NYFF 2010: The Social Network Press Conference

The first five minutes were cut off due to memory card issues…sorry!

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NYFF 2010: The Social Network

Every great story has an origin—Batman, Spider-man, Jesus Christ, and yes, even Facebook. The Social Networking giant’s beginnings are the subject of David Fincher’s latest cinematic foray, aptly titled The Social Network. While the invention of an online platform sounds like pretty dry pickings in the world of cinema, we are talking about the mind behind Seven (or Se7en—or “Seh Seven En”) and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; this man could make drying paint entertaining. The film is told through an interweaving of court cases and the events they focus on, creating a Rashoman-effect, leaving it to the viewers to decide who’s to blame. It pits big thinkers against small, idea against action, and asks viewers to dig deep for conclusions. There is no denouement, no great moment of climax—the movie is a slow meditation on the repercussions of actions taken by a young entrepreneur. That it feels like everything but—helped along by a cast of hilarious assholes and a dramatic clip—is a testament to Fincher’s genius.

I wish my mom's basement was this cool.

In early 2004 Mark Zuckerberg released Facebook unto the world, a social networking site that would one day cost companies thousands in stolen work-time, students countless hours of failed study sessions, and the creator himself millions in civil claims drama. But like anyone who’s ever created something meaningful to society—Thomas Edison, The Wright Brothers, nearly every classical author—Zuckerberg didn’t independently “invent” Facebook. Instead, the idea was built from a germ planted by the Winklevoss twins, a pair of Harvard Aryan Superman.  The twins approach Mark after reading a story in “The Crimson” (Harvard’s newspaper) about a prank he pulled— hacking all of Harvard’s Finals Clubs’ “facebook” websites, downloading their photos, then uploading them to a site called “Facemash”, where users could choose the more attractive of two students. Impressed with his nerd prowess, the twins commission Mark to build a crappy Friendster knockoff, believing people will be attracted by the Harvard.edu requirement of the site. Already burnt by Harvard’s exclusive clubs, he instead creates “TheFacebook,” a site the entire web-savvy world now knows and loves for feelings of inclusion and friendliness. Outraged, the Winklevosses call up their lawyer daddy and file suit against Zuckerberg.

The web entrepreneur’s second case comes from lifelong friend and Facebook “CFO” Eduardo Saverin. After the site launches at Stanford and reaches Napster-creator Sean Parker, Saverin falls behind, refusing the move out to California in the name of an unpaid New York City internship. Meanwhile, Parker forms a relationship with Mark, and through a few marketing maneuvers establishes himself as the company’s true Chief Financial Officer in all but name only. While Eduardo remains in The Big Apple, the California duo hatch a scheme to cheat him out of his company shares—a plot that leads to the eventual dissolution of Mark’s closest friendship.   As Facebook’s user-base grows and things sour between friends and co-founders, Mark finds himself increasingly isolated by his creation—ironically ostracized at the cost of his social networking site.

There’s a subplot revisited throughout concerning Mark’s ex-girlfriend, who breaks up with him at the beginning of the film. When he first re-approaches her it seems like innocuous clutter for an already complex movie; it’s only when he adds her on Facebook years later, far-removed from the possibility of knowing who she has become, that the point of this relationship comes to fruition. Mark, for all his creative genius and ambition, doesn’t know how to be a friend–to anyone. Like most users on Facebook, he adds people he wishes he knew–has become a victim of his own creation. Regardless of whatever relationship problems he suffered before, Facebook effectively obliterated all connections with the people in his life. Sure, this is the burden of a man who turns friendships into business–quite literally–but how different is he from any of us in this age of texting over actual conversation, of 140 word updates rather than meaningful composition?

When trailers first hit, I was put off by Fincher’s trademark dim lighting and techno rave lasershow–this is a guy whose filmography, with few exceptions, has tailored itself to a grimy “underground” look. With The Social Network, it looked like he was trying to shoehorn a visual style where it didn’t fit. Fortunately, this style is used to immerse viewers in the Harvard world, transporting them back to college’s ubiquitous oak and classical office interiors, late nights, and seemingly windowless rooms. The dramatis personae only add to this feel–the Winklevosses concerns with upholding university honor and expertise at the pansy sport of rowing, Mark’s ex-girlfriend crapping on him in front of her friends, an unamused college president who couldn’t give less of a shit about his students or policies, instead touting his role as a former presidential economic something-or-other. College is in true form here, with all its social concerns, meaningless rivalries, and unmatched arrogance smeared across the screen.

A lot of buzz bounced around during production over the real Mark Zuckerberg’s refusal to even accept advertising for The Social Network on Facebook.com—buzz suggesting a smear slant on the entrepreneur’s life. Now that I’ve seen the film, I don’t understand the conflict; sure, Mark’s an asshole and a bit awkward, but no more than I would expect from any genius working on his level. He stole a few ideas from the Winklevoss’s web-plan, but only as much as Shakespeare stole from Thomas Kidd for Hamlet. Though it’s a story about the ethics of intellectual creation and theft, it’s more about greed—about the common man’s need to claim anything successful or brilliant as his own. The real kicker is that this Ayn Randian discussion of Creator and Leach is coated in a legitimately compelling drama complete with hilarious dialogue and heartfelt characters. The Social Network is a film that fosters mindless entertainment and intelligent discussion— is on par with the greatest dramatic thrillers of our decade. This is the swiftest two hours I’ve spent in a cinema in a very long time, and you’d be cheating yourself to miss it.

NYFF 2010: The Robber

My experiences last year with New York Film Festival left a bitter taste in my mouth. From the soup-sipping inanity of Police, Adjective to the brutally emotionless genital mutilation of Antichrist, last year’s offerings smacked of a smug pretension matched only by Graduate English class lectures and the occasional MoMA exhibition. It was then with heavy heart that I walked into Benjamin Heisenberg’s The Robber, the first of my NYFF 2010 screenings. Heisenberg’s thriller, based on Martin Prinz’ novel of the same name, acts as a post-prison biopic for famed criminal Johann Rettenberger, also known as Austria’s very own “Pump-gun Ronnie”. Yet unlike Morgan Freeman’s character in The Shawshank Redemption, who provides hope despite pitiful failings, Rettenberger’s story is one of existential tragedy— he’s doomed from the start by his own hand. Though it’s no Shawshank, the film still packs a compelling narrative—instills its criminal’s acts of violence with a sense of purpose, placing blame more on feelings of “placelessness” than madness.

Run Ronnie Run

Johann Rettenberger is a reformed criminal; in a past life he was responsible for the robbery of several Austrian banks. While in prison he committed himself to a life of rigorous marathon training, and now that he’s been released, it’s his parole officer’s duty to ensure he focuses his energies on running rather than killing—a duty he takes to a nauseating level of persistence. Rettenberger wastes no time stealing a car and robbing a bank following his release, and after just a few weeks in the free world, finds himself the focus of a city-wide manhunt. With a girlfriend willing to betray him, a murder under his belt, and recurring nightmares of dying in a foxhole, it’s only a matter of time before his life of crime is put to an end.

A large chunk of this film is devoted to scenes of Rettenberger running; across hillsides, through playgrounds, out of prisons—this man runs more than most people drive in a year. It’s strange to admit, but the running scenes are The Robber’s meat and potatoes—brim with energy and a universal notion of escape. Though never headed anywhere specific, the protagonist is constantly in motion, fleeing one nondescript location for another in search of sanctity and self. Like so many people lost on the roadways or jogging paths late at night, he is both somewhere and nowhere—in flight from everything he knows. On first glance you would think Rettenberger runs to escape himself—his life of crimes and personal failings—but after he flees arrest, leading the police on a city-wide manhunt that eventually extends to the neighboring hillsides, it becomes apparent that the titular robber may be more shallow than the film’s first half suggests. Heisenberg has crafted a story that doesn’t know what it wants to be—vacillates between moody existential drama and straight-cut thriller. This doesn’t deter it from entertaining, but does hold it back from any meaningful conclusion; despite all the time we spend with him—his numerous accomplishments and personal sufferings in the name of his past—John Rettenberger is little more than a faceless criminal with a knack for hoofing it. The Robber isn’t Heat or Shawshank or even The Untouchables—and in many ways it’s a pretentious conglomeration of all three—but underneath the film’s smothering atmosphere of seclusion and uncertain focus lies a unique directorial style that can mold a mundane act like running into a statement on the human condition.

Howl

As an English major I never “got” modern poetry; T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” was the closest any poem came to meaning something in my life, and that’s only because I visited Italy, viewed the works of Michelangelo, and saw yellow light rising like mist against the walls of rustic homes during nighttime. Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” was less than meaningless—read like an idiotic teenager’s angst-fueled bemoanings of everything yet nothing in particular. I’m willing to give Ginsberg the benefit of a doubt right until Moloch, but after the big fire-god appears everything falls apart. Fortunately, directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman understand my confusion, addressing it head on in their film Howl, a semi-biographical account of a poet, poem, and the debate it raised about literary merit and free speech during the mid-1950’s.

Video games have led me to believe there's a trunk filled with First Aid Spray, shotgun shells, and several grenade launchers nearby.

When it comes to biopics I usually prefer trailers—they capture all the good bits of a person’s life, score them to epic music thus making everything “sound” spectacular, gloss over the boring stuff, and are over in about 3 minutes. Howl isn’t your typical biopic, though—its narrative flows in and out of reality, court scenes amalgamated and intertwined with psychedelic animated imaginings of the titular poem’s lines, all spliced with occasional shots of Ginsberg (James Franco) explaining his background and work. Behind this free-floating story comes a spoken word reading of the poem delivered by Franco, providing a truly poetic spine upon which all of the film’s threads hang. It’s not a clean film or one particularly concerned with conveying a well-formed, clear message, but its form matches content; the Beat generation wasn’t traditional or focused—were instead in a state of constant change, pushing boundaries.

But I digress.

Allen Ginsberg was a relatively unknown poet and writer before Lawrence Ferlinghetti published his now famous “Howl” in 1956—a publication which prompted a court case against Ferlinghetti’s house under complaints of obscenity and lack of literary merit. This film is an attempt to synthesize Ginsberg’s lyrics with the controversy they caused—a direct pitting of art against both critic and government. It’s not a film for everyone; if you’ve never closed your eyes and visualized images read to you from a book, or have little patience for wandering narratives, you’re going to leave disappointed. Sure, Jon Hamm holds up his status as our generation’s number one period piece orator, but his role is limited to courtroom scenes which are few and far between. The real meat and potatoes of this flick are its visualizations of the spoken poem and recountings of Ginsberg’s life.

I saw this film in what may be its ideal venue—the rooftop of a liberal arts college in Manhattan’s Lower East Side on a chilly Autumn night. The seats weren’t packed—people murmured occasionally in response to what they saw, or what was going on around them, or nothing at all. It was a poetic experience, much like this movie—difficult to define, somehow transcending words.  Although the film’s conceptualization of Ginsberg’s lyrics appears nearly literal, its spoken word soundtrack affords viewers the chance to close their eyes and imagine what they will. The other narrative threads—Ginsberg’s background and the Howl trial—provide more than enough for reflection and discussion on literature’s place in modern society. Epstein and Friedman have produced a truly unique film that tackles territory largely untried in cinema, and though their approach feels a little helter-skelter, it’s more than fitting given the material.

Going the Distance

I really wanted to hate Going the Distance. Aside from a few hits like Donnie Darko and ET, Drew Barrymore’s career has been a steady stream of dogshit, and Justin Long’s face makes my brain hurt. Romantic comedies usually stay in the shallow end of both, providing just enough details to let you know you should care if two people get together, and inevitably swivel into the “accidentally-gelled-my-hair-with-jizz” no-man’s-land of lazy humor. The only reason I watched this film is that I played an extra in a New Year’s scene that was apparently left on the cutting-room floor. I had a rough first few months on the job hunt after moving to New York, and needed the work—now there was a slight chance somebody may spot the back of my head across from a big-breasted Russian girl in some mid-Manhattan restaurant. Though I didn’t make it on-screen, the film felt surprisingly fresh, relying more on dialog and relationships than cheap sight gags and uncanny circumstances for its emotional punch. As if that didn’t already put it heads above most entries in the Rom-Com genre, it provides an understated commentary on the current economic crisis the world is facing; its conflict isn’t driven by scorned lovers or absurd personality quirks—it’s fueled by an inability to find work in giant metropolises where jobs should abound.

Can we get Zooey Daschenal too? It's not Indie enough yet. Maybe change the phone to a Pabst Blue Ribbon

Can we get Zooey Daschenal too? It's not Indie enough yet. Maybe change the phone to a Pabst Blue Ribbon

Erin is a San Franciscan waitress and Journalism grad student interning at the New York Tribune for the Summer. After her article gets shot down by the paper’s editor, she heads out to a bar where she meets Garret, a record producer who just lost his most recent girlfriend and is being forced to promote his label’s “Jonas Brothers” competitor, “XYZ”. The two schmooze over the bar’s ancient Centipede machine, swiftly fall in love, and head back to Garret’s place where their sex is scored to the Top Gun soundtrack by roommate Dan. Eventually Erin’s internship ends and she must leave for San Francisco, throwing the couples’ relationship to the whims of the titular Distance, something which becomes increasingly problematic after the hopeful journalist lands her first professional job at the San Francisco Chronicle, crippling her ability to travel and eliminating any chance of her moving to the Big Apple.

After writing that, the plot actually sounds like generic Rom-Com fodder, and I guess it is. But Erin and Garret’s relationship isn’t where Going the Distance truly shines—it’s the supporting cast that forms the real meat and potatoes of this flick. Christina Applegate’s high-strung mother and sister routine feels balanced by Jim Gaffigan’s dry, deadpan one-liners, and in a rare feat of moviemaking, Garret’s friends behave like actual friends—are jerks who play jokes on one-another and force their buddies into awkward dates with cougar women. Most Romantic Comedies focus on these people—the kind where “wacky hijinks ensue”—but this film leaves them in the background, where they belong. Unfortunately, the final third focuses mostly on Garret and Erin reconciling the distance between each other, which leads to a pretty droll dragging of the film’s feet. Since the romance and comedy elements are almost visibly divided between Erin and Garret’s relationship and their interactions with friends respectively, the film takes on a much more somber tone when the supporting cast disappears. Luckily the relationship happens to serve a larger purpose—effectively acts as a voice in the ongoing cinematic dialectic on unemployment started by films like Up In the Air. The subtlety with which the characters’ inability to find work is approached feels both sobering and alarming—indicates an unspoken resignation to the current economic crisis amongst the American people. If the tanking economy can be handled as a simple part of cinematic life—an immutable fact which nobody can change, so much that it isn’t even outwardly addressed in films like these, then Erin and Garret’s relationship is symbolic of more than two people struggling to love one another; it’s instead a telling example of the crippling affects the current years-long economic downturn has wreaked upon our lives. Financial and job insecurity is no longer impairing our ability to pay debt or live in mansions; it’s preventing people like Erin and Garret from living their lives—from loving one another.

A Woman, A Gun and A Noodle Shop

Over the last twenty-five years or so, the Coen Brothers have carved out quite a name for themselves, consistently rehashing the same basic themes—greed, idiocy, and mortality—in compelling new packages. That they’ve managed to reinvent the same story so many times while remaining fresh is a testament to their creative genius—it was only a matter of time until somebody adapted their films with a unique directorial vision. Enter Yimou Zhang’s A Woman, A Gun, and A Noodle Shop, a 2009 adaptation of 1984’s Blood Simple set amongst the mountains and sand dunes of imperial China. It’s odd to consider, as the Coens’ style is so unique amongst American filmmakers, but Zhang has recreated the feel of the orginal near-perfectly. Sure, there are a few cartoonish caricatures (like the oafish, bucktoothed noodle-shop assistant) and even a light touch of slapstick, but this film smacks of everything that made Blood Simple so great. The question, then, is whether it needed to be made at all.

The film opens with a flamboyantly dressed Persian providing a display of foreign weaponry to the employees of a noodle shop on the outskirts of civilization. One woman (Yan Ni) is particularly impressed by the troupe’s three-shot pistol and purchases it for some ungodly amount before the show is concluded with an alarming cannonball eruption in the surrounding mountainside. This woman, we soon learn, is the wife of Wang (Dahong Ni), the decrepit and miserly owner of the desert noodle shop. Long-tormented by her husband’s abuse, the woman has committed herself to murdering her husband, stealing his fortune and absconding with her boy-in-wait, Li, the pink-robed, weak-willed noodle shop intern (Xiao Shen-Yang). The story putters along all willy-nilly, with everything from crazy noodle-cooking acrobatics to cross-eyed police lieutenants foolishly overlooking evidence, until one soldier steps up to Wang’s request to investigate his wife’s relationship with Li. This soldier, lured by the song of sweet sweet cash, agrees and sets off on what becomes an intricate game of double and triple-crossing. As relationships sour and bodies begin piling up, the soldier, Li, and Wang’s wife find themselves caught in a confusing web of murder and theft from which few can escape.

My String Beany Arms! Woe!

Though the settings of A Woman, A Gun and A Noodle Shop are drastically different from Blood Simple, everything feels especially familiar—the long stretches of highway are replaced by windy mountainside paths, and there’s more than one shotgun burial in deserted wastelands. Characters’ actions are determined by misunderstandings about the objects they leave behind; a soldier’s pipe and intern’s purse play Desdemona’s handkerchief in this film. Unless you’ve never seen Blood Simple I can’t imagine a reason to seek this movie out—it’s basically the same story punched up by Zhang’s penchant for opulence. It’s a great dark comedy on its own, and features lots of brightly-robed eye candy against the desolate Chinese hillsides to boot, but it also convolutes the original story with a meandering opening, silly character additions, and a third act that drags at points. None of Zhang’s contributions enhance the story, and the film takes no liberties with the themes of its source material; though it’s a wonderful homage to the Coens’ careers and a pretty entertaining film, I simply can’t think of why it exists. I’m torn on recommending this one–it’s a genuinely engaging film audiences will likely enjoy, but they may like Blood Simple more.

The Last Lions: Impressions

Disclaimer: The following article concerns an in-progress documentary. These are impressions of an early print of a work still in post-production.

This past Wednesday I had a chance to catch an advance screening of The Last Lions, the new National Geographic film from the team who brought us 2005’s March of the Penguins. Having never seen March and not fancying myself a lion fanatic, I wasn’t too pumped about the experience. Add in the film’s “unfinished” status—meaning anything from soundtrack and narration changes to severe editing before wide release—and I could barely drag myself to the theater.

What a fool I was.

This in-progress doc following a mother lioness’s struggles to keep her cubs alive in the face of thousands of hostile buffalo and the rival pride who killed her husband turned out to be one of the best film-going experiences I’ve had this dismal Summer. If you grew up loving The Lion King or nature docs, you’re going to eat this movie up with delight; it provides an in-depth understanding of the life of a mother lioness, informing audiences of an animal lifestyle both extremely interesting and compelling.

As mentioned before, The Last Lions tells the story of a mother lioness who must defend her children against the wild African terrain. She must study buffalo from afar to learn their weaknesses before striking, constantly defend against vengeful pride attacks on her cubs, and go out solo in hunt of food for her children. There are brush fires and alligator attacks—lion-on-lion warfare and pride vs herd battles. This isn’t some boring documentary that drones on about mating habits, evolution, or whatever else you may find on Discovery late one night—it’s an all-out struggle for survival focused on the fiercest creature in the animal kingdom. Hans Zimmer lends a temporary soundtrack in the form of his score for The Dark Knight, and though the filmmaker will probably swap audio before wide release, I can’t imagine better music for the events that unfold on-screen.

I’m a Disney fanatic and The Lion King is one my favorite films of all-time; The Last Lions provides a lens for adults to appreciate Disney’s masterpiece in a wholly new way. There is no direct allusion to the film—you’ll simply recognize Mufasa’s courage and Scar’s jealousy in the lions’ actions, will learn to hate hyenas just as you did with King’s evil triumvirate of idiotic scavengers. The best compliment I can give this film is that it recaptures the dramatic tension crafted by Disney’s studios in our own natural world—by the film’s close you desperately care about the mother lioness and want her to succeed despite unbeatable odds. You’ll discover newfound appreciation for an animal usually only witnessed sleeping at the local zoo—will learn why the lion truly is the king of the jungle. Though it’s aimed at animal conservation, the film is never preachy in its agenda—most of its ninety minute runtime is spent showcasing the thrilling life of these beasts, making audiences understand why they should care about the disappearance of the wild lion rather than just telling us we should. It’s a thrilling documentary that will pull on heartstrings left undusted since childhood, and I’m looking forward to seeing the final product later this year.