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Films I Neglected To Review: Why Can't We Be Friends?
by Peter Sobczynski

Oddball economics, Beat poetry, transplanted vampires and the best film of 2010 to date--these are some of the things that you will find in theaters this week.

By discussing complex social and economic theories using off-the-wall examples to illustrate their points, economist Steven D. Levitt and author Stephen J. Dubner had an unexpected success with the best-selling book “Freakonomics.” In bringing that book to the screen, they have attempted to do something similar by hiring a variety of acclaimed documentarians, including Morgan Spurlock, Eugene Jarecki and Alex Gibney, to visualize some of its key chapters. Unfortunately, something gets lost in the translation from the page to the screen and what came across in print as fascinating and eye-opening now plays as almost insultingly shallow. The segments, dealing with the ramifications of baby names, corruption in the world of sumo wrestling and how it ties in with the likes of AIG and Bernie Madoff, the connection between Roe V. Wade and the drop in the national crime rate in the 1990’s and whether bribing kids to get good grades actually works, all have the potential to inspire interesting stories but in the effort to move from one to the next, we are left with nothing more than an endless jumble of talking heads, statistics and ironically chosen stock footage coated with a thick glaze of obnoxious visual trickery presumably meant to suggest the work of Errrol Morris. “Freakonomics” has its moments of insight but for the most part, it is a disjointed mess that is never quite as hip or smart as it seems to think it is.

There are three different films fighting to get out of “Howl,” Ron Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman’s audacious cinematic tribute to the legendary and controversial Allen Ginsberg poem. In one, we see Ginsberg (played by James Franco) as he presents the poem for the first time in 1955 and discusses how both it and he came to formation with an unseen interviewer. In another, we see a reenactment of the obscenity trial it inspired in San Francisco in 1957 with the likes of Jon Hamm, David Straithairn, Jeff Daniels and Mary Louise Parker filling in the roles. Finally, the poem itself is illustrated through animated segments courtesy of art director Eric Drooker. This is definitely an intriguing approach to the subject but instead of complementing each other, the three differing approaches wind up clashing uneasily. Of the three, the animated segments are by far the weakest because they merely offer literal translations of the words instead of using them as a jumping-off point for their own kind of poetry. The courtroom scenes are a little more successful but these vignettes, while well-acted, lack any real sense of power or urgency. What does work is Franco’s performance as Ginsberg--even though he doesn’t look much like the real man, he does a very good job of capturing his offbeat spirit and his readings from the poem carry a surprising amount of power. If “Howl” had just stuck with him, it might have made for a fascinating and complex examination of a fascinating and complex work instead of being an ambitious but flawed misfire.

Like many others, when I first heard that “Let the Right One In,” the brilliant Swedish vampire movie about the unusual friendship that develops between a lonely and bullied 12-year-old boy and a female vampire, seemingly the same age, who moves in next door along with her mysterious guardian, was going to be remade for American audiences under the supervision of the man responsible for the cheerfully gimmicky monster mash “Cloverfield,” I assumed that the end result would a coarse and stupid degradation of the material that would remove all of the lyrical and genuinely transgressive elements in order to transform it into a “Twilight” clone. The good news is that the end result, “Let Me In,” is nowhere near as bad as fans may have feared. Outside of relocating the story to Los Alamos, New Mexico circa 1983, the shifting of one sequence from the middle to the opening and a upping of the gore quotient, writer-director Matt Reeves pretty much sticks to the template of the original and concentrates more on the relationship between the two kids, now played by Kodi-Smit McPhee and Chloe Moretz, and in creating a grim and chilly atmosphere that is impossible to shake. The performances are also quite good--McPhee and Moretz do excellent jobs of capturing the large and complex emotions of their characters and the invaluable Richard Jenkins also makes a strong impression as the girl’s protector. And yet, despite all of this, I still found myself at a distance while watching it because as good as it is, there is never a time when it transcends the earlier film and strikes out on its own. There are times when it feels like a shot-for-shot remake of the original and though it doesn’t do it a disservice, it never improves upon it to such a degree that it justifies its existence. If you saw and adored “Let the Right One In,” there is no real reason to see this version at all and if you haven’t, there is no real reason to see it when a much better version is readily available.

Sure, the social networking website Facebook is an entertaining enough way of passing the time on the computer in lieu of playing Minesweeper or doing actual work but who would have suspected that there was any sort of entertainment value to be had from a recounting of its development beginning in the fall of 2003 and the lawsuits that would eventually emerge as the result of its improbable success? And yet, despite the unpromising nature of the material, “The Social Network” is a knockout of a film--an utterly fascinating and compelling work that combines classical dramatic storytelling, a cutting-edge visual style and a steely intelligence equal to that displayed by any of its hyper-brainy characters into a breathlessly exciting epic that is easily the finest American film of the year to date. The first time you see it, and this is the kind of film that you want to immediately see again the minute the end credits roll, prepare to be blown away by Aaron Sorkin’s whip-smart screenplay, which manages to coax a smart and complex narrative out of seemingly unfilmable material and is jammed with one great individual scene after another, the sleek visual style and obsession for detail by director David Fincher that allows a story consisting almost entirely of people sitting at computers or giving depositions to be as thrilling as any action extravaganza and a gallery of great performances, including Jesse Eisenberg as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Andrew Garfield as the friend and former partner who finds himself pushed aside in the face of success and Justin Timberlake as slick Internet entrepreneur Sean Parker. The second time you see it, once the giddy headlong rush has worn off, you can then appreciate just how solidly made it really is. Beyond the flash, Fincher and Sorkin have presented us with a classic tale of greed, ambition and jealousy that never dumbs things down and never takes the easy way out--even their ultimate treatment of Zuckerberg is more complex and thoughtful than one might expect. This is a great film--an absolute must-see--and while it may be a little too early to describe it as the modern “Citizen Kane,” as some advanced reviews have suggested, it certain comes closer to hitting that mark than anything else in recent memory.

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originally posted: 10/01/10 20:02:50
last updated: 10/02/10 00:58:48
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