Hereafter (2010)

As an actor, Clint Eastwood has frequently played characters who have a causal role in shuffling others off this mortal coil. As a director, he seems often to have death on his mind too, so it should come as no surprise that in Hereafter, he contemplates (or is it confronts?) death again. The difference is that Hereafter looks at death from the point of view of survivors, those touched (but not fatally) by death. Eastwood has looked at death from both sides now.

Hereafter, written by Peter Morgan (The Queen), engages in some tentative speculation about the afterlife, but the story, about three lives that intersect, coincidentally, in the aftermath of death, is more concerned with the living. Marie LeLay (Cecile De France) is a French journalist who survives the Indonesian tsunami (chillingly recreated); she has the classic near-death experience -- white light, shadowy figures who beckon her -- as she is submerged by the epic, killer wave. She's haunted by her experience and, like a good reporter, endeavors to dig deeper and find out more. George Lonegan (Matt Damon) has had about enough of the dead -- he's a psychic, apparently the real deal, who communicates with the dead on behalf of the living who long to speak once more with their dearly departed. He considers his "gift" to be a burden. His entrepreneurial (and exploitative) brother (Jay Mohr) tries to talk him into cashing in on his talent, but he'd rather keep a low profile and work in a warehouse. Marcus and Jason are identical twin brothers (played by Frankie and George McLaren). The two boys keep their family together (mum's a mess), and they've got a unique connection to each other that isn't completely severed when one brother is killed.

Eastwood, in his typical, understated way, makes a typically understated movie that's intriguing and moving, although oddly disconnected. Death, of course, comes for us all, and in that we are all connected, all one in the human condition. But that's not much to hang a narrative on, and in the end, Hereafter just kind of runs its course and fades out. It dies a natural, quiet death, so to speak, which is an atypical sort of death in the movies.

Despite the title's intimations of revealing a glimpse of the great beyond, it is scarcely concerned with the afterlife, and more concerned with life. Lacking any particular narrative momentum, the movie instead lingers on moments, on day-in-the-life stuff that happens to the characters. Marie can't focus at work, so she takes a leave of absence to write a book about the life and death of Francois Mitterand that turns into a book about death, and life after it. The movie follows her through a series of vignettes -- business meetings, intimate dinners, conversations. George listens to books on tape -- he's a big fan of Dickens -- and takes an Italian cooking class, where he meets flirty, sweet Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), who gives him a glimpse of what a "normal" life might be like. He is self-protective, seeking to shield himself from the voices of the dead, but it requires him to sometimes be cruel to the living. Shy, lonely Marcus longs to be with his protective brother Jason again, and seeks out a series of charlatans who claim they can communicate with the dead boy. The natural, solemn, sometimes awkward performances by the McLaren brothers takes what might have been maudlin material and makes it clear-eyed and melancholy, but not pitiful. 

The same is true of the rest of the movie. Eastwood deftly avoids the pitfalls of sloppy sentimentality -- a real danger given the subject matter -- and maintains a certain equilibrium, and a cool distance. The movie sympathizes, foremost, with the questioning, the curiosity about death, rather than with the grieving. It takes its lead, it seems, from the dead, who, when George speaks for them at least, are all business. They've got things to say, important messages to convey, but they're not gonna get all weepy and mushy, or waste time (which is odd, since it is presumably timeless there in eternity). Their message for the living: get on with your lives. And that, in the end, is what Hereafter does too -- its a quiet, unassuming, anti-nihilist reflection on living in the face of death, on continuing in spite of the inevitable. In the midst of life, we are in death, so carry on.


RED (2010)

At 55, Bruce Willis is a little young to be playing a retiree. I thought 70 was the new 60, not the other way around. But no matter. Willis is Frank Moses in RED, and Moses is a retired CIA black ops specialist. Maybe the working lifespan (if not the actual lifespan) of a spook is shorter than average. 

Someone wants to considerably shorten Moses' lifespan in RED. RED is an acronym for "Retired, Extremely Dangerous," which is what Moses proves to be (hey, it's stamped right there on his file -- in red). When several heavily armed men break into his suburban Cleveland home to kill him, Moses comes out of retirement and lays some extremely lethal defensive maneuvers on them. This is not a terrible thing, because it turns out Moses was pretty bored in retirement. The whole attempted assassination thing kinda brightened his day a bit. After dispatching the assassins, he trots off to Kansas City, where he had a tentative date with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), a bored federal employee in a pension processing office whom he had been kind of flirting with on the phone. With armed men trying to kill him, he figures he has to kidnap Sarah and take her with him, for her own safety. She grudgingly obliges, and admits that it's not the worst first date she's ever had. What starts out looking like another quirky Mr. Wrong romantic comedy soon morphs into something else -- an AARP buddy action comedy with a little love on the side.

Moses, of course, isn't the only retired assassin out there looking for a little excitement. So it takes little effort to persuade his pals to come in from the pasture and join him in figuring out what's going on and who's responsible. His old buddy Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman), who is dying of liver cancer and spending his last days in a retirement home, wants to go out with a bang. (Will the movie oblige him? Who could say no to Morgan Freeman?) Paranoid conspiracy-theorist Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich, dialing up the crazy, even for him) has a conspiracy theory to contribute -- and he's right! Ivan Simonov (Brian Cox) is an old KGB frenemy who is so bored with the tedium of post-Cold War bureaucratic life that he's willing to switch sides. Victoria (Helen Mirren, having a fine old time) has a beautiful waterfront home in Maryland, but she really misses all the killing. Ernest Borgnine, who really is old enough to be retired (but happily, isn't), turns up a few times to wax nostalgic as the CIA's keeper of super-duper secret files.

Meanwhile, young CIA assassin William Cooper (Karl Urban) is hunting Moses, with a veritable army of heavily armed agents at the ready to wreak havoc. If this sort of thing routinely happens in the CIA, they do a really good job of keeping it quiet. Cooper doesn't know that the anti-Moses conspiracy concerns some long ago dirty business in Guatemala involving the vice president and his puppet master, a powerful defense contractor (Richard Dreyfuss) who bears a passing resemblance to a certain former, snarling vice president with a bad heart (insert joke about him actually having a heart here). That's about as political as RED gets -- the plot is really incidental. The point is simply this: "old" people shooting big guns, blowing things up, and laying a beatin' on young whippersnappers who dare to call them "grandpa." This is kind of how you imagine Clint Eastwood would spend his retirement, if he wasn't so busy making movies.

It is, of course, all in good fun, and RED, based on the comic books created by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, and directed by Robert Schwentke (The Time Traveler's Wife) takes a cartoonish approach to the violence, and everything else. The good guys mostly recover from gunshots fairly quickly, the bad guys and their minions mostly get blown to smithereens. It's pretty simple, unsophisticated, zippy, and darkly funny. RED doesn't really have a message, or even much of a point -- there's nothing serious in there about the wisdom and value of elders, although apparently you can't discount experience as a serious advantage in the spy game. Having big guns helps too. And you're never too old to have fun vaporizing your enemies.

Maybe there is a mesage in there after all -- retirement is a drag, so don't despair, all you zoomers who watched your 401(k)s evaporate. You'll be happier if you just keep working.


Let Me In (2010)

There is a certain anticipatory dread that accompanies the arrival of an American remake of a splendid foreign film. In the case of Let Me In, that dread is warranted, not because this is another sloppy, dumbed down, hyperactive remake, but because it is faithful to the original, a dread-steeped, marrow chilling story of the horrors of prepubescent adolescence.

Let Me In, based on the Swedish Film Let the Right One In (2009), in turn based on John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel, is a kind of vampire love story, but it departs radically from the dominant romantic vampire paradigm of the moment, with its lust, sex and noisy supernatural battles between werewolves and vampires (true of both the teencentric Twilight movies and the hyper-sexy, hyper-violent HBO series True Blood). Let Me In zeroes in on a different variety of pre-teen and pre-sexual anxiety and violence, exploring the rage and terror of bullied, tormented, 12 year old Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), whose everday existence is filled with dread even before he meets the vampire girl next door. 

Owen's parents are divorcing, and he's lonely, bored and fearful. It's 1983, in Los Alamos, NM. Reagan is on TV talking about evil empires, and Culture Club and David Bowie are on the radio (and in the movie's soundtrack). Owen lives in a shabby apartment complex with his mother, and spends his evenings killing time in the snowy, bleak courtyard, gorging on Now-and-Later candies. His Now is something he's desperate to escape, but what Later does he anticipate in chilly Reagan-era America? Surely not the arrival of an interesting and mysterious neighbor, a 12 year old girl named Abby (Chloƫ Grace Moretz), who quickly informs him that they cannot be friends. For Owen, it hardly matters -- he'll take what friendship he can find, even if it's of a strange and tentative kind. Abby, for her part, feels protective of Owen, and he desperately needs a protector, as the bullies who torment him at school become increasingly vicious and predatory.

Abby is pale and peculiar, a barefoot child who looks poorly cared for by her weary, middle-aged guardian (Richard Jenkins). He acts as a procurer, an unwilling serial killer whose task is to find blood for Abby -- she's a vampire -- and thus to keep her hidden from the world. He's not very good at killing, which brings him to the attention of a dogged police detective (Elias Koteas), investigating the recent rash of what he suspects are satanic cult killings.

The film is evocatively dark and shadowy, and the cinematography by Greig Fraser beautifully communicates the isolation, bewilderment and directionlessness of Owen and Abby, two kids who, for different reasons, find themselves uprooted, unmoored, unsettled, and vulnerable. Moretz (Kick-Ass) and Smit-McPhee (The Road) are both hauntingly effective in their depictions of the very specific isolations of Abby and Owen, and their mutual, quietly desperate yearning for non-sexual intimacy and love.

Let Me In was written and directed by Matt Reeves, whose last film, Cloverfield, was a hot mess, a tiresome, gimmicky faux home movie about the destruction of New York -- and a handful of stupid, annoying characters -- by monster. Let Me In -- although it makes somewhat more liberal use of special effects than its Swedish predecessor -- is more evocative of the angsty, yearning TV drama Felicity, which Reeves co-created, than Cloverfield. The director's affinity for stories of adolescent intensity and fragility is ideally suited to the eerie, moody Let Me In, a delicately, emotionally haunting horror story that is only incidentally about vampires, and at its heart is about the horrors of being twelve (and even worse, for Abby, forever twelve). Let Me In resists mythologizing vampires and youth -- two things pop culture is perpetually intent on mythologizing and glamorizing -- and in so doing, it is memorably, poignantly chilling.

The Social Network (2010)

          A movie about Facebook sounds, to me, about as interesting as Facebook itself. Which is to say, not very. I'm a bad Facebook friend. I don't obsessively check Facebook to find out what's going on with my "friends." I completely reject the use of the word "friend" as a verb. Once a noun, always a noun, that's my motto. I don't update more than a couple of times a year. Until I saw The Social Network, I had never really thought much about Facebook, but suddenly, I wondered: how the heck does Facebook, a free site, make all those billions of dollars? Turns out it's advertising (how mundane!), and turns out I never even noticed the ads on the right side of my Facebook page. They are either really good ads, subtly worming their ways into my subconscious mind, or they are really bad ads that have utterly failed to attract my notice. (Whatever algorithm Facebook is using to ascertain which ads will make me click is a little off. For instance, I noticed an ad there for Christian Louboutin shoes. While it’s true I wear shoes, and in fact like shoes very much, Christians are several notches above my paygrade. And the heels are way too high for me.)

            The Social Network is no Facebook ad. The movie immediately grabs the attention, with a barrage of dialogue -- penned by Aaron Sorkin -- that's fast, sharp, smart, and combative. The conversation the movie drops into is between Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), future billionaire and Facebook founder, and his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara). They're in a bar, and rat-a-tat-tat, rapid fire words fly across the table -- some of them hurt, some of them are meant to hurt, some of them are just further evidence, for Erica, of Zuckerberg's obsession with status, and his thinly veiled disdain for her lack thereof (she only goes to Boston University, while he's at Harvard). There is always collateral damage when Zuckerberg starts talking. Erica sums up his character in one word. The fight, and the beers he drinks, and his quest for vengeance have Zuckerberg blogging into the night, and then taking it out on every female student at Harvard. He creates a website publicly ranking them all as hot or not. It's mean-spirited, it’s an instant hit, and it crashes the university's computer network.

            A few months later, Facebook is born, but not before Zuckerberg makes a few more enemies. By the end of the story, he'll have made even more, and betrayed his best (and only) friend. The irony, the paradox, the incongruity of the story is that the man who launched millions of online friendships has no friends, no people skills, a level of social ineptitude and insensitivity that's almost pathological. Zuckerberg comes across as the smartest guy in the room, but also the most clueless, someone who, if he cares at all about other people, doesn't (or can't) show it. Eisenberg, who typically plays affable nerds and losers (Adventureland, Zombieland) is anything but affable here -- he plays Zuckerberg as someone who's intensely, competitively brainy, but missing certain essential character traits -- a sense of decency, loyalty, empathy, a conscience, the ability to listen. You know, the sorts of things one would look for in a friend. Confronted with uncomfortable truths, or socially difficult situations, or people he thinks are beneath him (that’s almost everyone), Zuckerberg goes eerily blank, like he's withdrawing into that void in his soul. The Social Network is the story of a man who, pathetically motivated by petty revenge, creates a medium for human beings to connect with one another, and Zuckerberg simultaneously reaches out to and pulls back from human contact, while the movie thoroughly resists trying to make him attractive or sympathetic or even self-aware. Every time he opens his mouth, something awful comes out. The only person who seems to really get Zuckerberg is Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the Napster and Plaxo creator who is a slick, slippery, paranoid Svengali-like business guru to him. Parker manages to insinuate himself into the Facebook fold just in time to cash in.

            The Social Network  is based on Ben Mezrich's book *The Accidental Billionaires*. It interweaves the account of Facebook's beginnings with two depositions for lawsuits against Zuckerberg. His best friend and Facebook co-founder and financier Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) is suing him. So are Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer, playing both as comically perfect creatures -- rich, handsome, athletic Harvard men), who claim Zuckerberg stole their idea when he created Facebook. Cameron and Tyler represent the old elite, born into privilege, hobnobbing with royalty, reeking with class and status. Their adversary represents the new elite, powered by microchips, with the online masses at his back.

            Sorkin's script is a great one -- it crackles with intelligence, wit, emotion, and psychological insight. Director David Fincher, drawn as always to dark material, creates an intensely heady, brainy modern-day tragedy that hits on Shakepearean themes of friendship and betrayal, human frailty, ruthlessness, power and ambition, loneliness. The Social Network builds momentum as it moves through the astonishingly meteoric rise (there's yet to be a fall) of Facebook's fortunes. Fincher toggles back and forth between a dark and oppressive Harvard (it's never looked so gloomy on film, all shadowy and cold) and brightly lit corporate offices where Zuckerberg faces his accusers and their lawyers. How to make an interesting movie about words, computer code, ideas, cloud relationships? Fincher and Sorkin do it, first by capturing the thrill of creativity and genius as a small cadre of visionary computer hackers conquer the world with one really simple, really big idea, and then by creating an uncomfortably close, disquieting account of the casualties, of the real, flesh and blood friends who get slaughtered. The movie tells a particular version of the Facebook origin story (a fictional one, according to Facebook, Inc.), and it's utterly fascinating, hurtling through the details of how the biggest club in the world (one in 14 humans are members) got started in a dark, angry dorm room at Harvard University. The Social Network is a digital age morality tale, a tale of cruelty, betrayal, triumph. We see daily the maliciousness and viciousness of mobs cloaked in the anonymity of bits and bytes. The Social Network suggests that the callousness was a kind of original sin, written into the code by the creators. They unleashed a monster, the evil twin of the webtopian unifier of humanity. Zuckerberg didn’t create the monster; he just created a new place for it to hide in plain sight, surrounded by friends.