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Mad men: (l-r) Timberlake and Eisenberg in The Social Network.

The Web They Wove

By Shawn Stone

The Social Network

Directed by David Fincher

It’s perfect timing. Facebook, at this brief moment in the turbulent history of the Web, is supreme, and two of the preeminent filmmakers of the day, director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, have turned their considerable talents to chronicling—mythologizing—the creation of Facebook. The subject is worth their time.

Or, to put it another way, there’s a reason we never got Jonathan Demme’s AOL: The Movie, and instead got the appalling You’ve Got Mail (which managed to not understand the Internet at all). AOL and its ilk were closed systems, dedicated to leading users around by the nose within a claustrophobic simulated Web. (Remember, hilariously, how “World Wide Web” was just another link on the AOL home page?) As a subject, Facebook is more seductive and entertaining; its design caters to the most personal interests of users, allowing them to fashion the parameters of their own little Internet world. To borrow a line from a popular dingbat politician, “Facebook is you.”

Here’s The Social Network in a nutshell: The all-conquering social media service of the age is conceived as a result of its founder getting dumped, getting drunk, and acting like an asshole on the Internet. In other words, it’s an archetypical Internet experience when Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) takes revenge on his ex-girlfriend and then (with the help of his pal’s algorithm) all Harvard women, in a petty yet technologically advanced way.

Of course, in the end, he wants to atone. Boo-hoo.

As written by Sorkin and portrayed by Eisenberg, Zuckerberg is a stunted yet likable jerk whose real genius is to identify great ideas and, more important, have the patience to let these ideas develop. Facebook’s disturbingly fast growth freaks out everyone but him. He’s canny at identifying people who can help, from his best pal, amateur commodities trader Eduardo Severin (Andrew Garfield), to the seductive-as-the-devil founder of Napster, Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake); and, less admirably, able to pick the people to “borrow” from and ignore, like the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer), likable but douchey scions of the ruling class (and actual Olympians) who condescend to “let” Zuckerberg develop their Facebook-like concept.

If you’re looking for villains, the filmmakers aren’t going to point them out to you. Zukerberg is flawed, but ultimately correct; Severin is a sympathetic figure, but way out of his depth (the always-near-tears Garfield will make the most emo Spider-Man ever); and Parker is a paranoid megalomaniac, but he understands how big Zuckerberg’s idea is. (Timberlake steals every scene he’s in, too.) The portraits are worthy of Jean Renoir’s phrase, “Everyone has their reasons.”

The film has a tricky-but-rewarding flashback structure built around the multiple legal depositions that resulted from the lawsuits Facebook’s wild success inevitably led to. But it never trips up the viewer, thanks to Fincher’s masterful control of pace and tone. (The opening bar scene reportedly took more than 90 takes to satisfy the notoriously picky director.)

Sorkin is known for his intricate dialogue, and it’s one of the film’s many pleasures to hear ultra-literate people parry words with rapid-fire skill. But the other side of Sorkin’s talent is taking oversized, unwieldy subjects (like the executive branch of the U.S. government) and making the inner workings both transparent and compelling. That’s what really engages him in The Social Network. Harvard and Harvard’s Ivy League brethren still run the world. And at Harvard there are circles within circles of power, class and privilege that the various characters must work within—or against. It’s the kind of gamesmanship Sorkin adores.

And it all adds up to the most entertaining film I’ve seen all year. Which is funny, because I’m not, and never will be, on the Facebook.

 

Hungry girl: Moretz in Let Me In.

Little Boy Found

Let Me In

Directed by Matt Reeves

More people have heard about Let the Right One In, the supremely eerie Swedish vampire movie, than have seen it, and so its American remake, Let Me In, is riding on a double buzz: from the original, and from pop-culture vampire-mania. Even so, Let Me In works on its own, especially for audiences who don’t like subtitles. Astutely directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield), who adapted the screenplay adapted by John Lindqvist from his best-selling novel, Let Me In is more horrifying than disturbing, and so is less memorable than the nightmarish interpretation of Swedish director Tomas Alfredson. The remake loses a little from its relocation: Though a dismal suburb in New Mexico, 1983, is as good a choice as any in the United States, it doesn’t compare to the claustrophobic bleakness and poverty of the Stockholm cinderblock housing project where audiences first met Eli, a 12-year-old night stalker with the large dark eyes of a ravenous animal, and Oskar, a preternaturally gentle schoolboy with an angelic face and girlish blond hair.

In Let Me In, androgyny is replaced with subtle (and slightly distracting) sexual overtones. Owen (Kodi Smith-McPhee) has short hair and bee-stung lips, and despite his watchful timidity (Smith-McPhee was the near-silent Boy in The Road), he radiates more intelligence than innocence—in fact, it seems curious that he’s not able to outmaneuver the bullies at school who have pushed him into reclusion and revenge fantasies (a nice touch is the snippet of President Reagan on a hospital TV intoning his “There is evil in this world” speech). On a wintry night, Owen meets Abby (Chloe Moretz), a sandy-haired beauty who doesn’t go out during the day, is impervious to cold, and “smells funny.” Owen is delighted to meet this melancholy loner, even after she tells him, “I can’t be your friend.” But that meeting occurs before the opening sequence, in which an unidentified man (Richard Jenkins) is hospitalized with self-inflicted acid burns, an incident that followed the gruesome murder of a young man found hanging upside down and drained of blood. The inclusion of Reeves’ Hitchcock influences on the filming of several murders is more gruesome and yet less powerful than in the original, in which the girl’s “father” was an unnerving enigma until almost the end. And unlike Eli, Abby, apparently, needed a CGI boost to be convincing as an undead predator.

Yet Reeves does create an enveloping atmosphere of dread, under the sickly glow of neon lights, or in the labyrinth-like boy’s locker room, and he also gets the mythic vampire details just right (amplified by the strangely poignant score), while Abby’s appearances as a damaged, beseeching waif (at which Moretz is mesmerizing) are both heart-rending and repulsive. Unlike the mystery of Eli’s origin, with its cryptic hints of her having been brutalized, perhaps in Czarist Russia, Abby’s past is revealed with a single, singularly creepy artifact: an old photo-booth portrait strip. And the growing friendship between persecuted Owen and his bestial yet protective friend is sensitively rendered, allowing Owen to accept Abby’s monstrosity even as he questions whether there is such a thing as evil—an answer that’s left up to the audience in the blood- (and heart-) chilling conclusion.

—Ann Morrow

The Evil Eye

A Film Unfinished

Directed by Yael Hersonski

Of the many 20th-century evils, Nazism stands out. Other movements killed more people; other regimes were crazier in their pursuit of genocide. But the Nazis enjoyed their ideology and its accouterments, and they were their own best self-glorifying promoters. They reveled in shit.

Thus, there are few more repugnant 20th-century artifacts than Nazi propaganda films. Above all, they are smug and righteous and well-made. The Eternal Jew is one of the worst. It’s a revolting documentary that “clinically” lays out why the Jews are no better than rats, but its crude use of found footage makes it slightly less effective that the truly vile Jew Suss. This 1940 fiction film is deftly made commercial entertainment, and thus more dangerous. Jew Suss’ hideously racist portrayal of Jews as greedy thieves and rapists was widely shown throughout occupied Europe as the Nazis ramped-up the arrest and deportation of European Jewry.

That’s why we can be thankful that the Nazi propaganda film exhumed in the riveting documentary A Film Unfinished remained, well, unfinished. Because it may have proved more hideous than Jew Suss and Eternal Jew combined. The history of the footage is mysterious: It turned up in an archive, in a few cans simply labeled “Ghetto,” long after the war. It preserved ghastly images of starving, mistreated Jews in the Warsaw ghetto circa 1942. At first, filmmakers used clips from it as if it were “real” documentary footage. But subsequent discoveries revealed that all the footage was staged by a Nazi film crew, and postwar investigators were able to track down one of the cameramen.

Israeli filmmaker Yael Hersonski went investigators one better: She tracked down elderly survivors of the ghetto who remembered the filming and some of the people who were filmed. And, gradually, the true nature of the project emerges: It was to be a propaganda film of shameless deceit, portraying Jews as vile sub-humans who deserved their fate. It seems to have been designed to be one of the Nazi’s “last words” on European Jews.

It’s terrible footage to watch. Hersonski takes some comfort in the defiance of the “gaze” of those being filmed, and in the survival of those she interviews, but there are moments too awful for even that small comfort. A Film Unfinished is an unvarnished look into the debased mind of Nazism, and thus essential, and awful, viewing.

—Shawn Stone


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