The Fifth Estate (2013)

2015 #144
Bill Condon | 128 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & Belgium / English | 15 / R

It’s The Julian Assange Movie, in which Benedict Cumberbatch dons a lanky white wig and an Australian accent to portray one of the most significant figures of our times, whether you like it or not.

The story is told from the perspective of Daniel Berg, played by Daniel Brühl, who first encounters Assange in Germany and is somewhat captivated by him. Daniel helps Assange to really launch WikiLeaks, and is by his side through their early fame-garnering exposés. He functions a little as Assange’s moral compass, too, especially when they receive some stolen US military files relating to their controversial Middle Eastern exploits…

Cumberbatch’s performance is the showstopper here, and it’s been justly praised. It can seem a little over the top and affected, but then people who actually knew Assange say it’s bang on, so I think we have to take it that’s what he’s like rather than it being Cumberbatch overplaying. I largely rate him as an actor anyway, so he earns the benefit of the doubt. Brühl excels in the less showy role, however — much like he did in Rush, in fact, though even that role had its share of affectations to work with, which this part does not.

Daniel is torn between ‘saving the world’ and a love interest, played by Alicia Vikander, who is everywhere right now but I think this is the first time I’ve actually seen her in something. There’s nothing remarkable about her part, so I can’t really judge her. The same goes for the rest of the cast, where a wide array of starry and/or acclaimed names (Peter Capaldi, Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie, Alexander Siddig, Dan Stevens, David Thewlis, Stanley Tucci, Carice van Houten (who’s big in Belgium, it would seem)) don’t falter, but nonetheless struggle to make a mark when none are awarded anything meaty to do.

The rest of the film is unfortunately hit or miss. It begins with an absolutely fantastic two-and-a-half-minute title sequence that covers the whole history of human mass communication, from hieroglyphs to the internet and everything in between. It’s succinct, thorough, and excellent, probably the best thing about the entire movie. Elsewise, Bill Condon’s direction is a little rote. At times he seems to want to be clever and cutting edge, with on-screen tech and the visual representation of WikiLeak’s virtual office space, but it’s inconsistent, a grab-bag of tricks without a guiding principle. The rest of the movie is shot plainly. Not badly, just plainly; normally; almost old-fashioned-ly. Its directorial style doesn’t match the material. For contrast, look to David Fincher’s The Social Network, which also told the story of cutting-edge ever-so-now tech developments, but did so with filmmaking that could be described in similar terms.

Every once in a while the film interjects a US-set subplot that seems to go nowhere. The posters and trailers imply these American officials were people hunting Assange; instead, they’re relatively minor cogs in the political wheel who get caught out by what he does. They don’t seem to have any particular significance in themselves — they’re not famous, nor more wronged than anyone else — so maybe they’re just meant to be emblematic? As in, Laura Linney’s character is there to be representative of Assange’s effect, not the only person it happened to. Or was she the only person fired, and that’s the point? The film doesn’t make it clear.

In terms of understanding, it’s also very much a movie of Now. It assumes you know an awful lot of real-world context — essentially, the history of the last decade or two. Before too long, it’ll be a tough film for new viewers to follow or engage with without some kind of degree. Not everything should be made with an eye to its longevity, but one wonders how successful The Fifth Estate is in and of itself. It’s almost fiction-filmmaking as journalism: it’s about something that just happened — in some respects, is still happening — rather than an attempt to look back and explain those happenings in a historical context.

Indeed, one wonders how enlightening the film is in any respect. Assange is clearly a difficult person to get to know, by turns crusading hero and egotistical wannabe. That’s how the film depicts him, and if that’s accurate to life, well, that’s not the film’s fault — what’s wrong with having a primary character who isn’t a hero? Anyway, that’s the role Daniel is there to fulfil — he’s the honourable one; the one who’s actually invested in the site’s supposed values. But then the film is partly based on his book, so he would be the good guy.

In the end, this is an immensely complex story, with many different and contradictory sides to tell, and the film isn’t up to the task of covering them all. Great performances, though.

3 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Catfish (2010)

2011 #49
Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman | 84 mins | TV | 12 / PG-13

CatfishCatfish is a documentary (probably — we’ll come to that) in which 20-something Nev falls in love with a girl somewhere else in America over the internet. He and his friends become suspicious that she’s not who she claims and set off to find out The Truth.

Some have said that Catfish reflects our current relationship with social networking technology more than the highly-acclaimed-for-reflecting-our-current-relationship-with-social-networking-technology The Social Network did. They’re right. That’s no criticism of Fincher and Sorkin’s work, though, because I’ve never really held with the notion that their film was a generation-defining tale — it’s about the birth of the largest social networking tool yet seen, but it’s only about that in part; it’s more about relationships between people in business. Catfish, however, is about how said tool (and others) are and can be used, and what effects this can have on human relations.

It’s hard to meaningfully discuss Catfish without looking at what happens towards the end of it, which is obviously spoiler territory, a no-no for any half-decent review aimed at viewers who’ve not viewed the viewing in question. The film’s ‘big reveals’, which everyone talks about coming at the end, actually begin to stack up from about halfway through; there’s no last-minute twist here — the answers are a huge part of the whole film. And so they should be, I think; but it also means if you don’t want to reveal them you have to not discuss a good chunk of the film — the most important chunk, to my mind, because it is after the reveals that Catfish finds its greatest weight and importance.

This bit is definitely fakeBefore I get spoilersome, then, let me say this: you will probably guess where it’s going. Even if you’ve not had it in some way revealed (however little of it) before you watch, early scenes will lead to the obvious conclusion: why am I being shown this if it doesn’t go somewhere? And what’s the obvious place it’s going to go? I think most viewers must guess. But I think many — probably even most — will not guess precisely where it ends up; the exact nature of the truth it finds. So this is not as much of a Thriller as it’s been sold in some quarters. It has suspense, certainly, and it has mysteries that have answers… but there’s not some dark secret at the heart of it all; instead, there’s a painful emotional situation. Already I’m saying too much.

And now I shall go on to discuss things that might get spoilery, including the much-debated topic of whether the film is real or a hoax. If you’ve not seen it, I encourage you to skip to my final two paragraphs.

All documentary is constructed in some way — it is, at best, an edited account of real filmed events. As a society/culture we’ve been taught to assume it’s edited in such a way as to present a true-to-life-(but-abbreviated) account of what Really Happened, but that’s not necessarily the case. When you throw in an authorial voice — an onscreen presence or a voice over — it becomes if anything less truthful, especially if the filmmaker has a particular message they want to convey. Sadly, despite the masses of “don’t trust what you read”/”don’t trust what you see” comments that come from more responsible sourcesWho films the filmer? and/or satire, I still think most people fundamentally believe what they see in a documentary (or they read in a newspaper) to be the truth.

So whatever the reality behind it, Catfish is unquestionably a construct — it has been edited (like all documentaries), so it automatically is; it can’t be anything else. The filmmakers have chosen what they want us to see, whether that be real or staged. The questions of veracity, then, are: did these events really happen, and/or did they happen as the film depicts them?

Some have noted the makers got lucky to be filming when all the major points of the story happened. Rubbish. Poppycock. Stronger words with swearing in them. If they were making a documentary, surely they’d be filming a lot? Especially whenever they knew Nev would be having a phone call with Angela/Megan/etc. There’s nothing in the film to suggest they didn’t shoot dozens or hundreds of hours of footage of Nev reading out Facebook messages and text messages, or dozens of phone calls, then trimmed them right back to the most interesting or relevant (in their eyes, naturally). If they were committed to making a documentary, the likelihood is they would have shot almost all the time, recorded him reading out every message (or as much as they could), then selected the most relevant or revealing bits in the edit. That’s how documentary filmmaking works. And when it gets to the point, surprisingly early on, where they suspect something’s amiss, of course they’re filming all the time: they’re on an investigation and they’re filming that investigation! But is it only the camera being set up?The allegation that it can’t be real because they happened to film everything that happened is nonsense.

That said, there is a theory that some of the earlier scenes were shot later; that they realised they were on to something around the time it started to go awry, then went back and staged earlier events for the sake of storytelling. That explanation I can buy.

In some respects, I find the reaction of viewers more interesting than whether the film is wholly truthful or not. Some people seem to hate and despise Angela for what she did. Really? How heartless a human being are you? What she did was wrong, to a degree (it’s hardly robbery, or murder, or worse, is it?), but she is clearly a woman stuck in a life she’s not happy with and looking for a means of escape; but she’s a fundamentally good person, who won’t abandon the people she cares for and cares about. How people can reach the end of Catfish and still be condemning her I don’t know. She earns our sympathy. If anything, the filmmakers look bad — at times, it looks very much as if they’re about to exploit her or use the film to attack her. They don’t, because they see the truth and they sympathise too. If anything, they use it to try to help her.

If you have any interest in the internet and the way so many people now live their lives through it, with all the social networking it offers, and how that impacts back on their ‘real’ lives, then Catfish demands to be seen. I don’t want to suggest you’ll definitely like or even appreciate it, but I do think you need to see it for yourself. As much as I loved The Social Network The girl... A girl(it’s still on track as the best film I’ve seen in 2011), Catfish probably has more to say about the actual impact of Facebook on our lives than Fincher/Sorkin’s biopic does.

And for those wondering about the unusual title, it’s eventually explained in the film itself. The anecdote that inspired it is interesting, memorable, and quite possibly fictional — how appropriate.

4 out of 5

Catfish is on More4 tomorrow, Tuesday 26th July, at 10pm, and again at 1am.

The end of David Fincher Week

You may have noticed that a week ago last Friday I posted a little piece called “David Fincher Week”. Well — 10 days, 8 films, 1,090 minutes of viewing and 9,375 words later (never mind about a month’s worth of personal anticipation beforehand) — said Week is over.

Fincher dominanceOne thing this week has achieved is re-confirming that Fincher is one of my favourite directors. Another is to remind me that I’ve not seen a single one of his films at the cinema.

A third is to have helped me consider each of his films in the context of his others, in order. I would attempt to summarise what I’ve learnt (if anything), but why do that when I can plagiarise myself? So, as I’ve rattled through the films and reviews this week, here’s a little linked-up summary of them all, highlighting where possible quotes that discuss the films in the context of Fincher’s others.


#14
Alien³: Special Edition
(1992 / 2003)

Even though [Fincher] had limited — often, no — control over much of the project, there are still signs that link it with his later films. It’s stylishly shot for one thing, most of the locations either soaked in shadow or cold light, with an often fluid camera. Darkness litters the film thematically too: setting it on a prison colony for murderers and rapists, the violent attempted gang rape of Ripley, the death and autopsy of a 10-year-old girl… Then there’s the Alien itself, from its ugly birth to its violent murders. Fincher may have not turned so explicitly to horror since, but that brand of darkness does flow on into most of his best films: Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac.

It’s also, perhaps, interesting to remember this being Fincher’s first film. He might seems like an odd choice, a first-timer paling beside the experienced hands of Scott and Cameron. But that would be to forget that, for both, their Alien films were only their second time helming a feature; and while Cameron’s previous had been sci-fi (The Terminator), Scott’s was period drama The Duellists. A first-timer — especially one versed in commercials and music videos — isn’t all that different, really, and Fincher has certainly gone on to show his worth.

Read my full review here.


#14a
Se7en
(1995)

the cinematography [is] an aspect Fincher put a lot of work into both originally and then again to make it look right on the DVD re-release. This may well be because the film is incredibly dark. Black seems to be its default position — everything else is cut out of the darkness with as little light as possible. Often backgrounds and locations are better lit than foregrounds or actors, making the viewer focus on silhouettes with minimal light offering splashes of detail. Even the scenes that occur at daytime (most, anyway) do so in the middle of ferocious, ceaseless rain that ensures it never gets too bright.

Read my full review here.


#15a
The Game
(1997)

The Game stands out in Fincher’s filmography as not being particularly Fincher-y. He’s made equally as mainstream-friendly fare since — Panic Room, Benjamin Button, The Social Network — so that The Game doesn’t have as shocking a kick as Alien³, Se7en or Fight Club is not so unusual. More so, It’s not as stylishly directed or shot as any of his other films. It’s not badly done at all, but the cinematography is unremarkable and the direction is good without being any more. Many other competent directors could have been responsible — there’s no sign of his unique touch, probably his only film (that I’ve seen anyway) not to display that. To sum up: well-made, just not distinctive.

Read my full review here.


#16a
Fight Club
(1999)

Another point that interests me here is the audience’s reaction to a filmmaker who uses twists. As we’ve seen, Fincher produced three films in a row that had considerable twist endings; two of them often number in lists of the best movie twists ever. So how is it that he didn’t gain a particular reputation for twist endings, whereas M. Night Shyamalan gained one after… well, one film. I’m not complaining about this — the constant need to provide a shocking last-minute rug-pull has gone on to scupper Shyamalan’s career — but the difference of reaction/public perception is intriguing. I’m sure there are reasons — the sheer size of The Sixth Sense’s twist relative to those in Fincher’s films (it’s only Fight Club’s, his third such film, that changes everything we’ve seen in the same way); the way Shyamalan appeared to court the reputation; and so on.

…Fincher’s films often look great, but Fight Club is surely the most visually inventive. A list of exciting spectacles could be endless… To top it off, the ‘regular’ cinematography is grounded in Fincher’s trademark darkness, as if every shot was conceived as just black and he added only what light was necessary.

Read my full review here.


#16b
Panic Room
(2002)

it’s still clearly a Fincher film thanks to the visuals. So it’s quite dark and stylish, of course, which at least one review I’ve read credited much more to dual cinematographs Conrad W. Hall and Darius Khondji. Not to dismiss either man’s influence and skill, but, piss off. You only need to watch Fincher’s previous films (one shot by Khondji, the other three by three different DoPs) to see that this is a director who knows what he’s after visually (as if his reputation for shooting an obscene number of takes for every little shot didn’t suggest that well enough). To say it’s only thanks to Hall and Khondji that Fincher could produce such a good-looking film does the director a disservice.

Nonetheless, his style is even more evident in the distinctive, physically impossible swooping camera shots.

Read my full review here.


#16c
Zodiac: Director’s Cut
(2007 / 2008)

there are still some properly chilling scenes. Best — by which, all things considered, I mean “worst”; or, rather, “most scary” — of all is Graysmith’s visit to the house of a suspect’s friend, Bob Vaughn, at which point a series of revelations question who exactly should be under suspicion… Another review describes it as “one of the single most chilling scenes ever committed to film” and I’m inclined to agree.

Another triumph of direction comes in how effectively Fincher conveys the time periods the film crosses using relatively subtle means: popular music, appearing in snatches in the background rather than blaring out at us; the actual passage of time with time-lapse shots of a skyscraper being constructed or an audio montage of the major news in a skipped period; and place-and-time subtitles too, but hey, sometimes you need specificity.

Read my full review here.


The visuals may be Benjamin Button’s strongpoint, holding up a variety of era-evoking colour palettes and other design elements as it passes throughout the 20th Century. Flashback-like asides are conveyed in older film styles — scratchy prints for instance, or with a silent movie aesthetic — that on the one hand could seem an inappropriate indulgence, but objectively work very nicely. For a director who has a reputation in some corners for exhibiting excessive flair with swish shots and effects, Fincher shows steady restraint here — as he did in Zodiac, and Se7en, and all the moments in his other films where it was appropriate.

…Viewer awareness of time passing in the narrative is left to the odd snippet of dialogue or obvious jump; aside from a few clear points, there’s a less convincing sense of era than Fincher evoked in Zodiac. Whether this matters or not is debatable — Button isn’t a chronicle of the 20th Century through one man’s eyes, but is rather the story of a (somewhat unusual) life lived during that timed period.

Read my full review here.


it is indeed marvellously directed. As ever, Fincher knows when to keep it simple and when to jazz it up. Witness the incredible visuals in the Henley Regatta boat race, for instance — not brand-new techniques, but the combination of them with the editing and music makes for an outstanding sequence, 90 seconds of pure cinematic perfection.

Conversely, look at all the film’s conversations. Let’s draw on one that’s discussed in the making-of material, the scene between Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker in the club: as Fincher says, he could’ve had a Steadicam endlessly circling them or something similar to make it seem Fast and Hip, but in reality you need to see the conversation, and especially Mark’s reactions, so instead it’s just a good old fashioned shot-reverse-shot. For all his visual prowess, it’s understanding this need for simplicity and (g)old standard techniques when appropriate that Fincher has had a handle on throughout his career.

Read my full review here.



Fincher’s next “gift to us” (as Andrew Garfield put it at the BAFTAs), his ninth film, will be an English-language adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, currently scheduled to reach UK cinemas on 26th December.

I expect I’ll catch it on Blu-ray sometime in 2012.

[P.S. 30/9/2014: I’ve still not watched it. I am a failure.]

David Fincher Week

David FincherDavid Fincher’s multi-Oscar-nominated latest, The Social Network, hits UK DVD and Blu-ray a week from Monday (and we’ll find out what, if anything, it’s won just two weeks later). As Fincher’s one of my favourite directors, and is responsible for several of my favourite-ever films, I’ve decided to mark the occasion with a David Fincher Week. The title of this post may’ve given that away.

Unfortunately Fincher has directed one too many films to make a neat week. Normally Alien³ would be the obvious candidate for elimination, what with its production troubles and Fincher leaving the project before editing began, but the ‘Assembly Cut’ included on the Quadrilogy DVD, and now Anthology Blu-ray, is closer to his vision (“closer” being the operative word). Besides which, I’ve not seen it, so it can have a new number, something Panic Room can’t. Neither can Se7en, The Game or Fight Club, but I have two of those on Blu-rays I’ve not yet watched and I’m rather fond of The Game.

But I’m going to include Panic Room anyway, because it’s nice to be thorough, and so just have a David Fincher Week-and-a-Day. Or slip the review in on the same day as the Zodiac Director’s Cut, because I’ve already reviewed that film and I doubt the extra, what is it, four minutes of footage makes much difference.

David Fincher poster collageMy viewing starts tonight, for a week running Friday to Friday — I’m relying on HMV to get The Social Network to me in timely fashion for that to work. I intend to start posting reviews on Sunday night — technically, Monday morning — which gives me a couple of days to write them, for a week running Monday to Monday. Neatness in both watching and reviewing, then.

For those unfamiliar with Fincher’s body of work, or who just fancy a handy reminder, here’s a handy timetable of when I intend to post my reviews:

Alien³: Special Edition Monday 7th
Se7en Tuesday 8th
The Game Wednesday 9th
Fight Club Thursday 10th
Panic Room Friday 11th
Zodiac: Director’s Cut Saturday 12th
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Sunday 13th
The Social Network Monday 14th

Alien3So the week begins with a film I’ve seen in a cut I haven’t, ends with two films I’ve never seen, and along the way takes in several of my favourite-ever films. Lovely.

Right, I’m off to watch Alien³. See you Monday.

Well, Sunday, at midnight.

Hopefully.

My end-of-the-week summary can now be read here.