The Social Dilemma


The digital trap.

(2020) Documentary (NetflixTristan Harris, Jeff Seibert, Bailey Richardson, Joe Toscano, Sandy Parakilas, Guillaume Chaslot, Lynn Fox, Aza Raskin, Alex Roetter, Tim Kendall, Justin Rosenstein, Randy Fernando, Jason Lanier, Roger McNamee, Shoshana Zuboff, Anna Lembke, James Lembke, Mary Lembke, Jonathan Haidt, Cathy O’Neil, Rashida Richardson, Renee DiResta, Cynthia Wong. Directed by Jeff Orlowski

Like it or not, the Internet has become a part of the basic fabric of our lives. You are reading this on a computer or net-enabled device; there is no paper version of Cinema365 unless you happen to print out a copy of this review (and why would you want to do that?) so this is the only way to read what you’re reading. How’s that for meta?

But as much as we like to think that social media is a means of connection, it is also a means of division. This devastating documentary by the guy who brought us Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral shows us another way that our humanity is crumbling. It is ironic that much of this message will be contributed through the same social media platforms that have caused the issue in the first place.

Orlowski brings us interviews with former executives from such social media platforms as Facebook, Instagram, Google and Twitter as they discuss how what they thought was a force for good had a flip side. The monetization of the social media platforms led to the aphorism that “if the service is free, then you are the product” as algorithms determined what your interests are and tailored your experience to them. Certainly, that led to a kind of marketplace mentality – spend, spend, spend! – but also to something much darker as we began to build our own bubbles in which we are being fed misinformation designed to reinforce that bubble, leading us to the situation we are in now – so divided upon ideological lines that the results of the next election are likely to bring bloodshed regardless of who wins.

Illustrating this, we are shown a fictional family with three young children; a college-age daughter who has begun to reject what social media represents, a middle school age daughter who has become obsessed with getting likes for her posts, and a teenage boy who has begun to be influenced into extremist beliefs. It’s chilling how easily it can happen and so many of us have seen it happen within our own extended families.

The main interview subject here is Tristan Harris, the former design ethicist for Google who has emerged to become “the closest thing to a conscience for Silicon Valley.” He admits to being naïve about the possible consequences of his work for big tech, and as a result advocates now for regulating social media in the same way that broadcast and print media is regulated, or once was.

In fact, most of the experts interviewed here are for regulation and feel that a libertarian self-regulation solution isn’t practical. What is really telling is that when asked about letting their middle school-aged children having smart phones, every single expert said they would not allow it.

Social media has given us an increase in depression and suicide among teens, a rise in bullying (of the online variety) and most distressing, a rise in extremist hate groups emboldened to come out of the shadows and create an online presence that influences both the left and the right.

None of the information here isn’t available elsewhere, but I can’t think of another source that has put this information in a more digestible, logically laid-out manner. The whimsical “inside the kid’s mind” sequences showing how the algorithms work felt a little out of step with the rest of the documentary which does drag a little bit in the middle, but the last 15 minutes definitely pack a powerful punch. Every parent should see this and everyone who spends more than an hour a day on social media should as well.

REASONS TO SEE: Thought-provoking and eye-opening. Presented in a very logical manner. An inside look at how social media molds policy.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets bogged down a bit in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, suggestive material and some adult thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The “like” feature on Facebook was designed to provoke a release of endorphins, which contributes to the addictive nature of social media.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews; Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Web Junkie
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles

Tesla


Genius at work.

(2020) Biographical Drama (IFCEthan Hawke, Eve Hewson, Kyle MacLachlan, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Hannah Gross, Michael Mastro, Ian Lithgow, Jim Gaffigan, Blake DeLong, Lois Smith, Donnie Keshawarz, Rebecca Dayan, Josh Hamilton, Lucy Walters, Dan Bittner, David Kallaway, Karl Geary, James Urbaniak, Steven Gurewitz, Rick Zahn, Emma O’Connor. Directed by Michael Almareyda

If anyone deserves to have a biography that breaks all the rules, it’s Nikola Tesla. One of the great inventors and brilliant minds of his time, Tesla spent most of his life exploring ideas that other men never dared dream.

This biopic by Experimenter director Michael Almareyda has the kind of whimsy the notoriously introverted and taciturn inventor likely wouldn’t have approved of. The film is narrated by Mary Morgan (Hewson), the daughter of robber baron financier J.P (Keshawarz) who sits behind a laptop in all her Gilded Age finery and invites us to “Google” Tesla (Hawke).

We see most of the highlights of Tesla’s adult life, from his apprenticeship to Thomas Edison (MacLachlan) to his partnership with George Westinghouse (Gaffigan) in a rivalry with Edison to have his alternating current become the dominant electricity delivery method over Edison’s direct current.

Hawke plays Tesla without the Eastern European accent that the actual Tesla had in life (he was Serbian by birth) in kind of a hoarse whisper as if he has a chest cold in a public library. We get the sense that Tesla lived in a whole other universe than the rest of us; whereas most people, myself included, can only focus in on the here and now, Tesla’s eyes were focused on a more distant subject – the future.

Most of the time, deliberate anachronisms annoy me. They take you out of the film and put your focus on the director, and to an extent that’s true here, particularly when Edison whips out an iPhone but never more so than the final scene, in which Ethan Hawke does something that I don’t think Ethan Hawke has ever done in a movie before (and with good reason, as it turns out). However, I suppose that it could be argued that Tesla himself was an anachronism, a man born far too soon.

Biopics need to do two things; inform and entertain. And they don’t necessarily need to be overzealous on the informing aspect, but inspire a desire in the viewer to want to learn more about the subject. I’m not sure that Tesla is successful there; I will say that you are likely to learn more about the inventor by doing one of those Google searches (or to continue the theme, read his Wikipedia entry) than by watching this movie.

The movie is more successful in the latter category. Even though Hawke seriously underplays the role, he still is a magnificent presence, prowling the screen like a caged lion. Hewson makes a spritely counterpoint, all feminine charm but able to hold her own as an intellectual equal to Tesla, something not very easy to do for anyone.

The score by John Paesano is haunting, with a touch of Sigur Ros to it and Sean Price Williams’ cinematography has the kind of warmth of a magic lantern slide show that’s charming. The trouble with Tesla is also the trouble with Tesla; the man was brilliant but not very interesting. He was far too preoccupied with his ideas for unlimited energy available for all people to bother with things like human relationships. At the end of the film, I sort of doubt you’ll know Tesla any better than you would reading the log line of the movie. His place in posterity demands that maybe a different take on the legendary inventor needs to be made.

REASONS TO SEE: Gorgeous soundtrack. Hewson and Hawke are compelling.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels less of a biography and more of a “based on” type of thing. Might be a little bit too esoteric for general audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as artwork depicting nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tesla died in 1943 at age 86, outliving both Edison and Westinghouse. He was virtually penniless when he died.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Current War
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Words on a Bathroom Wall

All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records


Russ Solomon welcomes all and sundry to the Manhattan Tower Records.

Russ Solomon welcomes all and sundry to the Manhattan Tower Records.

(2015) Documentary (Gravitas) Russ Solomon, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Mark Viducich, David Geffen, Michael Solomon, Steve Knepper, Heidi Cotler, Dave Grohl, Mike Farrace, Rudy Danzinger, Paul Brown, Steve Knopper, Steve Nikkel, Stan Goman, Ken Sockolov, Chris Hopson, Bob Delanoy. Directed by Colin Hanks

To people of a certain age, a visit to a record store was akin to a spa day; we would spend literally hours browsing the bins of records, cassettes and later compact discs. We’d pour through the bargain and used bins, sweaty palmed and wide-eyed until our breath would catch in our throats as the one record, that one record that made the time and effort worth it appeared out of the stacks. There were no finer moments in my life.

Those days are gone; most of us, myself included, get our music digitally downloaded through iTunes, eMusic, Amazon or some other service, or stream our music through Pandora, RDIO or Band Camp. Music is so easily accessible that it has lost much of its magic to many of us. Why bother spending that kind of time haunting a record store when you can just Google the name of your treasure and it will be located in seconds? Who among us of a certain age can remember the thrill of first entering a Tower Records, a record store that dwarfed anything we’d known before and had just about anything and everything that was available – and if they didn’t have it by God they could get it for you in a week, tops.

In 1999, as a title card at the very beginning of the documentary All Things Must Pass which chronicles the story of what is perhaps the most iconic record chain in history, Tower Records had over a billion dollars in sales. Five years later, they filed for bankruptcy. How did that happen?

Well, the Internet happened. Music suddenly was being file shared and downloaded. Who needed to go inside an old-fashioned brick and mortar emporium? Who had the time? Besides, you could find anything on Napster for free. Why pay twenty bucks for a CD when you could get the very same quality for free? You can’t compete with free, says one talking head ruefully during the course of the film.

Competition happened. Big box stores like Wal*Mart and Target began stocking CDs in comparable qualities and sold them at cost. Tower couldn’t compete with that either. But this wasn’t all Tower’s doing; the music business itself made some incompetent decisions, focusing on music piracy. They may have won the battle against Napster but they lost the war; the major labels these days are shadows of their former selves and making a living as a musician is way harder than it used to be – and it was never easy.

&Tower grew because it was a family store, a neighborhood store. It began as a few bins in a drug store located in the Tower Theater building in Sacramento. When the proprietor’s son, Russ Solomon, decided to get in the record retail business, his father sold the bins to him and soon Russ had a couple of stores in Sacramento. Then one in San Francisco. Then another in Los Angeles.

Russ believed in expansion but he also believed in having more stock than anyone else. He believed in putting people as clerks who were people you’d want to hang out with and talk music with for a couple of hours. I remember going into the Tower Records in Mountain View, California and when the clerks found out I was the rock critic for the San Jose Metro ended up spending nearly three hours just chatting with nearly all of them in between them ringing up customers. They grilled me on various groups and styles; about some I would plead ignorance but others I knew well. When I left the store, the manager told me that I was “Tower Records clerk material.” I don’t ever recall being as thrilled about a compliment in all my life.

That family feeling carried through to the executives of the company, nearly all of whom started out working at the cash register. As we listen to their interviews, particularly Mark Viducich (he of the walrus-like moustache in the photo above) and Heidi Cotler, we get the sense that these are people who are used to speaking what’s on their mind and would be a hoot to hang out with for a few beers after work. These guys knew their market because they were their market.

Solomon’s aggressive expansion phase made Tower a global presence, particularly in Japan which was rabid about American culture (the Japanese expansion was Viducich’s call). Music being such a personal thing, they understood that it had to be treated almost as therapeutic and so it was. If music was the catalyst for change in the latter half of the 20th century, Tower Records was the company that provided the chemicals for the reaction.

Times did change and despite their best efforts Tower Records is no more. Now Colin Hanks, the actor and son of Tom, has fashioned a documentary that is a very good idea – it is going to inspire a ton of nostalgia for a lot of people ranging from the baby boomers to Gen X; in other words, the people that Millennials roll their eyes at these days. That can’t be a bad thing for the box office.

If I have one complaint with the film it’s just that the format is pretty tried and true – lots of talking heads with archival film footage interspersed with it. The soundtrack is pretty good but not as great as that which accompanied The Wrecking Crew or Muscle Shoals. That’s a bit of a problem, but one that isn’t a deal killer at least.

There are some record collectors left but most of us have reverted to digital storage. Ironically the CDs which prompted the golden era for Tower in terms of profits were also the vehicle for the doom of big record chains including Tower. Once music was digital, the obsolescence of brick and mortar record stores was assured.

Still, one can look back fondly on hours spent at Tower, Amoeba and Park City CDs and the money spent and not one dime of it do I regret. Music is as essential to life as breathing (the Japanese Tower continues to use the old Tower slogan “No music, no life”) and I can’t imagine life without it. We all have our own soundtracks and Tower was the place where many of us acquired ours.

REASONS TO GO: Classic nostalgia for aging music geeks. Engaging interviews.
REASONS TO STAY: Pedestrian format.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While Tower Records no longer exists in the United States, they still thrive in Japan under separate ownership.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Homemakers

The Internship


No, not the Tour de France.

No, not the Tour de France.

(2013) Comedy (20th Century Fox) Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Max Minghella, Rose Byrne, Aasif Mandvi, Josh Brener, Dylan O’Brien, Tiya Sircar, Tobit Raphael, Josh Gad, Jessica Szohr, Rob Riggle, Eric Andre, Harvey Guillen, Gary Anthony Williams, John Goodman, Will Ferrell, Bruno Amato, JoAnna Garcia Swisher, Anna Enger, B.J. Novak, Karen Ceesay, Jill Jane Clements. Directed by Shawn Levy

 

One of the truths about modern life is that things are changing faster than we can keep up with them. Those of us who are middle aged don’t always notice it but when we take a moment to breathe it can be staggering how far we’ve come and how our lives have changed. For my part, I never thought of myself as particularly “tech-savvy” growing up but here I am blogging daily on the Internet.

Nick Campbell (Wilson) and Billy McMahon (Vaughn) are feeling the currents of change swirling around them. Old school salesmen, they discover at a meeting with a client that their company has shut its doors without telling them. Nobody uses watches anymore apparently – people find out what time it is these days by checking their smart phones.

Without a college education and with limited skill sets in an increasingly high tech job market, the two flounder. Nick takes a job with his sister’s boyfriend (Ferrell) at a mattress store which is as demeaning as it gets but Billy, searching on Google for job possibilities, lands an interview for a possible internship at Google itself.

The two, neither one owning a computer of their own, use one in a public library (having to fend off snarky kids) and display an appalling lack of savvy when it comes to tech matters but the interviewers (Novak, Ceesay) discover that they bring other skills to the table – outside-of-the-box thinking and personal skills that most kids today haven’t had to develop.

Against all odds, they get a shot at an internship which could lead after a full summer to a high-paying job on the Google campus in Mountain View, California which kind of resembles a cubicle cowboy’s version of Fantasyland – but keep in mind that the production filmed there. The perks of employment (free food, nap pods, a volleyball court and loaner bikes) are actually part of the company’s employment package and the offhand remark early in the film that Google was rated the best place to work in the country is also true. Not in the movie are also a roller hockey rink, basketball courts, three wellness centers and onsite daycare.

Most of the other interns vying for a handful of jobs are kids half their age, all of them fresh out of college. Billy and Nick quickly realize that they are outgunned for this “mental Hunger Games” as Billy put it and realize that their only chance at landing the jobs they desperately need is by aligning themselves with the best team possible and coat-tailing it into employment. One of their competitors, the pretentious and arrogant Graham (Minghella) turns out to be something of a shark, snapping up all the whiz kids on his team.

This leaves them with the :”outcasts” who include Yo-Yo (Raphael), a home-schooled genius who was so bullied by his Korean mom that he picks at his eyebrows whenever he gets stressed – which leaves him without an eyebrow by the end of the internship, Neha (Sircar) a beautiful Southeast Asian chick who talks a good sexual game, Stuart (O’Brien) a cat so cool he rarely looks up from his smart phone to see what’s going on around him and Lyle (Brener) the nebbish manager who is mentoring them.

The internship is made up of a series of challenges overseen by Chetty (Mandvi), a Google executive who’s as frosty as the cold one he won’t be having with his employees. The commitment-phobic Nick strikes up a romantic friendship with Dana (Byrne), a hard-working manager whose life off endless meetings and brutally long workdays have left her without much of a life. As the games begin, Nick and Billy’s team seem hopelessly outcast. Can these old dogs teach their young teammates new tricks?

The plot is fairly formulaic so the answer to that question should be pretty self-evident. This is a movie that is meant to make the audience feel good and to a pretty good extent, it succeeds. Wilson and Vaughn first teamed up eight years ago in The Wedding Crashers and for whatever reason haven’t gotten together again since. However, their chemistry – central to the charm and success of that movie – is intact here thank goodness.

The two make a highly effective comedy team, the easygoing Wilson making a perfect foil to the manic fast-talking Vaughn. Some are going to measure The Internship to their previous movie and while I’ll admit it isn’t quite as funny as their first film, it’s unquestionably still entertaining. Mandvi, a veteran character actor, is particularly appealing as is the woefully underemployed Byrne. I liked all of the young actors who played their team and while Minghella’s Graham is less despicable in some ways than villains in similar movies, he still turns out to be the one you love to root against.

This does play like a puff piece for Google and that might grit a few teeth here and there. I’m not sure that they employ a lot of middle aged tech-challenged sorts but my guess is that the Billys and Nicks are few and far between on their Mountain View campus. Diversity only goes so far so in other words don’t get your hopes up.

I liked the movie enough to give it a solid recommendation. This isn’t a groundbreaker by any stretch but if you’re looking for a movie to give you a bit of a lift certainly this will fit the bill. A movie doesn’t necessarily have to give you deep insights to be a good movie; sometimes watching the underdog come through is enough to keep us going in a world where the haves seem to win an awful lot more than the have-nots. Given the presence of the team of Vaughn and Wilson is an added bonus. I only hope their next film comes sooner than eight years from now.

REASONS TO GO: Chemistry between Vaughn and Wilson is still solid. Feel-good movie.

REASONS TO STAY: Not as funny as one would hope. A nearly two hour commercial for Google.

FAMILY VALUES:  The movie has its share of foul language, sexual references and crude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The annoyed Google employee trying to take a nap during the nap pod sequence when Nick is trying to talk to Dana is played by director Shawn Levy.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/15/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100; yet another movie this summer the critics are lukewarm on.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Real Genius

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: This is the End

Race to Witch Mountain


Race to Witch Mountain

AnnaSophia Robb tries to keep a straight face after convincing the others that Triple H was about to land a flying elbow out of the trees.

(Disney) Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Ciaran Hinds, AnnaSophia Robb, Alexander Ludwig, Tom Everett Scott, Christopher Marquette, Cheech Marin, Garry Marshall. Directed by Andy Fickman

It is said that everything old will become new again at some point. In Hollywood, that translates to everything old will be remade again.

A decidedly modern update of the 1975 Disney kidflick Escape to Witch Mountain finds a Las Vegas cab driver by the name of Jack Bruno (Johnson) trying to make a living ferrying whackos at a UFO convention up and down the strip. Jack used to be a driver for the mob but has tried to make a go of it on the straight and narrow. That isn’t easy with a couple of goons stopping by to remind him that once in the mob, always in the mob.

In the meantime, scientists are monitoring a spacecraft crash landing in the desert outside of Vegas. They send for Henry Burke (Hinds), a high muckety muck in the military whom everybody seems to be terrified of. He visits the crash site and is notified that the craft had been occupied but was no longer. He realizes that there are aliens running around and puts his team on high alert.

When a couple of kids materialize in the back seat of Jack’s car, he seems to take it in stride. When they apparently have a pretty good pile of money for kids their age, he gets a little bit suspicious. When they tell him to head in a general direction – “that way,” says little Sara (Robb), pointing – he is skeptical. When he finds out they have superhuman powers (Sara can control things with her mind, Seth (Ludwig) can alter the molecular density of his body which would make corporal punishment a bit problematic on both their parts), he is amazed. And when they are chased by Burke and his government goons in a fleet of sinister-looking SUVs with sinister-looking tinted windows, he gets annoyed.

Not nearly as annoyed, however, as he gets later when he takes on a sinister-looking alien assassin in a sinister-looking black spacesuit with a sinister-looking black helmet. If Vince McMahon had yanked off the helmet and exclaimed “I am your father, Rock” I wouldn’t have been surprised.

It turns out that the kids are the aliens everyone is looking for (ya think?) and that they need to retrieve a device that looks not unlike an iPhone that they need to activate in order to avert a full-scale invasion of the Earth by the military sorts who want to take Earth’s precious resources by force. The iPhone apparently can allow the aliens to re-create those resources (which have been irretrievably poisoned on their world) and allow them to save their planet without wiping out the puny humans. Now, that’s what I call an app!!

Still, they have to avoid the government goons who want to dissect them, the mob who wants to lay a beating on Jack and the alien assassin who wants to microwave them. They enlist the help of a legitimate scientist (Gugino) and a whacko alien abduction sort (Marshall) and must penetrate deep into the super-secret Witch Mountain base (so secret it doesn’t even appear on Google – which surely has the brass at Google running to their lawyers crying “NOT POSSIBLE”) and retrieve their spaceship before Earth becomes a smoking cinder swinging around the sun.

The original Escape to Witch Mountain had an air of mystery and intrigue to it (the kids in that version weren’t aware that they were aliens until near the end of the movie) while this is pretty much sheer action and adventure. Nothing wrong with that, I say – it’s certainly an easier sell to a newer generation of kids who prefer a much more direct approach than kids from my generation who didn’t mind figuring out things for ourselves (end of smug patting on the back segment).

The Rock (Dwayne Johnson is his given name but for me, as with millions – and millions – of others, he will always be the Rock) has the kind of effortless charm that makes him extremely likable, even when he’s laying the smack down on government goons. He needs to carry this movie and he does so very nicely. Gugino, a criminally underused actress who always seems to turn in a strong performance even in poorly written roles, has a nice chemistry with him that while not romantic makes their banter very believable.

I have to say that I didn’t appreciate that the movie seems dumbed down in places. Now, I’m not sure whether the filmmakers of today have a lower opinion of the ability of kids to follow a story, or whether the kids of today have difficulty following a story, but a lot more is essentially spelled out for the audience, whereas in the original we were given the clues to figure things out on our own which most of us did. I think filmmakers need to give the younger audiences more credit, although I will admit that it’s possible I’m giving them too much.

Robb, who was spectacular in Bridge to Terabithia, continues her development as one of the stronger juvenile actresses today. Unfortunately, Ludwig, who was a bit stiff and wooden in The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, exhibits those same tendencies here.

Of course, if you go looking for the Royal Shakespeare Company in a Disney kidflick, you’re going to wind up disappointed every time. For the most part, this is a competently assembled adventure/action movie that is strongly skewed to Disney’s target audience. Those parents who are made to watch the movie will be able at least to enjoy it on that level. I’d be interested in renting it side by side with the original, just for comparison purposes. If I ever get around to it, I’ll let you know what I think.

WHY RENT THIS: The Rock’s easy charm carries the movie effortlessly and Gugino plays off of him nicely. Some pretty nifty special effects sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Definitely dumbed down in places. While Robb is solid, Ludwig seems uncomfortable in places.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the action sequences and the unmasking of the baddie might be too intense for the tiniest of tots, but otherwise suitable for most family viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actors who played the two children in the original, Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann, both put in cameos here. The character names given them reference their original character names; Tina for Richards (who was Tia in the original) and Anthony for Eisenmann (Tony in the original).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a mighty enjoyable little featurette that details the differences between the original and the new version, and how this version pays homage to the original.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Extraordinary Measures