Sunday, October 31, 2010

Quick Look: MY SOUL TO TAKE

My Soul to Take is a low-impact genre exercise written and directed by Wes Craven. With the story of a dead schizophrenic serial killer who may or may not have returned from the dead after sixteen years just to kill a group of high schoolers, Craven’s offering up leftovers from his greatest accomplishments. It’s a little Nightmare on Elm Street here, a little Scream there. I had a good time. It’s a fairly shaggy slasher picture, but it’s sort of charming in its steady, almost anachronistic style and its straight-faced use of red herrings and obvious twisty horror plotting makes it a bit of an earnest, unselfconscious throwback. The killer’s prey is a carefully diverse group of teenagers (all in their twenties, of course.) There’s a jock (Nick Lashaway), popular girls (Emily Meade and Paulina Olszynski), an Evangelical Christian (Zena Grey), a geek (John Magaro), and a blind kid (Denzel Whitaker). Our main point of entry into the story, which is partly an unfocused coming-of-age story, is a troubled teen played by Max Thieriot, who handles quite well a part that calls for a blend of high emotion and low pop-psychological semi-supernatural oddness. He’s given several moments that could very well have become accidental camp in lesser hands. The cast has some nice banter mixed in with some real clunkers, like a failed bon mot from the Christian girl suggesting relief from the heat of their crisis with some “prayer conditioning.” But above all, Craven’s film works in its erratic, loopy way as a look at a community that is literally haunted by memories of sudden and scarring violence. Its high point comes not from a particularly frightening scare or a squeamishly gross gash of gore, but instead from a scene that finds a brother and a sister, both marked by the town’s killings of sixteen years prior, smashing apart the last relics of their tainted memories.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

True Stories: NOWHERE BOY and CONVICTION

When making a film based on a true story the easiest and biggest problem is failing to find the compelling story within the facts. Especially when dealing with a figure like John Lennon, the temptation to go sprawling into unfocused hagiography must look pretty appealing. In Nowhere Boy, director Sam Taylor-Wood and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh wisely focus on the coming-of-age years in which Lennon was an older teenager, forging his identity and falling in love with rock and roll while experiencing some turbulent family conflict. The film is nothing spectacular. It’s awfully conventional and sometimes falls into biopic pitfalls, like including scenes that only resonate for viewers already aware of the history being told, but the nice period detail and fine acting really carry the picture.

Aaron Johnson, last seen as the lead in Kick-Ass, capably channels Lennon’s teen angst while showing hints of his developing musical talent. In the film, Lennon is torn between the maternal love of two women, his mother (Anne-Marie Duff) and the aunt who raised him (Kristin Scott Thomas). While Greenhalgh’s screenplay can get a bit too melodramatic at times, Wood’s unmemorable direction tends to balance it out so the family drama mostly works on the strength of the performers. The great Kristin Scott Thomas, most of all, delivers an excellent performance, inhabiting a strict, stiff-lipped, matter-of-fact woman who seems to take bad news all too well. Her barriers are strong, but it’s easy to see the strong emotions behind her sad eyes and pursed lips.

Running parallel to the family plot is Lennon’s increasing musical ambitions that give the movie its drive and pulse. I particularly enjoyed the scenes between Lennon and McCartney (Thomas Sangster), though they are imbued with the kind of vague weight that would easily puzzle those not already familiar with who these characters become. But who doesn’t know Lennon and McCartney? When the film ends, Lennon goes off to Germany to play some gigs with a new band. His aunt can’t remember the name.

This is a film that contains not one measure of The Beatles music, ending with Lennon on the precipice of ubiquity. It’s a film with young men stumbling towards the limelight, but when the credits roll it’s still nothing but a glint in their eyes. This is a solid film that remains tightly focused on a short period of time, a factor that’s key to its modest success and to its slight feeling of incompleteness.

Also based on true events is Conviction, which is a film that has no difficulty finding a narrative through-line. This is not a biopic. This is a legal drama about Kenny Waters, a wrongly convicted man (Sam Rockwell) who is imprisoned for years. No scene goes by without relating directly to the core plot. We get some flashbacks that feature childhood troublemaking with his sister, Betty Anne. The two kids, who lived with a neglectful mother and subsequently in a handful of foster homes, would break into houses to pretend they had a normal life. They would also stand up for each other, fighting ferociously and determinedly to right wrongs perceived to have been done to them. So of course, when Kenny gets life without parole for a crime he didn’t commit, Betty Anne springs into action. She gets her G.E.D. and then goes to law school, hoping to become a lawyer and argue on his behalf.

Rather than letting the story just speak for itself, veteran television director Tony Goldwyn, working from a script by Pamela Gray, spells out the inspiration we should all be feeling by indulging mawkish dialogue and pouring over nearly every scene an insistently sentimental piano score. Hilary Swank, as Betty Anne, is presented as a heroine of the Pyrrhic victory. With the case, she makes a little progress and gets pushed back a little further from her goal with regularity. In her personal life her single-minded pursuit of justice plays a part in her divorce and in her strained relationships. Swank puts on a distracting accent and appears to be perpetually on the brink of tears. I suppose it’s what the presentation asks for, but it’s far from her best performance.

These mildly disappointing elements don’t quite manage to fully distract from the inherent interest the story supplies. When the film works, it’s not always as an inspiring against-all-odds true story, though I am easily won over by a competent courtroom scene. Instead, the film works best as a showcase for character actors. Rockwell brings a humor and vitality to the role despite being limited by the material he has to work with. Smaller roles for the likes of Minnie Driver, Peter Gallagher, Juliette Lewis, and Melissa Leo are even better: total bite-sized delights. Driver has some genuinely fun one-liners, Gallagher is always a welcome presence, Lewis chews some scenery and Leo gets to deliver a nice bit of menace as a small-town cop.

Conviction is a film of good intentions, but it’s mostly one-note and one-dimensional. The tone and style is all TV-movie-of-the-week with a dull creakiness to its predictability. If it weren’t for the fine acting from the supporting cast, it would be easy to write it off entirely while urging those interested in the facts of the case to put Google to good use. As it stands, it’s a just-barely serviceable drama. It eagerly and unrelentingly hits its marks, but it doesn’t do much more than that.

Friday, October 22, 2010

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2: Same as the First, a Little Bit Louder and a Little Bit Worse

Last year’s Paranormal Activity, from writer-director Oren Peli, was scary, but it also got under the skin. It was creepy with its slow building dread and its escalating freak-outs. Its simplicity was its greatest virtue. It was no more than a gimmick, but it was a surprisingly effective gimmick. It was also produced cheaply and made hundreds of millions of dollars. Thus we have the inevitable Paranormal Activity 2, a quickly produced combination prequel and sequel directed by Tod Williams and written by Michael R. Perry.

If you saw the first movie, you will remember that it focused on Katie and Micah (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat), a young couple that turned on a video camera to capture proof that things were going bump in the night. The new film follows a different and expanded cast of characters in the house that belongs to Katie’s sister (Sprague Grayden), who has a one-year-old son with her husband (Brian Boland). Also in the house are her stepdaughter (Molly Ephraim) and a maid (Vivis Cortez). The movie barely starts before the maid knows that an evil spirit haunts the house. She must be related to the security guard from Devil who knew all about spotting demons from the most innocuous of signs. Or maybe she was just paying attention to the dog, for, as any horror fan knows, it always means trouble when a dog barks at nothing.

The film plays like a dull echo of its predecessor. Once again this is “found footage,” though this time the source is a handful of security cameras placed strategically around the house after a real-world break-in that gets the family spooked. The first film’s single camera provided much better scares by playing with our fixed viewpoint and teasing us with what we couldn’t see and what we could barely hear. In this film, the editing is more pronounced, bouncing between different angles trying to capture the full extent of the flickering lights, the clattering pans and the creaking doors. It’s just not as scary that way, though adding a baby to the mix immediately enhances the dread.

The cast is up to the task of getting gradually more and more freaked out. It’s not boring to watch them go from denial to suspicion to rattled jumpiness. What is boring is the predictability of the scares, which crop up far too infrequently. There’s no sense of building menace. The film goes straight from weird, but mostly explainable, occurrences to the full manifestation of paranormal supernatural horror. By the time of the scariest moment of the film, a moment of genuine chills nearly two-thirds of the way through the runtime, I found myself eager to see how the filmmakers were going to top themselves. They didn’t.

It’s certainly a good effort. The film is true to what made the first film so successful. The characters seem more or less real. The use of silence and stillness is still appealing. It’s unnerving to watch a shadowy image of a dark room waiting, just waiting, for that other shoe to drop. Too often, nothing happens or, even worse, a Very Loud Noise smashes against the soundtrack. This is a horror movie that managed to startle me a handful of times, but it never truly unnerved me the way it should have.

Rage Against the Dying of the Light: NEVER LET ME GO

Screenwriter Alex Garland’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s wonderful novel Never Let Me Go is a literate, moving screenplay that derives as much of its power from the pauses between the lines as it does from what characters say. The story of three young children growing up in an imposing, strict, orderly boarding school tucked away in the British countryside has a great deal of power and mystery. The rules are strict for a very specific reason. The secret behind these circumstances is pure science fiction, but this is not a film of blinking doo-dads, slimy creatures or flurries of jargon. This is a film that considers its subject deeply and seriously. There are great depths of emotion here, hidden just beneath the calm rhythms and hushed tones.

Picking up on the spare, suggestive emotionality of the writing, director Mark Romanek, last seen directing 2002’s One Hour Photo, creates a chilled, artful mood that feels patient and foreboding. This is a film filled with beautiful dread and calm menace. This is a deliberate film with not a single wasted shot. It’s a sort of zen sci-fi, with compositions and words so finely tuned and chosen that it becomes a film of intricate beauty, an exquisitely structured and affecting piece of mood and style.

When we first see the school, Hailsham, it appears as an imposing brick-and-stone structure set in the middle of a clearing. Within its walls are hundreds of seemingly typical children who are eerily composed and disquieting in their poise. They have the bearings of ones who have been carefully trained, skillfully regimented. This is, after all, a prep school prepping the kids for a very specific purpose. Presiding over the school is the regal headmistress (Charlotte Rampling) who knows more than she tells.

Still, when we meet young Cathy (Izzy Meikle-Small) and Ruth (Ella Purnell) they seem to be very normal preteen girls. They discuss horses and gossip about their classmates. Cathy has a crush on Tommy (Charlie Rowe), a misfit who is emotional and creative, but awfully insecure. These are children who, despite their appearance of maturity, are quite na├»ve and stunted. We don’t entirely comprehend the rules that govern their lives at Hailsham, but then neither do they. But still, this school is all they’ve ever known. Even when a well-meaning new teacher (Sally Hawkins), wrestling with her conscience, tells the students the true nature of their futures, they don’t quite know what to make of it.

When we catch up with the kids some years later, in their late teens, they are still grappling with their fates, struggling to make sense of their place in the world. Ruth and Tommy, having grown up to be Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield, seem, at first glance, content to live in the moment, covering up their knowledge with their youthful optimism and cautious exploration of the adult world. Cathy (now the luminous Carey Mulligan) finds her future more unsettling. She’s lonelier than her friends, more serious. Though she doesn’t ever really open up to those around her, emotions and urges are powerfully stirring within her. She’s quietly accepting her lot in life, but she’s hardly happy.

Mulligan’s brilliant performance is a quiet one filled with meaningful looks and the smallest of facial expressions. It matches the deliberate tone of the filmmaking in the way the sparest, most economical gesture can suggest so much. This is a film of quiet and solitude, of uncomfortable facts and sad realizations. This is a film that is concerned with matters of life and death. But there are no hysterics. There is little sentimentality. This is a film of grace and beauty that is serenely overwhelming.

Romanek’s work here is gripping, emotional filmmaking. It’s melodrama stripped of embellishment. It’s sci-fi in name only, stripped of its standard accoutrements. It’s a film that’s both a startling, small-scale exploration of scientific ethics and a beautiful story of unrequited love. It’s a study of love and mortality that grows deeper and lovelier with each passing scene. It’s subtle power sneaks up and overpowers. The surface beauty and the finely crafted performances are commanding, but the depths of the feelings beneath them are even more surprising, nuanced and devastating. There’s an awful yearning at the center of the film, a sense of a horrible void in these characters’ lives that can never be filled.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Girl Next Door: LET ME IN

The 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In was one of my absolute favorite films of that year. It’s also one of, if not the, finest horror film of the last ten years. It’s a perfect shiver of mood and tension. I certainly wasn’t approaching Let Me In, the Americanized remake, with anything resembling anticipation. The only thing that got me in the theater was my sense of curiosity. Now that I’ve seen it, I can’t say it’s necessary. After all, the original still exists and is still superior. What surprised me, though, is how, after an early adjusting period in which I was consciously comparing it to its predecessor, the film works on its own terms. If you’re going to remake a masterpiece, you might as well try for a masterpiece yourself. In this case, the remake crew very nearly got there.

Retaining most of the icy dread and hushed tones, writer-director Matt Reeves (of the underrated Cloverfield) pulls off a nifty feat of cultural transposition. Instead of harsh Swedish winter, the story now takes place in a chilly 1980’s winter in a small high-altitude New Mexico town. In Reeves’s telling, the setting becomes a harsh and homey landscape dotted with Regan-era iconography. Kodi Smit-McPhee is Owen, an intensely bullied, quiet, sullen 12-year-old. He’s pale and thin, painfully vulnerable. He’s feeling particularly disjointed because of his parent’s divorce. His mother (Cara Buono), mostly unseen, has become a convert of the right-wing Moral Majority. The cramped, dark apartment she shares with her son is covered with Christian iconography and echoes with the sounds of televangelists.

Owen imagines violent acts, seemingly inspired by his daily abuse at the hands of his peers and filtered through 80’s-era slasher flicks. Early in the film he takes a large knife from the kitchen and uses it in his playing. Brandishing the impromptu weapon while standing before his bedroom mirror with a Halloween mask covering his face, he asks his hypothetical victim “Are you scared?” Soon enough, real violence comes to town. A local teen goes missing and is found dead. The local policeman (Elias Koteas) warns that there is a murderer on the loose.

Owen is spying on the neighbors across the courtyard – echoes of Rear Window – when he sees new tenants moving in. They make a stark pair, a haunted, bespectacled middle-aged man (Richard Jenkins) and a pallid 12-year-old girl (Chloe Grace Moretz). The man disappears some nights seemingly intent on performing unknown tasks under cover of darkness. The girl, though, is quiet and brooding. She has dark eyes and high cheekbones; an eerie ageless sheen sits on her colorless, vampiric skin. She walks barefoot through the snow. Owen finds her intriguing.

Reeves skillfully manipulates tone while drawing excellent, evocative performances out of these very talented young actors. The hesitant friendship that develops between the two of them is palpably sweet yet tinged with danger. It can be moving and disturbing in the same instant. The tricky tone is handled impressively with great maturity and care. This is a vampire movie that never once stoops to easy explanations or belabored back-story. This is a hushed, creepy film that moves hairs on the back of the neck with impeccable sound design and an evocative Michael Giacchino score. It has dark, warm interior spaces of classrooms and apartments juxtaposed with the dry crunch of snow and the damp chill of a public pool. The environment is expertly rendered, the stage beautifully set for the sequences of artfully displayed violence.

In an attempt to avoid merely copying the great moments of horror and gore from the original film, the remake, which contains some small plot variation in addition to its continental shift, sometimes goes for quick, choppy terror of the modern Hollywood variety, complete with dubious CGI. I was much impressed, however, with moments of startling originality that Reeves was able to find. A mid-film murder gone wrong culminates in a car crash that unfolds in one long horrifying take, the camera locked down in the backseat as the car gets smashed and flipped as it skids off the road. Instead of going big and flashy, Reeves keeps things visceral but suggestive, a technique that serves the film well here and in other well-staged scenes.

Let Me In is like a very good cover of a great song. It’s memorable and worthwhile on its own. It doesn’t replace or overshadow the original version. It plays the same melody, but finds different ways to get there with little additions, small subtractions, and effective variations and shifts in emphasis. Audiences who walk in unaware of the film’s inspiration will find a compelling, original narrative. Audiences who walk in loving the original will find a solid new version of a recent favorite.

UPDATE: In the weeks after I saw the film I grew to love it even more. I am now of the opinion that this is the rare remake that is every bit as good as the original.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Status Update: CATFISH

Catfish is like one of those Magic Eye pictures that require you to stare at a meaningless pattern until the real picture hidden within pops out. The film opens with a lengthy introduction to Nev Schulman, a professional photographer living in New York City. One day he gets a message from a little girl in Michigan who asks for permission to paint one of his published pictures. He agrees and a few days later he receives a painting in the mail. He soon strikes up an online friendship with the girl, her mother, her father, her brother, and her stepsister. He calls them the Facebook family, since that’s the only way he knows them.

The stepsister is a gorgeous dancer, an animal-lover, a talented singer, and an artist. He starts an online flirtation with her. She has a crush on him. Does it develop into a romance? You could say that. Nev’s brother, Ariel Schulman, and their colleague Henry Joost decide to film this developing relationship, thinking that it will make a good documentary.

If the film had continued along their original idea, this would be a terrible movie. As it is, the first half of the film is of mild interest. The three twenty-something guys are more or less watchable. After all, they’re constantly smiling. The concept of getting in touch with complete strangers and developing relationships with them has some soft appeal and is adequately presented. This is material that would make a perfectly likable human-interest story that would take up all of ten minutes on the nightly news.

As fate would have it, the guys lucked into having great material for a documentary when they decided to drive to Michigan and meet these people in person. It’s a shame that the advertising campaign for Catfish prepares the audience for a thriller with a secret. True, the film is best seen without any knowledge of the second half, but it’s not scary or frightening. This is no snuff film or sideshow freakout. This is, above all, a study in empathy. The surprise is not shocking, nor is it even totally surprising. People on the Internet are not always honest in representing their identities? I, for one, am not taken aback by that concept.

What they find is tenderly depicted with great sympathy for the real people involved. What these guys discover upon meeting the flesh-and-blood versions of the profile pictures goes much deeper than merely reconciling the truth with what they expected. This is not a movie about three New Yorkers who go to rural Michigan and feel betrayed. It’s better than that.

There’s little condescension to be found in the film’s second half. The directors wisely present the “secret” with sympathy and care, making the film less about what they find than about whom they find. What makes these people do what they do and say what they say? What is the nature of art and reality, fiction and fantasy? These aren’t easy questions to answer, and the filmmakers don’t try to answer them. Instead, they ask them in compelling ways. While the first half errs on the side of navel-gazing, the second half is memorable and affecting.

Medically Accurate: THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE

Once you know the sick details of The Human Centipede, you can’t totally forget them. Like it or not it gets stuck in your brain. (I won’t get too specific here.) Its basic concept is a work of some kind of depraved ingenuity; it might even be some kind of twisted horror genius. All I know is that I don’t want to see it again to find out.

Dutch filmmaker Tom Six wrote and directed this horror movie that exists only to disgust and provoke. Dieter Laser plays Dr. Heiter, a German surgeon who gets a swell idea for a science project to take up in his spare time. He wants to sew three people together. You read that right. In his day job, he specializes in separating conjoined twins. Now he wants to see if he can reverse the process and create, you guessed it, a human centipede. (I’ll leave out the details in order to allow your lunch to remain in your stomach.)

Plot is virtually nonexistent. Dimensional characters? Forget about it. Is it stylish? It’s only at a level of basic competency. But, I have to admit, this movie wants to shock and it gets there. It’s a gimmick-driven horror movie, like something a more grotesque William Castle would have dreamed up. Though, to be fair to Mr. Castle, he would have placed in the lobby a large rattling cage covered with a sheet to dare people into the theater to witness the madness.

Madness is another apt description for the film. When the earnestly wooden Ashley C. Williams and Ashlynn Yennie, playing young Americans vacationing in Germany, get trapped in Dr. Heiter’s house, we know how this is going to end. Even if you were watching unaware of the forthcoming centipede, you would know immediately these girls will not meet a pleasant end. Heiter moves stiffly and speaks ominously. He’s like a subdued Klaus Kinski mixed with a gaunt Christopher Walken. At one point he bulges out his eyes and intones, “I don’t like humans.” I could tell.

Soon enough, Akihiro Kitamura shows up to be the third part of the centipede and the movie can get down to its repulsive business. Heiter stands before his captives and delivers his explanation for the procedure in graphic detail. (The overhead projector is a nice touch.) It’s funny in a giggly gross kind of way. Then we see squirm-inducing glimpses of the surgery. And then, well, I’ll let the braver among us see for themselves rather than allowing myself to relive (spoiling?) any further uncomfortableness.

This is the kind of movie that pushes limits of audience endurance just for the sake of pushing limits though, to my relief, it uses suggestion a bit more than showing. Every time I thought it had reached a new low, it sank further. To a certain kind of horror fan, that will be enough. It’s certainly an original concept – this isn’t yet another slasher picture – and it sometimes manipulates medical phobias quite effectively, even though it’s never scary or moody. It’s just preposterously disgusting.

If you really want to go see a movie about an unbelievably gross medical procedure, you’ll get what you want. I kind of have to admire it on some level. It’s one-of-a-kind. But at the same time, I have to wonder why we need even one of this kind. The film comes with the subtitle “The First Sequence,” carrying the threat of a sequel. Tom Six is working on that very film which he promises will combine 12 people into an even larger more unbearable grotesquerie. I think I’ll skip that one.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Billion Dollar Baby: THE SOCIAL NETWORK

Even if The Social Network weren’t a great film, it would still be worth seeing. David Fincher is one of our greatest working directors. He is consistently turning out interesting films with complex, mature themes and striking images that are digitally tweaked so subtly yet persistently that it builds a cohesive, meticulous visual mastery into every shot. He makes films that linger. When he makes a great film, he uses the lingering to astonishing effect. His last film was 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a film of wonderful beauty and emotion, but nothing more than merely very good. His last great film was 2007’s Zodiac, his masterpiece. His newest great film is The Social Network. It’s not quite as good as a masterpiece, but it’s awfully close.

The film is structured around two depositions for two simultaneous lawsuits filed against Mark Zuckerberg, the C.E.O. of Facebook, the website with 500 million users who share photos, links and all the latest news and gossip about their lives. (There’s a good chance that, like me, most people reading this are among them). One lawsuit is filed by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer, in a seamless digitally-enhanced dual role), two Harvard rowers who approached their classmate Zuckerberg with an idea to make a dating site exclusively for Harvard students. They think he could help them because Zuckerberg had recently gained notoriety on campus by crashing the university’s servers in mere hours when he created a website that allowed users to rank students by attractiveness. In the lawsuit, the Winklevoss twins allege that Zuckerberg stole their basic idea and used it, in 2003, to create Facebook. Despite good cause for their alarm they end up looking like the Salieri of the situation.

The other lawsuit is from Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), Zuckerberg’s best friend. He put up the initial money for Facebook, helped develop the idea and served as co-founder and C.F.O. only to be allegedly forced out of the company with no financial compensation. Needless to say, the two men aren’t friends anymore. All of the principal players were in their late-teens and early-twenties when this all began, when suddenly the world of Harvard became the business world. These were men who found (or lost, or missed) huge success at a very young age. It’s not hard to believe that they were unprepared for what happened.

Aaron Sorkin’s electric screenplay dances with clarity through the facts and exaggerations of the cases, shifting points of view, views of truth, and between depositions to flesh out the story. It’s impossible to know if we have the whole truth, or even if there could ever be such a thing in this case. But it’s clear that the film gets at emotional truths. As Mark Zuckerberg, Jesse Eisenberg gives a marvelous performance as a young, socially insecure college student, quick with computers and bad with girls. The opening scene features him getting dumped by his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) who finds herself fed up with the intensity of Zuckerberg’s rapid-fire conversational style that is often brusque and confrontational. “You think girls don’t like you because you’re nerdy,” she tells him, helpfully informing him that it’s actually his personality that’s off-putting.

The film builds a picture of Zuckerberg as something of a computer genius. He had a great concept, but almost stumbled into success. It caught on because of the simple, attractive concept. Facebook took the basic way people used the web – people like to email, comment, Google old friends – and created a virtual social environment. The sad irony is that it took someone already socially awkward alienating his friends and allies to start a service meant to bring people together.

This a film intensely focused on this small, contentious piece of recent times. It’s a riotous, detailed look at an Internet startup and an exploration of the rapidly shifting ramifications of online behavior, two topics we are forced to confront on a daily basis. As such, it feels vibrant, rich with the smell of fresh history. Sorkin’s script and Fincher’s absolutely swoon-worthy formalist perfection make this film feel instantly timeless as well. There’s a sweeping, time-capturing feeling to it, a sense of a small-scale epic that gathers up various strands of current thought and uses them to drive forward a narrative that takes on the force of a parable and the detail of a deposition. It’s the story of a man who got rich quick and the problems it caused him.

Though the details differ from case to case, sudden riches are also the story of many web companies. It’s not about problems exclusive to Facebook. The film has a cameo appearance by Bill Gates (Steve Sires), seen delivering a lecture to an audience of Harvard students. There’s also an integral supporting role for Sean Parker, the troubled founder of the equally troubled mp3-sharing site Napster, among other ventures. Justin Timberlake plays him in a great, slick whirlwind of a performance. As the Facebook begins to roll out to a few campuses across the country, he sees an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the next great thing.

Parker brings a flurry of business contacts and the possibility for attention of investors. He also brings unpredictability and garrulousness that begins to drive a wedge between the co-founders. Timberlake has a great scene opposite Eisenberg set in a nightclub with a thumping bass beat pounding away at the film’s soundtrack, nearly drowning out their conversation. He talks about the earnings potential of Facebook in such persuasive, and slightly sinister, terms that the scene feels almost like a seduction. The bass pounding, Timberlake is lit solely by the slowly shifting dark neon glow of the club, causing his face to deepen with an ominous, deep multihued smolder.

It’s fitting, though, that in the end, a film about the creation of Facebook is a film about relationship statuses. After all, that’s what Facebook was created for. The Social Network is about friends and acquaintances and what people decide to share with them. It’s about one young man with an idea. It’s about people who helped him, and people he treated badly. It’s even about genius and the age-old tension between brilliance and luck. Fincher crafts a film of sustained visual excellence at the highest level of filmmaking and, with Sorkin’s excellent writing and a cast that’s across-the-board excellent, tells a compelling procedural wrapped around a business thriller and a social satire. And within all that is a moving drama about the thin lines of respect between friends and colleagues. This is one of the year’s best films.
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