filmmakers took advantage of a community’s loss for “authenticity.” Which is more manipulative? Nev and his pals want to expose this scheming family, broadcasting private messages and intruding upon their lives with cameras to document their foibles. From my assessment, the film felt staged from start to finish. What luck they had cameras rolling for all these important moments of inquiry. But does that mean that the film is any less believable? The movie examines how easy it is not just to create a different persona, or new friends via the Internet; it showcases how the Internet allows people to create their own world. People lose themselves in alternate online realities, not just social-networking sites like Facebook but The Sims, Second Life, World of Warcraft, and all sorts of other avatar-based sites. The Internet allows us to fashion our own worlds, our own escape door from reality. Our grasp on reality has become subjective, which is further evidence that the truthfulness of the film is a moot point (a fictional non-fiction film about people posing as fictional versions of who they want to be online?). What does identity mean in an age of ever-increasing fiction?
As a film, Catfish is a mess of digital images. We see Facebook posts and text messages, scrutinize images posted Online, scroll through Google and YouTube for damming evidence of a con, and the guys make extensive use of Google Earth to showcase their cross-country travels. The visual do-it-yourself aesthetic contributes to the stab at authenticity as well as amateur journalism. The framing of the shots, however, is another point that tips Catfish into being a likely work of fiction. Whatever the case may be, the filmmakers and the subjects aren’t speaking one way or another.
Those snookered by Catfish’s sensational trailer (there will be many) are likely in for a crushing disappointment. Catfish begins as a slightly intriguing mystery as Nev and his buddies uncover the irregularities and discrepancies of Megan. Then when the trio actually arrives in Ishpeming in the dead of night, there’s about a ten-minute stretch of “don’t go in there!” cinema. Nev’s filmmaking pals egg it on with self-aware comments about how scared they are or how creepy the situation is becoming. Then again, who exactly peaks into an abandoned horse farm in the dead of night? At this point, goaded by the trailer, you’re expecting Catfish to go down the grisly horror path. You expect they will discover some terrifying secret like that Megan is apart of a family of grifters that lure unsuspecting men from the Internet to be butchered and have their organs sold. Catfish does not go down that path. It actually pretty much goes the way you’d expect in real life. It actually turns out to be a fairly normal, mundane story, something that would have made an interesting one-hour TV special (“To Catch an Internet Poser”? It would run for decades). Catfish begins as a warning about how well we can truly know someone in the digital age, but then it concludes as a thoughtful character-piece about the steps people take to alleviate the disappointments and hardships of life.
Catfish has some moments of intrigue and tension, but at most the film is a mildly interesting experiment. It straddles many creative lines. It’s both fiction and non-fiction, humane and exploitative, probing and lethargic, a fitting contradistinction about a world that full of them. It’s a mostly well-crafted movie but what do you do with it after you know all its secrets? Nev and his crew are on a crusade for the truth, but whose truth? If you’re looking for a true stimulating experience exploring life in the Internet age, check out The Social Network again. Talking and analyzing Catfish is more intriguing than actually viewing the film.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The Internet can be a scary place, no question. There’s plenty of weird crap in wide-open world of the World Wide Web. There are sites devoted to teaching people how to make bombs in the privacy of their own kitchen. If you can name a fetish, chances are there’s a pay sex site already built for it (I tried “clown porn” and was not disappointed, and by that I mean that I found a site for it and WAS deeply creeped out). According to the ongoing Dateline specials, everyone wants to “talk” to adolescent girls while they’re home alone. In short, the Internet can be a scary place. Untraceable, a barrel-scrapping genre movie, taps into our fears of the unknown in cyber space.
Agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) is a member of the Portland, Oregon office of the FBI. She specializes in tracking down cyber criminals and bringing them to real-world justice. There’s a new Web site called “Kill With Me.com” that invites anonymous users to serve as executioners. The site creator creates death traps that increase in deadliness the more users click onto the site; so a man bleeds out faster the more people that want to catch a glimpse of it. Lucky for the FBI, the cyber killer is doing all this nasty business in Portland. Marsh and her cyber assistant (Colin Hanks) try finding the location of the IP site but, somehow, it skips around the world and cannot be pinpointed. The victims of the site are specifically chosen, and Marsh is struggling to put it all together. Then the cyber killer begins stalking her and lets others join in on the fun.
Untraceable is rather hypocritical in nature. It wants to titillate an audience but then shame them for embracing the titillation; the movie is purveying the same crap that it derides. The premise of a digital age serial killer that transforms murder into an online democratic act sounds nifty. Plenty of insightful questions generated by this premise like the nature of exploitation, media, and the culpability on the account of the insatiable viewing public. It’s too bad, then that Untraceable just uses the premise as a jumping off point to create a half-assed Saw. The movie is mostly concerned with reworking the familiar tropes of the serial killer genre, this time with some extra dashes of torture and Saw-style death traps. But the movie doesn’t fully commit to horror so much of the gore is implied. The extra attention to torture seems timidly tacked on to the framework of a thriller, likely grossing out the older folk that came to the movies thinking they were going to watch Diane Lane assert justice on this new fangled Internets thing. The movie has a vague fear of technology and computers and seems programmed to scare people that don’t know any better, namely the people who think computers are bigger toasters.
The script by relative neophytes is where the movie treads water. The villain is revealed fairly early, like a half hour in, and this revelation does nothing to help build tension. The culprit responsible for the laughably implausible death traps is a gangly eighteen-year-old twerp (Running with Scissors‘ Joseph Cross; yes that kid). I understand that in serial killer movies the villain usually takes on some form of supernatural abilities, like the ability to be everywhere and never be seen, or the ability to draw super strength at opportune times. When Untraceable apathetically reveals its villain the movie seems like it’s already giving up and conceding, “Okay, this is the big bad dude and he weighs about 110 pounds soaking wet. We know he could never outmatch anyone that is over five feet tall.” Marsh’s home life is also given obligatory screen time, including Marsh’s mother keeping watch of the home, but it never matters. In this world, birthday parties just get in the way of FBI manhunts.
The film also requires character to act inexplicably stupid at a moment’s notice in order for the plot to hum along. Marsh is such an expert on cyber crime, and yet she doesn’t bat an eyelash when her young daughter downloads a mysterious computer program sent to her by a “friend”? Never mind that this FBI expert logs onto the “Kill With Me” site on her home computer, allowing the killer to hack into her computer and look through all her personal information and cyber dirty laundry. The worst lapse occurs after our tech-savvy killer has effectively hacked into Marsh’s OnStar computer system in her car. The engine shits down and the car slows to a halt. Marsh leaves her car to use a roadside telephone to tell another cop that the killer has hijacked her car. The cop on the phone advises her to be on alert. Right after she hangs up, the car’s engine and lights become operational once again. Marsh trots over to her car, whose door had been open since she left, and simply hops back inside without checking the vehicle at all. She is swiftly tazed and kidnapped by the killer who was routinely hiding in the back seat. It’s not like a trained FBI agent would be able to miss the inescapable sight of somebody hiding in a tiny backseat with little room to crouch. I can excuse smart people making stupid decisions, but when a movie like Untraceable has experts not following through on situations that require their expertise, then it comes across as contrived. Really, a cop wouldn’t even peek in the backseat?
Lane holds her own, and even that is an accomplishment for something so rote. She’s an actress easing into her forties and finding a new tap of talent. Frankly, she should have won the Best Actress Oscar for 2002 with her fabulous work in Unfaithful. That movie came out five years ago, and yet the Diane Lane in Untraceable looks so much older. I think the filmmakers were trying to make her look more harried by not applying makeup or utilizing soft focus. You can see her wrinkles and her age, and these are all well earned for a great actress, and Untraceable wants to maker her look her age in a time where Hollywood seems to dump out an actress’ business card once she hits 40. I just thought that was interesting, but the most interesting facet of this entire movie is that the actor who plays the head of the FBI team (Peter Lewis) looks remarkably close to 2008 Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. It’s uncanny. If Huckabee ever plans on contributing to a filmed biopic of his life, then Peter Lewis should be on his shortlist.
Untraceable scrapes the serial killer genre for some form of life. The novel premise gives way to predictably lackluster thrills and gaping plot holes. Lane saunters around with a gun for two hours, mixed in with some extended sequences of torture, including one that involves hundreds of heat lamps. Look, I know I’m no cop, but couldn’t someone simply trace the massive electric bill this guy is generating? It’s just sloppy police work all around. Why? Because the movie requires giant lapses in judgment so that it can continue. The world can be a sick place, but has it always been this way? A better movie would dig deeper; this movie just wants to fry a cat and call it a day.
Nate’s Grade: C
Kevin Smith returns back to his comedy roots. No more movies with a message (Chasing Amy and Dogma) it’s back to good ole’ snowballing and stink palming. His latest, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, is like a giant thank-you card to all his fans that have made the man who he is today. It ties up the entire View Askew universe so Kevin can drift off into uncharted ventures of film making and not have to keep referencing the same damn characters. Plus there’s plenty of good-natured vulgarity to go around.
The plot of Jay and Silent Bob is nothing too heavy but seems to keep the film on a continuous pace, unlike the sometimes stagnant feel Mallrats had (what, they’re in one location for 90 minutes). It seems that after getting a restraining order at the Quick Stop on them, Jay and Silent Bob learn that Miramax is making a movie from a comic book that is in fact based off of them. Learned of the riches they could make they seek out the comic’s author Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck’s first appearance in the film) and demand a piece of the pie. Holden tells them that he long ago sold his right to his partner Banky Edwards (Jason Lee, in his second appearance in the film) and that there’s nothing they can do to stop the film. Jay suddenly gets the idea that if they stop the movie from ever getting made then they don’t have to worry. So off go our stoner duo on a mission to sabotage and satirize Hollywood.
Along the way are a hitch-hiker (George Carlin) advising the best way to get a ride is to go down in your morals, a confused nun (Carrie Fisher), the cast of Scooby Doo offering a ride (which will be 100x funnier than the feature film coming out this summer), a beautiful band of international diamond thieves (Eliza Dusku, Ali Larter, Jennifer Swalbach-Smith, Shannon Elizabeth), a rescued chimpanzee, a dogged Wildlife agent (Will Ferrell), and a full barrage of hilarity once Hollywood is finally hit.
The best barbs are laid out by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon bickering about the other’s film choices on the set of Good Will Hunting 2: Hunting Season. This moment is truly inspired and full of great humor from Gus van Sant too busy counting his money to yell action to Damon turning into a vigilante hero. I almost fell on the floor laughing during this sequence.
When Jay and Silent Bob hit Hollywood is when the comedy starts hitting its stride as this Jersey Greek chorus interacts with the Hollywood life and encounters many a celebrity. The jokes are usually right on target except for Chris Rock’s performance of a racism obsessed film director. Rock’s portrayal becomes grating to the moviegoer far before it’s over, though he does get a few choice lines.
Smith as a director has finally elevated his visual art into something that can sustain itself instead of his earlier just-hold-the-camera-and-shoot movies. There are pans, zooms, quick cuts, cranes, action sequences, and even CGI. Smith is evolving as an artist but still staying his “dick and fart joke” self, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is evidence. And that’s fine by me.
Nate’s Grade: B