Been a while since we had a movie review. As before, we’ll focus on the story, writing, directing, acting, cinematography, etc., in turn, and try to avoid spoilers. There is one new addition to this review at the end and we’ll try not to make a habit of it (that said, do let us know whether you agree or not in the comments).
Hollywood rarely tackles the world of technology in believable, realistic ways, preferring to explore it, mostly, through the science fiction genre and, mostly, not very well then either. The new Spike Jonze movie, ‘Her’, may prove to be a rare exception, still, it is, with that intelligent operating system (sexy voice, courtesy of Scarlett Johansson), a fantastical, futuristic representation.
So, when a movie like ‘Disconnect’, came along in 2012, and had plots and themes dealing with the more gritty reality of how technology and social media affects and alters our lives, of course, it stayed under the radar. Despite a stellar ensemble cast and some very compelling writing, this movie just did not get the right kind of studio promotion or media hype to attract more attention.
Before we get started, a couple of caveats: This is not a “feel-good” movie. And, a multi-storyline, ensemble cast movie may not be your cuppa. So, you have been warned.
There are three intertwined and connected stories here – school-kids messaging on Facebook, taking a joke too far and pulling their respective parents in to deal with the consequences; a couple who recently lost a child and is subjected to identity theft and financial fraud through hacking; a minor-age porn-site sex worker and the ambitious TV reporter who interviews him and then tries to help him to get to a better life, rather clumsily.
Are these new stories? No. We’ve all read about kids being cruel to each other on Facebook. We’ve heard about nude selfies that go viral. We know about the kids who turn to porn. Check, also, for reporters who go too far and parents who are too busy to notice what’s going on with their kids. As for hackers preying on lonely, unsuspecting chat-room users – one of the more popular archetypes in Hollywood now. All in all, these are fairly well-known tropes. However, this movie achieves the tricky feat of bringing all of them together to a) present them in reasonably fresh and interesting ways and b) render new depth, layers and perspectives to give both technophiles and technophobes some food for thought.
While there are some obvious real-life connections between each story, what really unites all of them is how the characters use online media for certain interactions (with various major and minor characters) and how those online interactions eventually alter the very nature of their personal real-life relationships. This is really the main message – if you choose to see it as such, although there is no such in-your-face insistence. Some critics have said that the movie was didactic in places but, if it really meant to give some kind of moral instruction, there would have been more resolution in the end. That the loose ends of each story are left hanging allows the audience to form their own opinions. One might also argue that, morality aside, each online interaction results in awful consequences, so there is no apparent redeeming quality or positivity to be gleaned. This would be a short-sighted and shallow takeaway because, for every tragic consequence shown, there is a, relatively speaking, positive impact also. The net result is, in the end, left to the audience. So, people will take away what their own biases or prejudices allow them to.
Each story splices into the other two as the characters are connected. This gives the characters more dimensions, and the transitions are handled skillfully and smoothly. Further, we get just enough of the lives and wants/needs of each character to help us vest in their future. There is none of that audience-pandering that is overdone in some movies – where the backstory details are lingered on more than necessary – as if the audience cannot be trusted to watch a movie on its own merit and must be led along carefully and throughout by an expert hand. For example, rather than dwelling on scenes/flashbacks/conversations between the couple who has lost their child, the storytelling focuses on how each is dealing with the aftermath through their online and real-life actions and interactions.
I must admit I had to look up the scriptwriter, Andrew Stern. And, color me surprised when I discovered that he had also written the rather insipid 2000 movie, ‘Return to Me’. This work is very different and let’s hope that Stern continues to give us more such (though, not, of course, more of the same).
The director, Henry Alex Rubin, has a respectable resume as well – decent commercials, appropriate awards, and, more importantly, hands-on experience with his mentor, James Mangold (known for ‘Walk the Line’ and ‘Girl, Interrupted’).
Let us now turn to the cast. There are plenty of highly-regarded names here: Jason Bateman (whose wide range continues to impress), Hope Davis (who could have done a lot more but was still luminous in every frame she showed up in), Alexander Skarsgård (who manages that balance between despair and rage better than anyone else I’ve seen do recently), Paula Patton, Frank Grillo, Andrea Riseborough (who I hadn’t really paid much attention to till this movie even though she’s done some really good work over in the UK), Michael Nyqvist and more. The younger cast is also well-pedigreed and gives nuanced, riveting performances: Max Thieriot, Jonah Bobo, Colin Ford, Aviad Bernstein et al. Oh, and, yes, Marc Jacobs, the fashion designer, has a small cameo towards the end. And, there’s not much to say about it, given the limited screen time.
In terms of scene composition and cinematography, there are definitely some of those avant-garde shots that I’m not a huge fan of – you know, that home movie style with window frames, trees or people obstructing views. Yes, this is meant to be natural because, more often than not, that’s what happens in real life. But, it was sometimes overdone and not always necessary. For example, a scene where a father confronts the two school-kids about their Facebook messaging did not really have to be shot from outside the house, through the window or, at least, I didn’t see the need for it when the related scenes just before and after it were shot normally inside the house.
I really like what they did with the climactic end scenes in taking us back and forth across the three stories. That was both good storytelling and good editing. This last part, if one has not accepted the stories, themes and premises, might seem melodramatic. I thought it was just right, including the handful of brief slow motion shots. All the tension, emotions, anxiety of the major characters is released – well, sort of (I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it).
So, a big thumbs up to this movie. If you’re looking forward to Jonze’s ‘Her’, I recommend watching this first. And, if this theme of the “side-effects of technology” intrigues you, try the excellent UK TV series, ‘Black Mirror‘.
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And, no, this is not the ‘Crash’ for the internet world. Please. Why does every dramatic multi-storyline, ensemble cast since 2004 have to be equated to it? Don’t get me wrong, ‘Crash’ was ground-breaking. But, the main difference here is that victims vs offenders are very clearly delineated, which was not the case with ‘Crash’. So, people, let’s move on and let movies like ‘Disconnect’ stand, or fall, on their own merit.
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