The Social Network – 7.5

Less a plotted melodrama than a fascinating character study for which Jesse Eisenberg should get an Oscar nomination, at least. He does more with his eyes than most actors this year have done with their entire bodies. Facebook cofounder Eduardo Saverin is good, too, but I can’t say as much for the rest of the cast. The Woonsocket twins are absurd caricatures, made tolerable only by their putdown at the hands of Larry Summers. We know, of course, the outcome of the movie before we go in; so Sorkin and Fincher are probably justified in not bothering to build suspense. Instead, they concentrate on portraying how an individual such as Mark Zuckerberg can be so brilliant as to invent the social product of the decade, yet personally so inept that those who know him either hate him or sue him. Curiously for a “true story,” the movie spends a lot of time on locations that never existed: depositions in which the antagonists square off and a party scene that makes Harvard look like Animal House.

The American – 6

Given that George Clooney has such good looks, good voice, eyes that twinkle and adequate acting ability, why can’t someone teach him to run? First in Michael Clayton, now in The American, this macho sexpot starts to sprint…and moves like a girl!
Really, this movie is all about George Clooney, or should I say, George Clooney’s character. He is present in every scene, and if he is not onscreen, he is on the other end of the phone call, or the rifle sight. It is fundamentally an existential drama, as Clooney comes to decide, a bit too late, what in life is worth living for, and his hardboiled persona begins to reveal some cracks.
Otherwise, the movie makes no sense. Who is Clooney working for? Why is he working for them? Why is he offered tens of thousands to build a rifle? Why couldn’t they just buy one from a Chechen arms dealer? How is he able to construct this perfect piece of equipment with spare parts he finds in a garage? By withholding all backstory and placing events in Sweden and Italy, we don’t know who’s the good guy, who’s the bad, or why Clooney is who he is. All we see is an agent in the middle of an obscure assignment who meets a gorgeous(!) prostitute and questions the life he is leading. As I say, an existential drama.
It’s also approximately the 37th movie I’ve seen this year in which a character smokes – often, as here, quite gratuitously. Whatever happened to the campaign against tobacco products in the cinema?

Sugar – 7.5

This movie humanizes Major League baseball players in a way few others have, and gives meaning to Ozzie Guillen’s rant, earlier this summer, about the lack of support offered Latino players, compared to Asians. More to the point, it is a positive view of (illegal) immigration, supporting the view that these are good people, just trying to better their families’ lives, hurting no one. But best, it is an honest character study of a gifted athlete, lost in a foreign culture, who finds a way that defies the normal melodramatic arc we expect from the movies. Oddly, the least realistic aspect of the film is the way the actors play baseball. (Netflix)

Buried – 7.5

The most claustrophobia-inducing film I’ve ever seen, 93 minutes entirely inside a coffin, with one actor who can barely move, lit mainly by his Zippo lighter but often in total darkness, Buried adds one more cinematic chapter, for the politically minded, to the story, Why We Shouldn’t Be In Iraq. Along the way, his phone calls – on a cell phone left in the coffin by his ransom-minded captor – point up the daily selfishness and occasional duplicity in the outside world, without distracting our focus from the panicked, desperate Everyman, buried alive. While American heartthrob Ryan Reynolds is good, if not great, as the captured truck driver, it is interesting that the movie – a metaphor for U.S. involvement in the Middle East? – is a Spanish production, directed by Rodrigo Cortes.

Easy A – 6.5

Emma Stone proved a worthy successor to Ellen Page’s Juno in this story of the smart teenager up against the world around her, except for her supportive parents who can’t really help. Thomas Haden Church and Lisa Kudrow were reliable as the adult presences at her high school, and the story was sweet, so long as you got past any concern that none of this could actually happen. Call it a parable, or a modern gloss on Hawthorne, to be enjoyed and not taken seriously.

The Town – 7

Written, directed and starring Ben Affleck, this could be added to the list of recent vanity projects, especially since his character is the only one who gets away. The star for me, however, was Rebecca Hall, who got to portray big-time ambivalence, and did it beautifully. The bank robbery scenes were far-fetched, but that didn’t bother the University of Minnesota football players who cheered the robbers in preparation for their game with USC the next morning. Jeremy Renner is deserving of Supporting Actor awards for his performance, but overall the flick wasn’t up to the Dennis Lehane standard.

Catfish – 5

There’s something about a handheld-camera documentary that wears on me. The story would seem just as authentic if it were a bit more professionally made. Beyond that, I don’t think I was the target audience for a Facebook mystery. “Nev” was good-looking and a nice-enough guy, but I can think of others I would rather spend my two hours with.