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Intro: Hi! We’re Mark and Nitish, and we (like most of you we hope) are practicing social distancing to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. We recognize that this is a super stressful time for a lot of people, and that many of you are being harmed by the virus in one way or another. So, we thought we’d do something that would hopefully lighten the mood. We are going to be watching and reviewing movies available on streaming platforms. Our column will be published (roughly) every Wednesday. We hope that you can watch along, send us your thoughts, and recommend movies that you like or want us to watch. Best of luck to all of you in these trying times!
“Train to Busan” (Released in 2016; watched by us on May 18, 2020)
A Korean zombie film by Yeon Sang-ho. We watched it on Netflix!
I imagine, dear reader, that if you are anything like us, you are less picky than usual when picking a movie for quarantine. We have to get our minds off the doom and gloom somehow. Though, perhaps we might think twice right now when a zombie movie comes up.
Sure, a zombie contagion is not exactly the same as the coronavirus … for starters, the former is way more interesting. But as I watched “Train to Busan,” I could not shake the uncomfortable feeling that the undead uprising — despite its many fictional incarnations — can feel shockingly possible when you are in the midst of your own outbreak. Yet, even outside the panic room, zombie stories usually are not my cup of tea. Despite these extraneous circumstances, however, “Train to Busan” stands out to me as an excellent movie.
An unusual disease has spread throughout South Korea, in which the infected go into an animalistic state and spread the infection by biting into the nearest living creature. Yes, this strikes everybody as quite familiar — the zombie has arrived baby! “Train to Busan” focuses on a train headed towards the quarantined city Busan. In particular, we follow a wide cast of characters, such as a businessman and his distant little daughter, a husband and his pregnant wife, a pair of high school sweethearts, a homeless man, and an almost cartoonishly evil COO. The zombies eventually infiltrate the train and spread the contagion (as they tend to do), and our characters must survive until they arrive at their final destination.
While “Train to Busan” does not do anything particularly new with the zombie trope, I would argue it doesn’t need to when it does the trope so solidly. The rules of how these creatures work are conveyed to the audience seamlessly and wordlessly, allowing the audience to enjoy a creative assortment of perils without being bogged down by exposition. For instance, the zombies will attack the first thing they see — but if their vision is disrupted, they will wander aimlessly, or simply attack the first thing they hear. All of this takes only a total of about 30 seconds to establish, when one of the passengers covers the glass cart doors with newspapers. By setting this up earlier, we get to focus instead on cool tricks and smart plays when the train goes through a series of tunnels. A modern locomotive could easily become a very boring setting (insert reference to “Snowpiercer” here) but in this movie, so much is done with an otherwise mundane setting. Not only is this the ultimate zombie movie — I dare say this is the ultimate train movie.
Not to mention, these creatures are downright horrifying! The way the actors twitch, the way their appearance slowly mutates, and the way they move like rabid rag dolls — it’s all so unsettling, without relying completely on gore. Our forgotten heroes of filmmaking — the cast of background actors, the makeup artists, the sound effects team — all deserve massive kudos especially for bringing this potentially tired concept to life once again.
Kudos to them, too, for providing me with nightmares for the next few days. I really appreciate it.
But a zombie movie in particular is nothing without the human characters in them. And there is an argument to be made that this is where the film falls short. “Train to Busan” focuses on a wide array of characters, which can often feel two-dimensional. The heel, COO and professional puppy kicker Yon-suk, can especially get absurdly over-the-top as he constantly throws people into zombies. It gets ridiculously camp at points, like I’m watching a speed-runner play a game of “Grand Theft Auto.” Yet I would be doing a disservice to the reader if I was to ignore the arcs that worked. Specifically, I refer to the progression of the protagonist, businessman Seok-woo.
At the beginning of the film, he is a distant father and a selfish bureaucrat who is more than willing to abandon others in order to get himself and his daughter out safely. Yet by the movie’s end, he becomes a much more brave and loving figure — I truly wished for a happy ending for this man. This is represented organically by his relationship with Sang-hwa, the gruff and working-class husband to our obligatory pregnant woman (I feel like there is always one pregnant woman in a disaster movie). While they clearly loathe each other at the start and are more than willing to let each other die, they end up teaming up and developing a bond. Their hostile snapping at one another becomes genuinely fun — if not still a touch mean-spirited — banter.
Things like this distinguish “Train to Busan.” Our characters are not mere meat puppets waiting to get shredded by the spooky scaries. They are characters I wanted to see safe by the end of the movie — even if there is not a lot of depth to them. I don’t need a pool to be deep to still have fun inside of it. All this is to say, “Train to Busan” is a gripping watch from beginning to end and a definite recommendation.
“Train to Busan” is our second South Korean train film, and folks, I like this one a lot more. “Train to Busan” features a group of humans trying to escape a very rapidly growing zombie epidemic on, you guessed it, a train! It has everything that you’d expect from a zombie movie: pregnant woman running away, small child running away, “are the real monsters the humans” guys running away, distant father redeeming himself by (what is frankly the bare minimum) saving his child from a grisly death, etc.
And it all works! “Train to Busan” is sharply paced, exciting, and it has a great subplot. It isn’t super narratively ambitious, and it’s not going to be blowing anybody’s minds. But it’s just a standard, fun zombie flick. I sort of want to describe it as feel-good (in a dark, everybody is dying way), but Mark threw a hissy fit the last time I described a movie as feel-good, so I won’t. There’s a ridiculously high body count for sure, and plenty of sad death scenes to boot, but “Train to Busan” features plenty of heroic sacrifice and (very mild spoiler; seriously, you’ll see this coming like three seconds in) the kid gets out in the end. I honestly don’t have anything to criticize about the movie. I agree with Mark that it’s not particularly “deep,” but it isn’t “shallow” either. So instead, I’ll talk about stuff that I liked.
First, I want to commend Yeon Sang-ho (the director) on his success at setting up the emotional stakes of the movie. It’s simple, but effective. There’s a great scene early on where Seok-woo (played by Gong Yoo) asks his assistant what kids are into so that he can buy a quick gift for his daughter. He comes home, delivers the gift, and it’s a Wii! Except he already bought her the exact model for Children’s Day earlier that year. Seok-woo is trying, but not very effectively. We meet the rest of our cast a little more quickly, but their introductions are intelligently put together. Introductions in movies like these are mostly there to give the viewer a little more punch when someone dies, to prevent them from being a nameless death. And the movie definitely gives us enough. There is even a pretty healthy assortment of extras who are very quickly but effectively characterized in the few frames they’re on, like various attendants and the conductor.
The next thing that I really enjoyed about this movie is the pacing. Yeon Sang-ho is very effective at changing the scenery frequently to make sure that we never get too bored about any particular piece of the movie. There are not-so infrequent stops to change the strategic (?) situation of the cast. At some points, they’re frantically closing doors trying to relegate the zombies to closed off cabins. But as the train stops and they try to catch a break, they’re again surrounded and they have to make their way back onto the train. The zombies are bad in the darkness, easily distracted by sound. Our heroes use their phones to great effect. They can’t open door handles, but with enough pressure, they can break glass. They’re forced to use neckties to blockade. There’s never anything mind-blowing, no mind-blowing innovation that our characters make in zombie-fighting in “Train to Busan” that needs to be put on the desk of the SecDef, but Yeon Sang-ho makes effective use of a few pretty basic rules about zombies to introduce something new every few minutes. This really helps prevent fatigue in watching it.
Yeon Sang-ho manages to work in some great quiet moments for his cast too. I don’t want to spoil too much, but there are a bunch of strong emotional beats in the movie that rarely feel gratuitous. Oftentimes in survival movies, emotional beats interrupt the action in implausible ways. But that just doesn’t happen here. There are heavy moments in action scenes, but only one or two of them felt too saccharine for a moment where zombies were chasing them.
Finally, I was also impressed by (reasonably sized spoiler) Yeon Sang-ho’s willingness to off main members of the cast. A lot of horror movies have the unfortunate habit of leaving all the characters we like alive, so we don’t feel any real stakes. That isn’t the case here. And I think the movie is a lot better for it. There were a bunch of moments where I was genuinely surprised at who they killed off, and that really helped the narrative stakes.
So in sum, this is just a solid movie. I don’t really have anything to criticize, and it’s a very good horror flick for a Friday night. I highly recommend it.
“The Endless” (Released in 2017; watched by us on May 20, 2020)
A sci-fi horror film by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. We watched it on Netflix!
Frankly, this reader recommendation is one of the bigger surprises throughout this whole marathon.
“The Endless” follows brothers, Justin and Aaron, who are both former members of a group called Camp Arcadia. They both have conflicting feelings about said group: Justin claims Camp Arcadia was a sort of death cult; Aaron remembers it as a friendly commune. Either way, they agreed on one thing … normal life sucks. So Aaron manages to convince Justin to at least give Camp Arcadia a visit, but as their familial relationship gets challenged, so too do they uncover dark, supernatural forces behind their old, low-key culty group.
While indeed dark and spooky, it would be inappropriate to label “The Endless” as a horror movie. Then again, I am not sure what else to call it. This story feels at times like a slow-burning Lovecraftian tale of eldritch abominations and unspeakable, eternal horrors, and at other points this feels like a typical bro movie between two brothers. “The Endless” can be quite funny, but there are concepts and implications here that are quite nightmare-inducing. There is one scene toward the end where our two leads have nearly accepted an atrocious fate, only to then resolve their differences simply because one truly listened to the other — awww! Sincere, mind-bending horror, with Disney Channel-esque lessons and character work. I’ve had a wide array of different reactions here, and I’m not sure what to call the final product.
On one hand, I can see some people claiming that “The Endless” fails to fully commit to either of its two tonal extremes. Perhaps for them they will come out of the experience feeling empty, and I can see that. I wouldn’t call the movie particularly scary, deep, or feel-good. But for me, I will say that I was more invested in this movie than stuff like “The VVitch,” and that is because this relatively bare-bone character work, particularly with the two brothers, is still something. I enjoyed seeing the two interact — they had good chemistry (which fits, considering the two lead actors are also the film’s two directors). That was all I needed to be more invested in the movie’s concept. I suppose in hindsight, I wasn’t asking much of horror movies past.
Then again, it is difficult to call this movie “horror.” It very much feels like its own, unique mesh of genres and styles, which is something I haven’t really seen before. Do pardon me, dear reader, it is difficult to discuss this movie’s most interesting bits without revealing the twist. But I will say that I very much enjoyed the supernatural elements in the second half of the film, and I thought the character and mystery-focused drama in the first half was well written too. I struggle with evaluating how the two come together narratively, but I’ll let it slide.
I knew nothing about “The Endless” coming in, and when the movie — quite paradoxically — ended, I was left pleasantly surprised. This was a unique, modern take on the Lovecraftian story format which I feel inclined to recommend. Though I don’t think this will be in anybody’s top five of the year or anything, I certainly can’t see it truly missing with anybody either.
And behold, for it is I, someone who “The Endless” missed. In fairness to the directors, it was a very near miss. And I honestly wish that I had liked this movie more, but while there were a bunch of really promising elements, the movie ultimately felt like less than the sum of its parts.
“The Endless” starts off with an intriguing premise of two men revisiting their old cult. There’s a fascinating thread there on memory, lies, and the fuzziness of truth as the two brothers (Justin and Aaron) parse through the distant past to try and determine just how culty it was. There’s a ton of material to mine here, but alas, it’s dropped. “The Endless” then transforms into a supernatural, sci-fi horror movie. The central conceit of the film has to do with loops of time — think “Groundhog Day” but way scarier. The directors touch on a ton of stuff about death, immortality, the Sisyphean struggle that is daily life — and again, drop it. This movie has a bit of an identity crisis. We’re shown two quotes at the beginning of the movie, one about Lovecraftian horror and the other about brotherly love. I remember raising my eyebrows. One quote to start a movie is usually too much for me (just make your point in the movie itself jeez), but two? The movie would have to figure out a way to link those two motives. Alas, I don’t think they did.
There were so many moments in this movie where I sat up straight in my chair, put on my thinking cap, and started leafing through my Camus books to try and give you some choice philosophical quotes so that I could talk about some heady philosophical concept. But then they moved on too quickly, and didn’t develop a piece enough. I can kind get what the directors wanted us to see in the movie: there’s an interesting tension between the type of communal life that’s in the cult, even if it’s stuck in a time loop, and the dreariness of the external world. What is the value of death? The value of truth? This is a trolley problem for the ages, a tough, genuine philosophical choice that I was really excited to see them consider.
And then they choose to answer that dilemma with an ending too cheesy for a Disney Channel original movie. Oof. I did not like the ending. They take all the interesting philosophical pieces that they were dealing with and then just throw them out. I was very disappointed.
A last point on this movie — I thought the direction was reasonably competent. But I thought that the acting of the two leads (who by the way, are also the directors, and have the same name as the directors) was not. I hate to be so blunt about it, but their performances were a little wooden and it took me out of the movie a ton. I should say though that I’m reading other reviews of this movie now, and I’m seeing a lot more positive reviews for their performance, so I think that it’s possible that it might just be me.
So what’s my final verdict? I think that the movie is a tonal mishmash, and I think they ruined the ending. But with all that being said, I’m inclined to be quite charitable. I fault this movie for not aptly balancing the myriad themes that it’s trying to tackle, but it’s trying to tackle a heck of a lot. “The Endless” personally didn’t work for me. But I cannot fault the directors’ ambition and creativity, and I’m really glad that they tried. I think you should watch it, in part just to support two indie filmmakers for giving a complex movie a very good shot. I maintain that the movie is unpolished, but I’m genuinely excited for their next one.
“The Social Network” (Released in 2012; watched by us on May 22, 2020)
A biographical drama film by David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin. We watched it on Netflix!
I have been curious about “The Social Network” for a long time now, dear reader. Perhaps I wanted to come to terms with my own alienation and intrigue with the social media landscape. After all, I’ve always seen Facebook as this scary sort of thing, yet I could not imagine a world without it.
I thought, maybe, this movie could provide some context. “The Social Network” follows the founding of everybody’s favorite big brother, specifically the awkward and ambitious Mark Zuckerberg and his lesser known best friend (and Facebook co-founder) Eduardo Saverin. The website starts off as a Harvard exclusive project, but eventually branches off into a worldwide phenomenon. But in his pursuit of success, Zuckerberg begins to make a lot of enemies, and he gets involved in multiple lawsuits — among them, between him and Saverin.
Deep in the back of my head, I believe I wanted to understand my own relationship with Silicon Valley through this origin story. While the movie did not help me answer these questions, it is a stellar production nevertheless. And it has at least taught me that I do not want to be an entrepreneur. This is some intense stuff!
Right when I was beginning to miss being back on campus, “The Social Network” shoves me into the broiest bits of university tech culture and the frat party fever dreams. There are as many backstabbings and furious destructions of property as there are questionable hazings and booze binges — the dark, funhouse-mirror images of college. Fincher and Sorkin’s depiction of Harvard’s campus feels simultaneously authentic yet larger than life. Through the screen, the university becomes this sort of industry cocoon, in which everybody inside melts into a sloppy caterpillar soup as we wait — or, hope — to become something winged and more beautiful in the future. Everything feels as though they are going a little too fast — the perfect breeding ground for Facebook’s founding and the story behind it. Hm … I should clarify, I still miss campus very, very much (especially the a capella groups).
This may feel like a weird thing to harp on … and granted, it is. I have been in a reflective state of mind lately — do allow me to reminisce! But I feel the setting does as much to inform the narrative as the business and entrepreneurs themselves.
The movie is also a very detailed look into business and start-ups. Writer Aaron Sorkin does a marvelous job in conveying the development of Facebook to the audience. It starts off as a humble pet project between two dormmates (well, as humble as a project by megalomaniac Zuckerberg could ever get), only to later become an international, ground-breaking sensation. Each step to me feels clear and believable. But, “The Social Network” also does not ignore the fact that we already know that this social media site will become a big deal. Heck, I will wager that the reason you are reading this article right now is because it is posted somewhere on Facebook. So, it was smart to frame the movie through the lawsuits, providing snapshots not only of the movie’s end (and reminding the audience of where these college students are eventually going to go), but getting us to look twice at the protagonist.
Zuckerberg, too, is a larger-than-life figure, and the movie handles him well. It is neither incredibly demonizing or sympathetic toward the guy. While the audience is let into enough to suggest that there is some good in him (especially in contrast with startup a-hole Sean Parker), it also takes the time to examine the negative consequences of Zuck’s actions, and does not let him off the hook for it. This is less of the typical “American dream, boy with a dream” tale that comes with most entrepreneurs and more of an Icarus tale — even if it ends with Zuck becoming the youngest billionaire in the world. It feels as though he is missing something by the movie’s end … real friends, sincere connections, all lost as a result of him never really growing up. I do not envy Mark Zuckerberg … and that is quite insane, isn’t it!?
That goes to show the brilliance of “The Social Network” and its source material. While the movie is already eight years old (the early 2010s might as well be the Jurassic period in tech) this movie has not aged a day. In fact, I dare say it is more relevant than ever.
“The Social Network” is a crisp, meticulously crafted film. It’s filmed by a legitimately legendary auteur, David Fincher, who is known in the industry for an obsession with crafting the perfect shot. The opening scene of the movie was shot 99 times before Fincher thought it was perfect; Andrew Garfield broke at least a dozen laptops before the shattering of a Macbook was good enough to be included in the final cut. Aaron Sorkin, an equally legendary scriptwriter, turns in what is in my opinion his finest work. As a result of their labors, they have made a perfect movie. I mean it. It’s perfect.
There are so many little pieces to making this movie a success that it’s hard for me to describe them all, but I’ll just touch on a few of them. I’ll start with Fincher. I’ve described his meticulous filming process, and boy does it pay off. Fincher’s direction in this movie is understated; he’s not Cuaron with long, beautiful shots or Tarantino running around like an 8-year-old who just discovered swear words. Shots in this movie are functional, but not pedestrian. His composition is careful, and it keeps the viewer’s eyes focused on where it needs to be. He does this by keeping the shots short, but they never feel rushed or poorly conceived like some of his lesser contemporaries’ movies. Check out this scene from 0:12 onwards: When Andrew Garfield’s Eduardo Saverin moves, Fincher carefully tracks his movement, careful to keep his subject a little bit off-center (check the link out!), to retain our interest. In all the close-ups from the litigation, characters are on one of the thirds. He allows the shots to flow into each other, pulling us to a subject’s point of view and just as easily pulling us to another. Look at the pair of shots at 0:35 and at 0:40; the focus starts at one third, but the eventual focus on the shot is on the other third. When the information he wants to show us changes, he just zooms in. It’s genius direction, and it wasn’t until I picked a scene to analyze that I actually noticed how carefully he put it together. Fincher isn’t so much directing the camera as he is directing his viewer’s eyes. It’s really impressive stuff.
Now for the script. I have to be honest, there are some times that I really, really hate Aaron Sorkin. Watch this scene from the “Newsroom” where a reporter reveals to a captain that Osama bin-Laden is dead, or this scene where a guy gives a speech about how America isn’t the greatest country anymore. Some people really like these scenes, but to me, they expose some of Sorkin’s flaws. Oftentimes, Sorkins’ writing feels like a vehicle for a type of self-adulation, a way to show those who read his scripts or watch his movies just how smart Sorkin is. In a script that Sorkin writes, every character picks the “snarky Hollywood writer sitting in LA who thinks they’re an enlightened political philosopher” dialogue option, every time. So I was expecting to grow tired of “The Social Network” very quickly. But no! Sorkin’s script here is about as restrained as a Sorkin script can get. His trademark fast-talking, faster-thinking writing works really well here as it’s a neat way of characterizing the very arrogant characters who populate this movie. Sorkin struggles sometimes to write likeable characters, but he just doesn’t have to do that here, so he’s free to run wild.
Sorkin’s script here is chaotic, dark and nuanced. This movie is a rich drama of ambition and betrayal, a portrait of a bunch of maladjusted CS majors suddenly finding themselves in the center of the world. There’s an energy to this movie that feels timeless — people have always wanted riches, fame, glory, and they will long after Zuckerberg. But “The Social Network” also feels like an artifact of its times. The tale of a dilettante absent-mindedly becoming the head of a multi-billion dollar media empire that has fundamentally changed the way that we relate to one another feels unfortunately topical in a world where a reality star is president, facing the most profound crisis that this country has faced in generations. There’s a fetishization of disruption that is prescient now.
And it’s this unexpected prescience that makes “The Social Network” one of modern film’s finest achievements. Facebook, the titular social network, has been the staging ground of information attacks and systematized state violence against religious minorities. Look at the date on the second link; Facebook released that report on the night of the 2018 midterm elections, when our eyeballs were elsewhere. And this isn’t just Mark Zuckerberg; look at the CEO of a competing social network, Jack Dorsey. He, to put it lightly, doesn’t know what he’s doing. I’m not going to pretend I know how to tackle the incredibly complicated questions that the leadership of these companies are dealing with. But from what we’ve seen, it seems they’ve put growth first and ethics second, and they’re forced to learn on the fly.
So yeah. This is an amazing film. I think you should all watch it. But if you’re someone involved in the type of work that Zuckerberg is involved in, then you really need to watch this movie. “The Social Network” is a genuine masterpiece, both an impressive movie in its own right, but also a resounding cultural achievement, teaching us about ourselves and about the world we live in.
Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu and Nitish Vaidyanathan at nitishv ‘at’ stanford.edu.