Network


Often with satire there exists a thin line between that which is too subtle and borders on undeveloped and pushing something too far. With regards movies, both can be seamlessly and beautifully amalgamated into one creature, a difficult taskmaster in and of itself, but another interesting instance is where the boundaries of reason are truly tested; and it succeeds.
Such is the case with “Network”, a masterpiece from the otherwise indisputable Sidney Lumet.

Relating personal crisis to social change, Network explains the slow downfall of major network news (and perhaps omnisciently the news media as a whole) within the United States. Howard Beale (Peter Finch), the long-suffering news anchor of the UBS Evening News loses his job and decides to kill himself on air for his final show. Everyone would be relatively unconcerned except he announced it on air leading to Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) firing both Beale and long-time friend/producer Max Schumacher (William Holden). Only with the intervention of entertainment programming producer Diane (Faye Dunaway) are both reinstated but Beale’s steady decline into senility presents itself as an opportunity to revolutionize UBS and network news as a whole, with Schumacher presenting himself as his only real ally.

Born before Fox and it’s critically derided broadcasts, the film in many ways feels like an apocalyptic foretelling of the future. One where news becomes entertainment to be programmed. Where critical, populist anger trumps an honest retelling of the facts. Howard’s progressive spiral of despair is exploited for the benefit of advertising and numbers, with few seeing it for what it really is and even less attempting to rectify it.

Although largely satirical, a large part of it’s fictional predictions have come true and far more does not seem entirely outside the realms of possibility. In attempting to express not just the ills of the media but those of 1970s society, it perhaps spreads itself thin yet the parallels between that earlier recession, the rise of partisan commentary masking itself as news or more indirectly, the shift from informative or experimental reality TV to that which seeks to entertain at any costs, are glaring. Society and television act as a symbiotic crutch for one another, cyclicly deepening an already unhealthy relationship of wants rather than needs. Instant gratification rather than (in general) creating art.
The diatribes follow such a constant and sustained pattern, it is possible for the feature as a whole to veer into vain territory yet the irony of each is never lost, saving it from its own potential hubris.

Finch’s articulation of Beale is mesmerising, terrifying in its wonder as is Dunaway in her optimistic opportunism. Duvall as always plays Duvall rather than an actual character (though it’s always interesting to ponder which is which). Inevitably however, only Marlene Warfield as revolutionary Laureen Hobbs and Beatrice Straight come close to matching Finch’s performance in both entertainment value and grandeur respectively.

Yes in truth Lumet’s film is not entirely concise or perfectly executed, but the cold nature of its presentation to us as the audience and unapologetic approach as a whole invariably grants it a longevity that echoes still.

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Fantastic Mr. Fox


Whether it’s Darjeeling, Tenenbaums or Life Aquatic, Wes Anderson has always been driven by family, or more specifically parent/child dynamics.

With each movie, the characters’ collective development became progressively more childlike and ultimately tiring to a large extent. Yet by actually crafting a beloved Roald Dahl book into a children’s movie might just have saved his skin, by slyly embracing and subverting that which was becoming the grandiose pink elephant.

Retired squab thief Mr Fox (George Clooney) is unhappy with his lot in life. In spite of his charming home, loving wife Felicity (Meryl Streep) and “interesting” son Ash (Jason Schwartzman), he cannot escape the fact that literally and metaphorically they are living in a whole. With the help of opossum Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky), Fox plans one final job to steal from farmers Bean, Bunce and Boggis. Yet doing so will invite such contempt that the lives of all those around them will be endangered.

The subtle decisive in cultures – the americanised animals and the British humans not only allows Anderson to create a real distinction between the two but also implement elements of both comedy traditions seamlessly and to great effect. One element which in the end creates a harmonious juxtaposition if such a thing can exist.

Clooney, Streep and most of the supporting cast take it upon themselves to create interesting and entertaining characters each distinct from the other. Schwartzman however as Fox’s son is lumbered by Anderson’s predisposition for familial examination, supposedly scorned or ignored by his father yet never comes across as anything more than an insolent child through a combination of poor writing and needless passive-aggressiveness in the voice acting. Considering the amount of time given to this subplot in its myriad of forms, it does become tiresome quite quickly and continues to be the same until the final credits roll. Other plot points such as the effect on the married foxes relationship are left unfinished to a certain extent, a new piece of information later highlighting it and it’s ignorance.

Overall however, the animation is done in such a way as to give the proceedings an other-worldly feel yet evoke the purest of emotions. Close-ups and the use of facial animation illustrates just how far the technique has grown since its inception. As such we can both humanize and compartmentalize both sets of characters, furthering the cultural techniques already employed.

Here Anderson has crafted an absurd and original piece whilst maintaining a strong connection to the source material. Dahl would certainly be proud of how his work is seen by modern audiences despite its issues.

The Apartment


Often times a classic of the silver screen will not hold up as well to criticism due to large social changes that have taken place since it’s inception, Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” being a case in point.

C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a lowly office drone for an insurance company in “Mad Men” era Manhattan. Having once offered his apartment to a manager, he now finds that he is rarely able to use it himself as they court their mistresses and one-night stands there the majority of the week within its four walls. Mr Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) assumes the worst yet ironically ends up using it for those same purposes to try and win back elevator operator Fran’s (Shirley Maclaine) affections, for which Baxter himself is also competing.

One of the largest failings is borne out of the era itself, when infidelity was more than simply taboo but unable to be shown on screen, Wilder’s previous “Seven Year Itch” adaptation being rewritten to make an extra-marital affair imaginary to meet codes of standards. Here instead of removing the concept entirely, the cast bypasses it by having it done by supporting characters, allowing them to shoulder the responsibility. A large portion of the movie, bordering on 45 minutes then resorts to simply reinforcing that Lemmon’s character cannot alter that which is happening to him and although this may be true, the time alloted paints him as an adversely passive character, one which may not elicit as much sympathy (or conversely contempt) by today’s standards.

Pacing does suffer as a direct result and inevitably the central story does not gain momentum until it is already into the middle and even final acts. Modern editing in both construction and execution would alleviate this greatly instead paints a sexually repressive undertone over what should be simply a romantic comedy of errors. Actions are allowed spiral further than they perhaps should, invoking this sense of shame in the extreme. Although few could argue that these characters should not pay in some way for their actions, it lends itself to a hyperbolized sense of drama when done in such a manner.

Lemmon and MacLaine share an incandescent chemistry, allowing us to become personally involved in their struggles but they still stray into non-relatable territory. For the most part, their separate and combined performances still transform this picture into a true joy to watch but for me at least, this world in which they live seems far too unforgiving for what could be a more straightforward picture.

As such, in spite of stellar performances from both headliners, the movie is all too black and white for its own good, coming down heavy morally on two nuanced characters that have and will already pay for what they’ve done. The way in which they triumph should be of more importance.

Being There


P
erhaps Seller’s greatest role in my mind, Being There tells a story oddly reminiscent of Forrest Gump that followed some time later.

Apparently simple-minded Chance (Peter Sellers) has lived his entire life cut off from the outside world, tending the guardian of the “old man” who has recently passed on. Evicted from his former home, a run-in with Eve Rand’s (Shirley MacLaine) car leads grants him access not only to Eve’s billionaire husband Ben (Melvyn Douglas) but the President himself (Jack Warden), becoming a media sensation in the process.

Although both films employ a sense of humour and comic timing that’s refreshing, the use of the sometimes subtle background sounds or even the more overt televisual referenced lend themselves more to interest rather than the often crass historical references used in Gump.

Whether or not he is an idiot savant or merely an idiot is never at issue as the above inclusions also heighten the dramatic and emotional intensity of scenes when combined with the most minuscule of looks provided by Sellers, illustrating that although Chance might be sheltered or even childlike in many ways, he is not a character to be pitied but empathised with. Chance may not know everything but he is far from stupid and often offers incites that are wiser than anything else available. Yes there is an irony in the importance placed on him and his utterances and how they spiral further into fancy but it is done by characters supposedly smarter than him. Never should we raise an idea to dogma but neither should we forget the wisdom that comes from fresh eyes or those limited by cynicism.

Comparatively “Being There” easily lays waste to its competition but on its own merits it stands firm against most other pictures. From the playful and skilfully employed absurdism adding depth to otherwise unrelatable characters (at least to some), the glimpses of humanity offered in each are more universal than most stereotypes because they never stray too far into chaos.

MacLaine and Douglas simply ooze affability despite their apparent social standing. Just like with Sellers it is in the nuance of their performances that we truly see beyond what is in front of us.

In truth, here lies a simple story, well told without any ounce of pretensions and enough discernible difference to give it a real vitality, making it an instant classic in my mind.

Ghost Rider



M
arvel has a checkered past with film adaptations of its back catalogue, often adding nothing new to characters beloved by its existing fanbase. While one can reason that extending their scope to those outside of that class would ultimately help their viability and continual evolution, Ghost Rider has nothing to distinctly define itself from other characters or movies. Either in its class or as a film in general, this adaptation lacks a voice of its own, a vision by which the audience can form a bond with it.

After trading his soul to Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) in exchange for a rather unspectacular saving of his father’s life, Johnny Blaze (Nicholas Cage) a now famous stunt rider is called upon to assume the mantle of the Ghost Rider. A century and a half earlier the last soul damned to carry out this duty fled from the devil and hid a contract for a thousand souls he thought too powerful for anyone to possess but now Blaze must stop Blackheart (Wes Bentley) from doing the very same.

Every point essential to the mythos of the character is portrayed, allowing us to see what makes the character unique but this writer/director portrays it in such a structural manner, it never appears so everything is merely another item to be crossed off the checklist of background traits and abilities. Anyone that can make a character such as this uninteresting or even outwardly boring is worthy of distain and such is the man at the helm.

More so, this inorganic quality to the writing not only leads to monotony but an overall reliance on cliche and poorly crafted humour, hoping to point the inherent cool of the Rider, whilst making it seem completely farfetched.

But could this be another adaptation hoping to cash in at the box office? As a once off it is easy to believe and it is open to a sequel (one already being in the works) but the supreme lack of action sequences eats at its profitability in any long-term sense. We see an occasion setpiece, well shot and animated but again lacking any magnetism. If you can’t keep those of the lowest demographic who merely want to see explosions and buses going really fast then you have a sizeable problem.
Worse still, Cage personally took it upon himself to water down the harder edge already provided within the source material, leaving him a teetotaller who listens to The Carpenters which might set him apart from the gruff men engaged in his line of work but doesn’t make for an interesting lead.

Another director might have realised such faults and corrected them but writer/director Mark Steven Johnson (of Grumpy Old Men and Daredevil) is not known for his edge or talent for that matter. Any element of the B-Movie spaghetti western genre is killed by an overall gloss on the look and feel of every scene, constantly betraying its Hollywood sensibility. Plot holes about throughout, glaring in their simplicity and lack of thought, positing a calculated feel to the endeavour.

Cage attempts yet again to be charismatic but cannot find his footing for most of the picture, floundering in an uncomfortable void of awkward moments. Mendes also puts her best foot forward yet attracts our view on more than a physical level. Ironically in casting the earlier versions of both leads Mendes has a near double of herself whereas Cage has a disproportionately attractive beginning, making his some of the worst ageing done outside of a Fincher movie or Industrial Light and Magic. If anything, the best attempt at acting comes from his hairpiece.
Suffering from a distinctly visual problem, the villains of the piece overact in comparison to their desensitised presentation. Through this and the ease with which they’re dismissed, they never present a lasting threat, adding little tension to the development of the story.

There’s not much I can say in favour of this film, with it’s generally bland delivery and lack of any real defining moments, it’s innocuous but never exciting.

The Social Network


An astute figure points out that with the right questions asked and a certain degree of emotional testimony, the truth can be easily twisted to paint characters in a less flattering light. Perhaps the best summary of David Fincher’s latest piece, its relationship to the whole truth seems tenuous at best for the majority of the picture.

Following a rather public breakup with girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara), Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) hacks into the Harvard database of female students to create a website to rate them by comparison to one another. With an algorithm provided by best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), the sites popularity crashes the university’s servers, bringing Zuckerberg before the probationary board and also the Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer). Hoping that in Mark they have found the programmer they’ve sought after for their exclusive new networking site, Zuckerberg uses their same idea to launch what will become the indomitable Facebook.

Yes key elements remain unchanged such as the technical and general order of events but the very motivation for its inception is left to embellishment along with other issues of structure and presentation.

By transforming the motivation into social acceptance and status, we see both a key motivator of human behaviour but one of its most fickle. Although Geuss states that power must be recognised as an essential element of political power and it can be transposed into every other aspect of life, the scope is altogether too narrow, rendering characters self-serving and largely irredeemable.
The difference between a relatable fault and it’s opposite is something rather subtle in context but not in delivery, isolating them from the audience in a way hard to engage with over the daunting 2 hour running time. Granted an non-archetypal character is often to be admired and certainly makes reviewing a more interesting pastime but only where they pose an interesting question for example about ourselves as individuals, the medium itself or society as a whole; here the crew seems too focused on further mysticising the characters behind a global brand.

Isolation is handled well as a theme, with Zuckerberg cast as the oddity regardless of the situation but as an element of the overall microcosm, it’s pushed too far.

An overall wit born from the script allows a large amount of leeway and for the most part negates any significant issues along with raising subtle nuances (such as the twins inability to understand that fairness does not mean meeting personally with the Dean of Harvard to solve their problems) but the overt nature of the characterisation of each player results in a lack of irony overall.

Eisenberg, Garfield and even Timberlake as a cast turn in a masterful performance as an ensemble cast, delivering each line with as much venom as humanly possible but their inherent structural issues cause enough damage to less the impact of the same. On a purely surface level, these could be career defining moments for each but given the fact no one can escape the need to be made completely fallible, it was hard for me to remember them in a positive light. The production around Hammer in the role of the twins also borders on faultless yet the occasional hazy surround or less than perfect facial CGI in backgrounds renders it obvious to the astute viewer.

Many will argue against what I’ve said, rallying behind a proven writer and director and interesting social examination but the lack of factual certainty, more relatable characters and a too in-depth examination of such overt themes left me wanting more. In spite of everything negative I can outline, the sum is great than it’s parts, leaving an interesting piece worthy of watching at least once. However the overworked development, aiming to cover too much while often adding little new to say will be the defining factor of an otherwise strong film.

Spider-Man 2


There’s an inherent irony to someone such as myself who writes movie reviews as a hobby to even contemplate saying this but often it’s impossible to reconcile what one reads about a film with what one sees personally. Not even on an artistic interpretation level but simply the buzz surrounding a project.
Take Inception for example, which despite being superior in quality in no way matched up to the praise being heaped upon it by others, at least in my mind. On a much greater scale exists “Spider-Man 2” with an approval rating rarely matched by anything else and yet I found to be distinctly average.

But I ramble, so best get to hacking and slashing.

Assuming the mantle of Spider-man has weighed heavily on Peter Parker (Toby Maguire), his grades plummeting along with his personal and professional life taking a substantial hit. Terrified to risk Mary Jane’s (Kirsten Dunst) safety by becoming involved with her, Parker instead question whether or not he should return to his normal life, however his very ability to do so with a new criminal Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) running amok will be called into question as the once respected scientist threatens the safety of Manhattan.

Maguire still lacks the charisma to sustain the role or even our attentions for long. Despite the possibility that he’s a wonderful person to know, his incarnation of Peter Parker is devoid of any distinguishable personality traits resulting in a movie hinged upon very little. “Cute” techniques and story elements are constantly employed to breathe life into the character but are gimmicks and little else, not only damaging the story progression but general consistency.

Even with both Franco (as best friend Harry Osborne Jr) and Dunst having their own distinct subplots, the characterisations border on crass, if not outwardly hollow. The first, overacts a terribly contrived obsession with the later stifled entirely by the narrow re,it given to her, other than to appear fickle and at times needlessly romantic.

Molina, repeatedly praised elsewhere for the supposed life brought by his performance in actuality has the same issues with writing, initially being granted a reasonably comfortable framework for his character to develop within before being reduced into a garish threat for a man of his apparent intellect.

Specialising in the B-movie genre before helming the first installment, Raimi has obviously been allowed more input as to the style and feel of the piece due to the original’s success. Unfortunately, most of the changes have done it a disservice. His sense of humour in particular leads to a significant lag where it is not needed such as Octavious’ violent awakening in the hospital and his capture of Aunt May not soon after. Both are so preposterous, so infantile and derivative in execution, it’s impossible for me to think how anyone would accept this as genuine talent. Absurdism is to be commended due to implied difficulties it carries with it but never for the sake of it or to simply sate the director’s personal appetite.

More importantly, a generic trait of any superhero movie is the idea of a secret identity, a fact that no one here is prepared to respect. Yes there are exceptions and instances where the hero may be unmasked but the sheer frequency under Raimi’s direction begs the question of how much respect they have for the project as a whole.

Visually the movie is passable. Far from exuding the most seamless of CGI (evenly the standards of the time), this shiny, desensitised metropolis serves as enough of a distraction to make up for the subpar story and direction. In most action scenes, there is an overall slickness seen nowhere else.

Focusing on a poorly-painted hero and juvenile direction, this sequel only redeeming trait is the CGI and action present enough to make it watchable.