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Cast: Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Diane Wiest
Director: John Cameron Mitchell
Screenplay: David Lindsay-Abaire
Studio: Olympus Pictures
Runtime: 91 mins
Genre: Drama/Independent
Country: USA

Grief in cinema is not always very pretty, even if you see pretty people bawling their eyes out and suffering in all-encompassing sadness. Rabbit Hole's premise is nothing new - the death of a child usually makes for a brooding, character-driven movie about parental grief, whether it's in psychological horror domain seen in Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland trying to recover from post-traumatic death-of-a-child stress in Venice, or gripping melodrama in Clint Eastwood's Changeling with Angelina Jolie launching a crusade to find her lost son, or perhaps existential psychobabble in Lars von Trier's grief-porn Antichrist with Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe blaming each other for their kid's demise and slicing up genitals in the woodlands. John Cameron Mitchell's Rabbit Hole shouldn't work, or end up as plain clichéd, as there couldn't be possibly anything more to say about couples mourning over the loss of a child. But it works, and rather beautifully, and ends up being a subtle, nuanced, carefully studied exploration into what makes grief somehow bearable. Rabbit Hole isn't merely about suffering, despite of the profound sadness of its subject matter, or being deeply buried in an emotional underground, to use the title's metaphor, but this film is about coming to terms with the loss of a loved one and subsequently  finding the light and emerging out of the dark tunnel. 

That says a lot for a film that deals some dark issues, the ultimate parent's nightmare, yet somehow manages to be hopeful and sensitive. Structurally, the action begins in media res, months after the child's death. We don't get to see the tragic accident, not until a brief, sensitively handled flashback later. We plunge headlong into a suburban Connecticut couple's seemingly handsome yet mundane life - Nicole Kidman's Becca kills time by eternally pruning the garden and baking homemade pies and Aaron Eckhart's Howie carries on daily officework routines. Yet the narrative unveils cracks in the portrait through various moments - Becca gets subliminally furious as her neighbour accidentally stumps on her newly planted rosebush, cracks up in a group counselling after a remark about God and banishes all trace of toys, lunchboxes, drawings and every other trace of her deceased son out of the house. Howie deals with it differently, angry at Becca's insistence, wanting their son's memorabilia to be left where they are.

Kidman, whose curriculum vitae as of late has been terribly misguided (due to an unmoving forehead, depends on which tabloid you read), hasn't delivered a strong performance in a few years, except for the vastly unseen Margot at the Wedding and Baz Lhurrman's misunderstood Australia. But here she comes back with a solid return to form, perhaps her best performance since The Hours. It's a galvanised, complex, multi-layered piece of screen acting, proving her skills in intimate human dramas. Her Becca Corbett is doesn't stereotype the 'grieving Mum' character, but rather gives reasons to her emotional deep-freeze, whether it be lashing at her own mother (a terrific Diane Wiest) and grouchy with her own pregnant sister. Kidman wrings out all manners of expressions rarely seen in this actress these days, and she makes Becca believable, even loathesome and somehow sympathetic. She finds curious solace in the beleaguered teenager driving the car that accidentally killed her son. In other lesser films, this would have turned to some sort of psycho-friendship, but here Becca doesn't do scape-goating. Instead, both of them feels linked by fate, albeit a terrible one. Eckhart also stands his own ground, giving a heartfelt performance as the husband, grappling with ways in which he could deal with the loss whilst never letting go of his wife. Director Mitchell doesn't play for all-out, overwrought theatrics from his actors, but rather wrings out emotions and character motivations through a deft skill of observation and naturalistic handling. 'Less is more' must be his guiding philosophy in filmmaking.

With its painful and sad excursion into parental grief, Rabbit Hole somehow provides hope in distress and beauty in the breakdown without reducing to schmaltz or diluting its honesty. This is a subtle, nuanced little film with a bruised humanity, rooted with two compelling central performances by Kidman and Eckhart.

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Cast: (voices)Stéphane Aubier, Bruce Ellison
Director: Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar
Screenplay: Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar
Studio: La Parti Productions
Runtime: 90 mins
Genre: Animation/Arthouse
Country: Belgium

At the first sight of this lo-fi Belgian animated export, it looks like a herky-jerky tomfoolery assembled by primary school kids let loose in a playroom with a bunch of plastic action figures. The plot boomerangs around from a mad shenanigan to another that virtually makes no shred of logic - A Town Called Panic is about a trio of toys, aptly named Horse, Indian and Cowboy, with the latter two mistakenly purchasing 50 million bricks instead of 50 for Horse's birthday barbecue, and misadventures follow that includes an aquatic rescue with reptilian marine scuba-divers, cannonball pigs, and wacky penguins. It doesn't make any sense, and it doesn't strive to have some. It's deliberately wacky, hilariously inventive and you'll find yourself laughing out loud that nothing onscreen seems to matter. Directors Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar (must in hallucinogens whilst making this) provide gleeful abandon and deadpan nonsense that makes A Town Called Panic a sort of anti-Pixar, an anarchic, irreverent animated work that defies any linear, or conventional, structures. Where Toy Story, Up and the likes aim for emotional fluency, character arcs and CGI perfection, it's quite refreshing to see something like this that ditches out pixels and embraces old-school playground aesthetic and Pythonesque codswallop. Too much of it might drive one insane, but gladly it runs for 90 minutes, and it's just wonderfully, bizarrely pitch-perfect.

A deliriously madcap mo-cap. A Town Called Panic makes for a trippy, hallucinogenic animated feature that daringly defies glossy mainstream aesthetic - and so much better for it. It's also very dementedly funny.

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Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham-Carter
Director: David Yates
Screenplay: Steve Kloves
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Runtime: 130 mins
Genre: Fantasy/Adventure/Drama
Country: United Kingdom

Up until now, the decision to split J. K. Rowling's the Harry Potter finale into two parts seems debatable, and the clash of wits between those who think it's for financial reasons and those who argue about 'narrative purity' extends to infinity. There is no denying that Rowling's behemoth of a book The Deathly Hallows is ridden with munificent amount of sequences and plot threads that might be a testament to her genius or just mere over-plotting, depending on your opinion of this saga, that leaving out such details might stir a major uprising from the Potter sector the size of China's population. Nevertheless, it's sheer hypocrisy to claim that the cleaving act is done out noble artistic integrity. That's bullshit. This is Hollywood we're talking about. Where the cash goes, the cows follow. Potter is Warner Bros.' biggest cash cow in the studio's history, and splitting the final one into two movies only gives studio honchos the golden opportunity to squeeze some more milk.

But it remains surprising, despite of blatant studio voracity, that this franchise continues to be consistent throughout and Deathly Hallows: Part One is a solid entry to the series. It might not rank as the best of the franchise (that goes to Alfonso Cuaron's superb Prisoner of Azkaban), but it's not far off either. Director David Yates, the longest mainstay director of them all, brings his own dynamics, tone and artistry to this penultimate instalment, which improves from his previous work on The Half-Blood Prince, which was a rather sluggish affair. For the first time in the Potter universe, the narrative structure has been freed from the now-becoming monotonous school-calendar basics, shunting the main three characters, Harry, Ron and Hermione far from the comfort zones of Hogwarts and are plunged into a very uncertain, treacherous and forbidding territories. This sense of danger and darkness can be felt spilling from the screen. Cut off from the world were chaos reigned, courtesy of malice-stricken Voldemort (a magnificently hissy and terrifying Ralph Fiennes), the trio are set out with a task to find and destroy the Horcruxes that contain shards of the Dark Lord's soul. Yes, it's like The Lord of the Rings, only more McGuffins, more British thespians and plenty of darkness. What is the fantasy genre without the influence of Tolkien, anyway? The difference is that the trio come across the so-called Deathly Hallows, three magical instruments that can defy death.

Part One combines elements of mystery, heist thriller genre and even fugitive film  and the result is often electrifying. There's an excellently staged Ministry of Magic infiltration, with political undercurrents of a totalitarian Third Reich with the Mudbloods treated like Jews, and the memorable Privet Drive convoy with seven Harry's to bewilder and escape the clutch of the Death Eaters. These sequences are all very well, yet there are those who bemoan about the 'slow' middle-half where the trio wander around forests, battling egoes and expectations. This is not a Michael Bay or a James Cameron film where you get bombarded with explosive chases and gunfights. Screenwriter Steve Kloves, with the structure of the book, allows to fully flesh out the characters as rarely seen before, underscoring Harry, Ron and Hermione's isolation, loss, fears and anxiety of the world around them. What is more, the trio are played by the same actors in a stretch of a decade, and that's nothing short of remarkable for a Hollywood franchise, and those who have invested in this series will feel emotionally engaged in this coming-of-age allegory. The films gets to spend time with these leads, often set against wide, open landscapes in Eduardo Serra's bleak but beautiful cinematography, hammering home the trio's loneliness and desolation. Sometimes, there are moments that these characters are fugitives or survivors from a wartime period.

It's also quite a sad, sombre film to watch. Despite the series coming to an end, there's also this burgeoning sense of loss here, with death and sacrifice playing vital parts in the narrative. Emma Watson's Hermione, in a beautifully understated performance, erases the memory of her parents and the scene is handled with such concise, haunting power and Watson makes it very poignant. Rupert Grint, his most mature work, also gets to shine as he is taunted with surreal sexual images of his two friends making out, a long-harboured jealousy and longing leaking out of the gaps. Daniel Radcliffe brings moments of suppressed pain, most especially during the visit to Godric's Hollow, the graveyard of his parents. It's quietly heartbreaking. Yet are also moments of well-timed humour and élan, demonstrated in the Tale of the Three Brothers where the narrative is allowed to breathe, using a wonderful shadow animation unusual in a Potter film that might be Part One's most subtle and bold move. 

For those who carp about The Deathly Hallows: Part One being long-winded and with little pay-off, this is not really made for you. This is made for those who went aboard the Hogwarts Express a decade ago and grew up with this franchise. Although inevitably flawed, there are flickers of sombre beauty, moments of sadness and heartfelt, mature performances from its three leads that lend this film some resonance and dramatic weight.

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This All Hallows Eve, instead of trick-and-treating, The Moviejerk confronts the postmodernist movie vampires (I'm talking to you Twilight wusses) with a sharp stake on hand, sending these pretenders back to their shallow graves and resurrecting the truly frightening vampire that would scare the living daylights out of us all.

Bella is captivated by Edward's smouldering stare, model locks and glittering skin. The epitome of the 'wussy' vampire.

Hallowe'en is here, folks. There's barely a better time of the year to spend the night-in, turn the lights out, put on a horror film and start screaming until the next door neighbour starts banging on your door. But before all that commotion, you begin browsing your film library to choose the best all-out scare when you begin wondering - when was the last horror film you've seen that brought you to a point of near heart-attack? The modern day horror cinema is currently built around shock tactics and pseudo-documentary post-Blair Witch gimmicks in the likes of [REC] and Paranormal Activity. That's barely scratching the surface. Those people who shrieked their way watching these have probably done so just because the entire cinema is roaring with screams, to go along with the flow, and have never seen a genuinely terrifying horror movie. With monsters. Or vampires. Speaking of which, the recent day audiences have seem to be desensitised with sparkly kiddywink fantasies pretending to be 'horror' movies. Before in the old, halcyon days, kids go trick-and-treating dressed up as the wolfman or the vampire, replete with fake plastic fangs and dripping Heinz ketchup on their chin. Now, they've all grown some chest hairs and start wearing leather jackets to look like a rip-off version of Edward Cullen. 

Unless you've been living in an underground bunker recently, planet Earth is presently run over by vampires. No, we're not talking about power-hungry politicos nor soul-sucking corporations. We’re talking about the fantastical fanged creatures of the night that have recently claimed resurgence in our screens both big and small, drawing a phenomenal amount of the hot-blooded female audience that would make Count Dracula sweat in excitement.
Whenever you stare into a screen, may it be cinema, television or even your computer, chances are, you’ll find a flour-faced bloodsucker staring back at you. So impossibly debonair and good-looking that these transmuted species don’t look like they just stepped out from a coffin, but rather from a Dolce & Gabbana advertisement. The Twilight Saga, as you ordinary moviegoer very well know, is to be blamed for this consternation. Those that watch, worship, roll over the ground in the holy name of Twilight - you are to be blamed that the next instalment Break Dawn is going to be split into two movies and do a Deathly Hallows route. As if the abominations the were New Moon and Eclipse were enough to send this back to its abyss. Apparently, movie producers have realised that there are hordes of teenage girls (and their mothers, too) that could carry on vehemently screaming their way into the brink of throat cancer in the next stage of the franchise. Nevertheless, aside from this Twilight shithole, arthouse cinema saw maverick filmmakers also dabble into the vampire genre with Let The Right One In and Thirst, with the former being remade in the Stateside as Let Me In. In the box, Stateside television is mauled by True Blood and Vampire Diaries, two TV series that serve as great magnet to soaring ratings and female titillation. The plague is here, people. The apocalypse looks like it’s all teeth-on-neck action. 

Let The Right One In sees a new vampire evolution - the existentialist, lonely nightwalker. Still very dangerous, nonetheless.

This trend is somewhat baffling at first, at least from the male perspective. Vampires these days have seem to shake off their dust-beaten, castle-lurking existence. Gone are the cobwebbed days of literary monsters that prowl in the dark, the black-clad, insomniac, bloodsucking spawns of Vlad the Impaler. Hello, gorgeous, glamorous vampire – all fashion-model locks, brooding stares, looks that kill, Abercrombie & Fitch six-packs and flawless, sparkling skin. In The Twilight Saga, vampire protagonist Edward Cullen glitters under the sunlight. Literally. The new breed of vampires are now anti-photosensitive, and don’t burst into flames at the touch of sunbeam, unlike what happens to curmudgeonly Uncle Dracula during the old days. They don’t flap around ancient castles and hunting for village virgins anymore. Instead, they infiltrate high school grounds looking like a bunch of reanimated James Deans – admired, socially recognised yet dangerous. Their prey are now females of the emotive, obsessive sort, who longed to be bitten and to be one of the vampires’ ultra-elite, Alpha-Omega-esque fraternity.

The Twilight Saga is responsible for this current revivification of vampire culture, fulfilling the caprices of the tween dream; young, barely legal girls who harbour unabashed fantasies of being whisked away by some handsome hunk who happens to be a vampire. The premise of this romantic fantasy is that the heroine, Bella Swan, is willing to give up his mortality to be with elusive dog-toothed lust object Edward. Nevertheless, there’s a central conflict (surprise, surprise). Bella is torn between vampire Edward and werewolf boy Jacob. But oh no, it's a difficult choice and she shouldn't shag either of them because it's really about abstinence. And preservation. And love. And romance. It's a blatant contradiction, then, given that vampirism practically links to eroticism, sexuality and often unfeigned hedonism, not gift-wrapped in a Mormon Sunday service. This is the stuff scarlet Harlequin novels are made of, the butch guy and the damsel in distress, only with fangs. And this is not without justification - the novels of Anne Rice about Southern American vampires carousel around this premise. 

Nosferatu scaring local village folks in F. W. Murnau's silent horror classic. 

But why is such the appeal of vampirism that it lures the starry-eyed masses? Let’s look at history. Vlad the Impaler’s reign of Wallachia circa 15th century is renowned to be bloody and brutal, sending his enemies to deathly stakes. His sobriquet ‘Dracula’ is immortalised by Bram Stoker in his quintessential horror fiction, which in turn has flourished cinematically from F.W. Murnau’s German silent classic Nosferatu, to versions that seduced directors such as Terence Fisher, Werner Herzog and Francis Ford Coppola, the latter rendition being the most lavish, flamboyant, luxurious of them all. What is installed to be a horror genre at first, from the creepy, disturbing manifestations of Max Schreck of Nosferatu, Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman, these supposedly forbidding graveyard creatures gradually become glamorised throughout the years, becoming increasingly buff and swoon-inducing to the female sexual sector. Look at Neil Jordan’s adaptation of the Gothic Anne Rice novel, Interview with a Vampire. Vampires look like Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise looking impossibly muscular and drop-dead handsome. Combine all of that, we now have sophisticate Robert Pattinson, the epitome of vampire bourgeois. 

95% of the modern-day vampire movie audience are reportedly female. The remaining 5% is presumably husbands and boyfriends being dragged into cinemas to be put through an ordeal of girlish shrieking. Hell is no match over the fevered female fantasia. Books by source author Stephanie Meyer are even lapped up by the same exact female demographic. What is troubling is that the central heroine of the franchise is an ambitionless, passionless, passive individual whose main driving force of her existence is knight-in-shining-armour, or teeth rather, Edward’s sculpted cheeks, square jaw and smouldering gaze. Take Edward away, and Bella reduces to a non-existent, inanimate object unable to pursue a passion, an ambition, life's goals. Of course, millions of girls watching this are too captivated to realise the misogyny beneath Edward’s charms, as the hypnotised Bella is devoid of any decision-making, life-management skill, letting Edward and wolf-boy Jacob debate about her future. If anything, this sends a sharp wooden stake into the very idea of feminism, to which pundits from The Guardian call ‘the epitome of submissive passivity’. Strip these men away from her and she’s left with nothing. Just a pale, passer-by forlornly dreaming of a vampire hero to whisk her away of her demure existence. 

Whilst this mainstream tag-along is less than complex, the left side of the arena offers us more complicated, damaged and less romanticised night creatures. In Thomas Alfredson’s Swedish arthouse masterclass Let The Right One In, the entire vampire mythology is flipped around its head. Eli, a 200 year-old vampire frozen in the body of an eleven-year-old girl, is devoid of any sexuality, ambiguous, melancholic and only driven by the will to survive. Her neighbour, bully-victim Oscar strikes a friendship with her and both find solace in a harsh world. social drama about adolescence draped in a diabolical vampire film. Vampirism is just an excuse to explore uncertainty and frailty of human existence. In South Korean indie Thirst, directed by Oldboy Cannes-winning director Chan-wook Park, a rural priest turns into a vampire via disease infection and is compelled to question his moral, religious and sexual nature. Sexuality here is depicted in an unfettered manner, as the protagonist falls into a destructive, deviant relationship with a young seamstress. The approach is so unhinged that Thirst’s bloodlusty sex scenes will make average Twilight fans blush their way out of a cineplex. Yet this is what separates mainstream from an independent movie approach, where younger audiences are catered for in the former and the artistically liberal in the latter. Try and swap these two demographic and we’d expect a gigantic groaning in theatre houses.

Klaus Kinski mutilating a virgin back in those days when vampire are still frightening, in Werner Herzog's 1979 version.

But no matter how magnificent these arthouse vampire movies are, they still remain unseen by a great many. With a good exception of Let The Right One In, this generation has failed to produce an outstanding vampire movie that frightens, stuns and moves simultaneously, seen by both mainstream and the left-field. Perhaps it's about time to resurrect the old ones, then. In spite of these severe differences, there is a common vein that runs through both mainstream and arthouse vampire flicks – it’s the curious shift from villainy to central protagonists. We all know Dracula and his German counterpart Nosferatu were enemies, loitering in dark corners, preying on oblivious victims, but the new wave of vampires have seem to gain some forms of heroism, saving damsels-in-distress and courting them like any other conservative gentleman. They are now conflicted, tragic anti-heroes, flawed, vulnerable and sexually repressed, depending on MPAA rating, that is. In the more adult terrain, they are hedonists of unaffected deviancy.

The evolution of the modern vampire film is striking, indeed, but that largely depends on the nature of its audiences who feed on this undying genre. Perhaps vampirism is part of human nature, elements of desire, forbidden lust and wantonness suppressed within mankind’s, or womankind’s, Freudian slips. And there is no escaping, no matter how many nails you hammer on that coffin lid, this immortal blood will continue to live on, mutate and thrive on the next generations to come. But please, this is a call to filmmakers, make vampires less handsome and more terrifying to make for a really satisfyingly creepy and frightening Hallowe'en movie night. One that could make you lock your doors.

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Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Bjorn Andersen
Director: Luchino Visconti
Screenplay: Luchino Visconti
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Runtime: 130 mins
Genre: Drama/Arthouse
Country: Italy

To outwardly loathe, or the very least deny the power of Luchino Visconti's Death in Venice  is like ignoring cinema as an artform. There are a few films in the history of celluloid that could split audience opinion as sharply as a guillotine could chop heads, and this is one of them. For a great number of puritanical critics, Visconti's screen adaptation of the Thomas Mann novella had been chewed, spewed and spurned, reduced to being nothing more than a pointless, ponderous pile of paedophilic wetdream, with a central protagonist obsessing with a pretty boy he cannot obtain. Meanwhile, the liberal-minded leftists champions this a sublime study of humanity's search for beauty, the inevitability of death and the profundity of Great Art. Whatever field you stand on, Visconti might have had the final laugh: he made a film that drew controversy, attention and a big confusion. 

The question: is Death in Venice really that good? Yes, it is. Sure, it wallows into an excruciatingly slow pace that often you could allow an actual funeral pass through most scenes that allow Dirk Bogarde's beleaguered German classical composer Gustav van Aschenbach eternally sitting on a beach, contemplating his existence, walking through Venetian streets and gazing longingly at his object of desire. Or obfuscation, rather. But most people who gripe about this are usually those with virtually sub-zero attention, those that cannot comprehend depth and implications, and cannot stand wordless sequences. Death in Venice is not supposed to be entertainment, for god's sake. That's why there's 'death' in the title, you dweebs. For all Visconti's abstraction, this is a sombre, melancholic mood-piece, with Venice so beautifully photographed like a vintage postcard, and a burnished cinematography that very well matches the city's old grandeur. There are scenes which you can literally freeze-frame and hung it on your bedroom wall. The opening scene alone is perhaps one of the most gorgeous opening scenes I've ever seen in film. Visconti also deliberately changes Aschenbach, a novelist in Mann's novella, into a classical composer and tailors Gustav Mahler's elegiac compositions, the Third and Fifth Symphonies, into the film's most devastating scenes. 

Yet, Visconti's vision is far from being perfect. It is deeply flawed, such as his reckless and haphazard use of zooming throughout the first half, a lazy technique that blemishes this exquisite vista. It's narrative also meanders too often into aimlessness, such as a rather stale and contrived sequence in an outdoor restaurant as the hotel guests are being serenaded by a street musician. But most gripes are really centred on the tale's homosexual undertones, an unrequited yearning of a stressed-out, middle-aged gentleman with a beautiful youth Tadzio, whose appearance had been hailed by feminist Germain Greer as "the most beautiful boy in the world", resembling like those portraits painted by the Renaissance masters. If we're all being unintelligent, we could easily dismiss this as a film about an unfulfilled, repressed homosexual going to Venice for a last gasp of sexual fervour for an unsuspecting thirteen-year old. What is the point of cinema and literature but to explore even the darkest, meanest side of humanity? Aschenbach is portrayed as a struggling artist, fleeing his debilitating work and even condescended by his best friend that his music bears no meaning anymore. He is an artists in self-exile, whose craft is bereft of beauty and seeks refuge in Venice to find peace, only to find beauty and perfection in the form of an innocent youth. Even Tadzio may be unaware of his own actions, or even his own sexuality. He's thirteen, lacking of any wisdom and experience of the world. And Aschenbach follows him throughout, lured into obsession, yet so terrified to taint Tadzio's purity. There's a magnificent scene where Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde gives a legendary performance) has a makeover, dying his hair, restoring his own lost youth, and trails Tadzio around the city amidst the spread of cholera and sirocco and ends up sprawled on a fountain, weeping and laughing at the same time - bemused, bewildered and dripping with self-pity. Bogarde achieves this without even saying a line of dialogue. That closing scene alone where he dies in his chair is a moving paean to performance and filmmaking.

Never has a film about dying so beautifully photographed. This is also a sombre, melancholic mood-piece that daringly explores hefty subject matters such as the inevitability of death, unattainable perfection and cruelty of youth. Visconti's vision of beauty and Great Art maybe flawed, but such is life.

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Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Juston Timberlake, Rooney Mara
Director: David Fincher
Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Runtime: 121 mins
Genre: Drama
Country: USA

As 2010 is nearly coming to a close, perhaps it's about time for cinema to turn its head and look back at what really defined the past decade in this planet - Facebook. Nothing short of ubiquitous, you may or may not disagree with it, but Facebook has undoubtedly revolutionised the way we, earthlings, socialise and communicate. This phenomenal, culture-shaping online platform has as much influence as any radical movement in the past century, which is also, in turn, a great cultural irony - it connects 500 million users around the world, whilst rapidly destroying this generation's skills to communicate properly. So a film about 'Facebook' could easily explore this central theme by zapping throughout the globe, creating a clichéd über-montage of people's faces glued into their screens, lighting up souls in a subconsciously desperate bid to impress, to connect, to be liked. Yet, this is not that Facebook movie. Director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin leaves that entire social-commentary lecturing in the Media Studies department. Instead, their sole focus is the founding of Facebook and its progenitor Mark Zuckerberg. It's a tale brimming with technological banters, legal battles and verbal put-downs, but if you've imagined a cluster of techno-nerds huddled around together, programming a website, is astronomically yawn-inducing, you're proven wrong. The Social Network is perhaps the cleverest, most exhilarating film ever made about website-making, and a genuinely strong contender for this year's best screenplay.

From the film's opener itself, a fast-paced dialogue exchange of Zuckerberg (a spectacularly spot-on Jesse Eisenberg) and his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara as The Social Network's Rosebud, Citizen Kane's unattainable one, and now Fincher’s dragon-tattooed girl), the scene is set for the rest of the movie. We have an anti-hero in our hands: an egomaniacal, narcissistic, socially-inept, ambitious, coldly logical piece of work, condescending his girlfriend, and perhaps everyone around him. This rivetingly reflects the very main themes Fincher and Sorkin are trying to nail here, the distancing of human relationships and failure of communication. Fed up with Zuckerberg's intellectual arrogance and obsession of infiltrating Harvard’s ultra-elite final clubs, said girlfriend dumps him in a pub in a classic break-up scene, and instead of bursting into catharsis, his self-absorption barely allows him to understand where his relationship went wrong and launches into a barrage of hate-blogging, calling ex-girlfriend a flat-chested bitch, followed by a palpably misogynistic online beauty contest "Facemash", and lo and behold, the birth of Facebook.

It sounds simple, but the film doesn't surrender to easy film viewing. Sorkin's brilliantly sketched screenplay moves in a linearity breakdown, yet still remains chronological, leaping through timelines, from a latter-day lawsuit case hearing and back into the online network's early conception, exploring all characters involved with unexpected depth and nuance. Those that gripe whether what we’re seeing have actually taken place or not, accuracy here is beside the point. Cinema is art, not a history documentary channel. Even
Schindler's List got plenty of historical details wrong, and that’s the Holocaust we’re talking about. The Social Network isn’t interested on finger-pointing, on who’s telling the truth or not, who are the villains and the heroes in this fiasco, but rather keen on exploring the nature and subjectivity of truth. Often, it plays like a modern rendition of Akira Kurosawa’s incendiary Rashomon, where every single player has their own version of truth-glossing. Sorkin’s narrative lurches from one perspective to the next, from Zuckerberg’s insistent intellectual proprietorialism, to ex-BFF Eduardo Saverin’s claim of partnership and fiscal betrayal, to Harvard’s upper-class Aryan bluebloods the Winklevoss twins, who accuse Zuckerberg of stealing their idea of exclusive Harvard networking. None of these characters seem worth rooting for, but in Fincher’s tightly controlled yet perceptive drama, we see motivations, psychologies and hurt beneath these individuals. Zuckerberg – part-billionaire, part-genius, part-arsehole – is hardly a protagonist to root for, but actor Eisenberg shows an impressive understanding of Zuckerberg, a young pioneer driven by the need to belong. There is a quietly poignant opening of Zuckerberg walking through the Harvard campus at night in a hoodie and flip-flops, an outcast traversing through a social jungle and ends up in his dormitory, flaring up the blogosphere. This is intercut with scenes of the super-exclusive night-parties of the Harvard elite, ramming home the message of Zuckerberg’s disjointedness, far-flung from the parties he is never invited and welcomed.

Focusing on the human drama that revolves around Facebook is a stroke of genius. Fincher, arguably an underappreciated director of our time, takes a thriller approach to excite the proceedings, all rapid-fire editing, darkly yet beautifully lit cinematography, but he never undermines all that emotional undertow here. When we see Eduardo Saverin (a subtle, vulnerable performance by Andrew Garfield) losing his temper at Zuckeberg and Sean Parker (a smart casting of Justin Timberlake) for their corporate betrayal, we feel his car-crash outburst. When we see free-spirited, Machiavellian Napster-founder Parker transform from swaggering, cocksure bastard to a rabbit-caught-on-headlights for dealing with coke, we feel pity. That’s because Fincher invests much on dramatic build-up throughout scenes. Come the inspired final shot, Zuckerberg perpetually pressing F5 (Refresh) on Erica’s Facebook page, it’s plainly obvious that
The Social Network isn’t so much a movie about Facebook as a timeless, cautionary tale of selfish ambition and capitalism pursued in expense of lifelong values such as friendship and real human relationships. At its bitter heart, the 500 million users might want to befriend Zuckerberg, but he remains inconsolably, incontrovertibly alone.

Beneath its understated workings, The Social Network emerges as a deceptively crafted, erudite, marvellously written and directed piece of zeitgeist-nailing screenplay. We have films that reflect a generation in our lifetime – The Graduate, Easy Rider, even Fincher’s own Fight Club – and this is one of them.

Cast: Clint Eastwood,
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Laeta Kalogridis
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Runtime: 140 mins
Genre: Drama/Thriller/Horror/Noir
Country: USA

Clint Eastwood, at 80, shows no sign of slowing down. Without a doubt one of the most prolific and most respected American filmmakers alive today - he averages two films a year - we'd somehow assumed that old, shrivelled-up Dirty Harry had had his golden days and that it's time to clear out his desk and say adieu to Hollywood. No. Instead, in the last two years, he's produced and directed films that some of us unfortunate souls can only dream of making at least one in our entire lifespan. There was the superb Changeling, the somewhat mellow Invictus and this year's Hereafter, films that boasts that grand, sweeping, old-school Hollywood emotional sucker-punch. It's easy, then, to surmise that Eastwood's increasingly becoming a sentimentalist, a big softie beneath that grizzled, rough-hewn façade. Perhaps that comes with age. Or perhaps that's just craft and emotionality being refined.

Gran Torino, thankfully, is given a subtle emotional undertow without resulting into schmaltz. It's a Western film without horses and saddles, an action film without gunfights, a Hollywood weepie without the three-piece hanky and a social indictment without being full-on preachy. It's also a well-developed character-driven piece with Eastwood himself playing the central protagonist, the grey, furious, war veteran Walt Kowalski. Eastwood is a sheer galvanising presence that sums up an entire acting panoply of cowboys and cranky gunslingers. Here, he's an old-age, grumpy pensioner at odds with the world - disgruntled with everything and everyone including seemingly harmless South-East Asian neighbours in his Detroit 'hood, his selfish kids, obnoxious grandchildren, local gangbangers, his priest and even God - and only takes temporary relief in swigging beer in his porch and his immaculate Gran Torino. Even in his wife's funeral at the film's opener, he doesn't so much mourn as growling at his disrespectful clan. It's a rapacious, magnificent turn, with Eastwood managing to be equally menacing and sympathetic. It's also a star quality unrivalled by any other actor his age, where his onscreen presence just overshadows everybody else in the film, which reduces the Asian kids in his block acting as plummy.

At heart, the narrative structure is reminiscent to a John Wayne Western, or even Eastwood's own canon, where the embittered, mortally-ill hero-with-a-gun saves a bunch of folks in his land, the Southeast Asian minority a shoo-in as Indians. This issue is also given much more complication with Kowalski being portrayed as a certified racist, spewing out slurs that oozes with breathtaking offensiveness. Yet Kowalski is never reduced to neither a sour curmudgeon nor ham-fisted misanthrope. There's humanity within. Come the unexpectedly moving finale, there's a noble, pacifist intention behind Kowalski's final act of resolve. It will tug hearts, and make you forget of the first-half, which resembles like a middlebrow, live-action version of Pixar's Up with Carl Fredricksen going all Dirty Harry with a gun, raiding punks in the 'hood.

Gran Torino isn't astounding filmmaking, but it is a quiet, reserved and dignified one worthy of respect. If this would be Eastwood's swansong to silverscreen acting, it's a memorable one.

Cast: George O'Brien, Janet Gaynor
Director: Giorgos Lanthimos
Screenplay: Efthymis Fillipou
Studio: Boo Productions
Runtime: 94 mins
Genre: Foreign Film/Horror
Country: Greece

It's hard to imagine a more brilliantly bizarre picture this year other than this Greek import Dogtooth. Here is a film that doesn't deliberately, and figuratively, mutilate audiences' eyeballs as Lars von Trier set out in Antichrist, nor mercilessly heightens violence as Gaspar Noé's Irreversible - yet still remains profoundly shocking. Violence in Dogtooth isn't intended, but rather a disturbing effect of innocence, and simultaneously, ignorance. Which makes it all the more disturbing, as the three twentysomething children living under the tyrannical rule of their bourgeois parents are misled, misinformed and totally detached from the outside world, the social 'norms', and hence, reality. In their own isolated, fence-ringed world, they are told that a zombie is a flower, a pussy is a lamp, a cat is a savage beast, and Frank Sinatra is their Uncle. And any sign of misbehaviour would mean homegrown capital punishment such as holding Listerine in the mouth until it burns.

If all of these sound absurd, director Giorgos Lantimos roots absurdity in context to this social conditioning. Although laced with some Lynchian weirdness, he doesn't plunge the film in total darkness; Dogtooth's cinematography looks like its shot by Sofia Coppola, all sun-dappled environs, idyllic mood shots, quietly understated framing. But despite of this, there's an air of eerie dread and claustrophobia, its entire running-time an unpredictable carnival of derangement. Lanthimos refuses to offer explanations to the motivations of the parents, especially the haywire, control-freak father, and the passive-aggressive mother, which makes the entire harrowing affair more unsettling. His approach is rather observational, as though he's letting us take a peek into this madcap culture, an extreme case of parental fascism. Dogtooth, for all its horrors, takes a Buñuelian dissection of middle-class isolationism and a fearless glimpse into the face of one of humanity's bleakest moral cruelties - social control.

Unsettling, provocative and tragic. Dogtooth may be one of this year's most bizarre yet genuinely haunting films, exploring parental fascism with devastating results. As soon as this bites, it leaves a lasting mark.

Cast: George O'Brien, Janet Gaynor
Director: F. W. Murnau
Screenplay: Hermann Sudermann
Studio: Fox Film Corporation
Runtime: 94 mins
Genre: Drama/Silent Film
Country: USA

1927 was a crucial and ironic year for cinema. For one, silent films were dying. Warner Bros. had unleashed the studio's technical gambit The Jazz Singer, the first ever full-length feature that paved way to the sound era. Yet, on the other hand, two silent movies were released that year that somehow eclipsed The Jazz Singer's status in the annals of filmmaking history, and both dazzlingly demonstrated silent cinema at the peak of its powers - Fritz Lang's sci-fi behemoth Metropolis and F. W. Murnau's Sunrise. Today, what the former has contributed to the science-fiction genre is comparable to what Sunrise has done to melodrama. Murnau's first ever Hollywood gig (he was invited by William Fox to direct a feature) illustrates the fruition and marriage of two very distinct filmmaking styles: German Expressionism and Hollywood mainstream craft. Despite its breezy title, underlined with A Song of Two Humans, this begins as a dark psychological domestic thriller, all warped sets, noirish lighting and intensified expressions, as local farm husband The Man (a brutish yet engaging George O'Brien) is seduced by Margaret Livingston's city-vamp femme-fatale to drown his lowly, dowdy Wife (Janet Gaynor) in the nearby lake. What seems to be a twisted film that initially celebrates unfeigned hedonism miraculously transforms into a genuinely heart-wrenching melodrama, a moral journey from betrayal, devotion and subsequently, redemption.

Many have accused Sunrise as being simplistic, but they have completely missed the point: simplicity is where silent cinema draws its power, and Sunrise is a far better film than hundreds of noisy, brassy movies that came during the advent of sound. Take Janet Gaynor's performance for example - her transformation from dramatic strength to another, from shell-shocked to being repulsed, from frightened to wounded, beleaguered, and ultimately forgiving and loving. All this range of emotions without even a line of dialogue. That first ever Oscar for Best Actress in the history of the Academy is wonderfully deserved. There is also Murnau's masterful direction and superb technical authority. He lends Sunrise a flowing cinematography that seems impossible in 1927's standards, employing long takes, following characters through farmlands, cameras gliding through trees, marshes and even lakes. And from the idyllic, moonlit rural setting, he brings the entire film into a bustling Jazz-age metropolis as the couple regain what they've lost, and here Murnau brings the film fully alive. His camerawork doesn't stop moving, tracking the couple in busy streets, shops and even nightclubs. Watch that showstopping sequence with the Man and Wife causing a traffic jam as they vanish into a sun-dappled countryside stroll. It's a sweet hymn to human love that forever influenced modern day cinema. See Pixar and its abashed romanticism.

One of the greatest testaments to the power of silent cinema. F. W. Murnau's sublime wordless weepie transcends crowd-pleasing melodrama into high art, luminous poetry and a virtuous moral fable. This is, arguably, the Citizen Kane of the silent era.