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Unfriended 2: The Dark Web (2018)

Ditching the supernatural threat for something even scarier, Unfriended 2 follows the original film’s found footage-as-computer screen storytelling model but takes a dark dive into the Dark Web of the Internet, a playground for all kinds of shady criminal activities. A group of ethnically diverse friends gathers online to play a cross-country game and run afoul of a very vengeful man who wants his laptop back. Apparently our protagonist, Matias (Colin Woodell), stole it at a lost and found to better work on his sign language reading app to communicate with his deaf girlfriend. It was touches like that where the movie felt far more developed than I was expecting. The movie builds a nice sense of momentum and dread as the friends get further and further into uncovering the Dark Web conspiracy of for-hire snuff films and sex trafficking, and at every point there are moments they could turn away and avoid their doomed fates. The suspense sequences are well thought-out, like where the group has to quickly adopt a façade playing a game while a wifi connection is in play, and as soon as it goes out they breathlessly communicate their next desperate plan of action. There is one great kill and a few nifty twists and turns, especially as things get even more dangerous for our characters. Writer/director Stephen Susco finds ways to keep his film visually engaging and still character-centric in the decision-making, avoiding the escalations from feeling contrived and artificial. I enjoyed myself right up until the end, though the film does become more preposterous as it goes. The Dark Web as a whole is vague enough to be whatever the horror audience needs. The movie doesn’t have much to offer in the way of online culture commentary beyond a pretty standard “be careful what you wish for” warning. The characters aren’t terribly dimensional but they held my interest and contributed in small but meaningful ways. With Unfirended 2, it’s a fitting and palpable story engine for a clever thriller. If you enjoyed the recent indie hit Searching, check out some of the Unfriended films too.

Nate’s Grade: B

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The Social Network (2010)

Dismissively branded as “the Facebook movie,” the whip smart and hypnotic, yet poorly titled, The Social Network is much more than a rote TV-movie on the start of a popular website (coming out next year: Twitter: The Musical in 144 Characters). Yes, the film chronicles the people responsible for the Internet’s most ubiquitous time waster and their very varying accounts of who was responsible and who was unscrupulous. But the backdrop could be just as much any start-up business. Truth be told, the “Facebook movie” bares a striking resemblance to Citizen Kane. It is the story of one man who may be a genius in some regards but can?t help but push everybody he cares about away. It’s about powerful men who don’t know what to do with power. It’s about ambitious men who dedicate their lives to that ambition. It’s not about terabytes and html coding, this is a movie about people, betrayal, ego, greed, jealousy, and the great irony that Mark Zuckerberg created the world’s most dominant social network and yet he himself cannot hold onto a single legitimate friend.

In 2003, Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is a Harvard student obsessed with getting into the prestigious clubs and fraternities on campus. But he’s not well connected or athletic or close to being rich. So after being dumped on night, he goes home and hacks into various Harvard sorority websites and steals pictures of coeds. He then creates the crude website Facemash (while also drunk, mind you) where Harvard undergrads rank their fellow classmates side-by-side two at a time. It’s an immediate hit and crashes the Harvard server. Zuckerberg is then approached by Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence), handsome blue-blooded WASP twins who have an idea. They want to create their own social website just for Harvard students to communicate with each other. They are impressed with Zuckerberg’s tech skills and want to hire him to build the site. Zuckerberg takes the idea to his roommate and best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), proposing to make their own site with Saverin’s limited means.

From there is where the different parties diverge on their versions of truth. Zuckerberg secretly works on his own side project while stalling and dodging the Winklevoss twins. He offers to have Saverin be CFO of the company and split the stakes. Then as success mounts, the Facebook website gets the attention of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), notorious for co-founding Napster at age 19. Parker immediately has the ear of Zuckerberg, and it isn’t long before Saverin starts feeling on the outskirts of his own company, and then eventually shut out completely. The Winklevoss twins and Saverin each file multi-million dollar lawsuits accusing Zuckerberg of intellectual theft and underhanded business tactics.

Watching The Social Network feels like you?re downloading an entire semester?s worth of information directly to your brain. Adapted by uber wordsmith Aaron Sorkin (TV’s West Wing, Charlie Wilson’s War), this is a story that gallops at full speed and leaves you spinning. The dialogue flies by so blazingly quick that it?s easy to get left behind. I would not advise eating any concession snack with this movie or else you might miss reams of dialogue. Sorkin smartly weaves together a murky and litigious tale of alternate truths, showing different sides when it comes to the creation of Facebook. Was it really stealing or did the Winklevoss twins merely inspire Zuckerberg? Is he truly indebted to them? “Does a guy who makes a chair have to pay a fee to every person who ever made a chair before in history,” Zuckerberg snaps. How deep did Saverin?s involvement go, and was he naïve or just thinking too small in scope? How much is a friendship worth in dollars and cents? Sorkin gives a definite impression to these answers, and it should surprise nobody that Saverin comes across as angelic and the obviously wronged party here. But the script as a whole is meticulous with detail, characters, and dates. It almost feels like the content of a miniseries has been squeezed into a brisk two-hour time frame. The characters are just as layered as the plot. The opening scene where Mark is dumped by his girlfriend (Rooney Mara, soon to be Lisbeth Salander in Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) sets the tone of the movie. The dialogue feels like an assault and it is unrelenting. You openly wonder how Eisenberg can breathe reciting his verbose lines with such lightning speed. Mara is aghast at her hyper-literate yet bitter boyfriend spewing bile at the elite and yet unashamedly pining for that life. He’s brilliant and cutting but socially awkward and unable to understand the feelings he’s hurting. Mara has had enough and dumps him right there, spurring Zuckerberg into a drunken night of revenge that will set the stage for Facebook. Sorkin can pretty much start clearing shelf space for his Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar right now.

Many will find Zuckerberg to be unlikable from the get-go, but I never could bring myself to actively dislike or loathe the man. He’s really more of a figure of Greek tragedy. Zuckerberg is a blissful conundrum of a character, a walking contradiction. He can be sullen and wounded one minute and the next casually cruel. He seethes at deposition hearings; unable to control the contempt he has for others. Zuckerberg’s anger boils over, and his beady-eyed glares communicate an incredulous, “You are worlds below me.” He can?t stand people who have easy breaks, the select and privileged, and yet he nakedly longs to be apart of that group and meet their approval. He can be childish and narcissistic, insular and insecure, and then he can be charitable. Zuckerberg created a music application that Microsoft was willing to purchase. “Why didn’t you sell?” asks one of the Winklevoss twins. Zuckerberg just shrugs his shoulders. He doesn’t want to sell ad space on Facebook and get rich quick because it would ruin the site experience. He is a champion of the democracy of the World Wide Web; a modern-day Thomas Paine? Probably not, but Zuckerberg’s hard-driven ambition and crooked tactics make him a modern-day robber baron, a titan of industry. Rockefeller and Carnegie and J.P. Morgan are all men that don’t seem any different in practice than Zuckerberg, though they probably had more family money as a starting point. That’s not an excuse for Zuckerberg’s behavior, but I want to add some perspective before the world tars and feathers the guy. Zuckerberg is the Internet’s first self-made billionaire, but what are the costs? By sacrificing all, and burning personal relationships, Zuckerberg may have advanced Facebook to unparalleled heights. But whom does he get to share his success with? It’s a little simplistic to boil such a complex film to the greeting card-esque moral “It’s people that matter most?” but the film always circles back to the question of cost. It’s also rather simplistic to chalk up the creation of Facebook as a means of impressing a girl, but then operas have been written, art has been sculpted, and wars have been fought over the need to impress a woman. Zuckerberg is a fascinating creature and brilliantly played by Eisenberg. This is a character Ayn Rand would love.

It seems that Zuckerberg’s instincts about human obsession with being apart of something exclusive were right on the mark. What separated Zuckerberg’s site from the likes of MySpace and Friendster is that you needed a college-based web address to get inside. It was a closed community, which made it cool and desirable. It started as a restricted club that all the cool kids wanted to belong to, then everyone joined, and now it’s damn near impossible to resist. First it was college kids, then college kids from other countries, then high school kids, then adults, now everybody on the planet has a Facebook page making sure the world doesn’t miss a single detail about their personal lives. I resisted as long as I could but broke down and got a Facebook account earlier this year. The Social Network is not concerned with the business angle of success unless it related directly to how it impacts the characters. You’re not going to find many insights into why Facebook took off or became entrenched in our navel-gazing society, which is a pity. The film also doesn’t concern itself with outright social commentary. Sure by exploring the micro personal struggles and betrayals of Mark and Eduardo the film marginally comments on the macro idea of generational self-absorption and ego, but so much more could be said about society as a whole. The film’s one clear moment of social satire is when Eduardo’s girlfriend berates him about his Facebook relationship status remaining single. She’s incensed and wants to know what he truly means by this outrageous declaration. He says he’s embarrassed but he doesn’t know how to change it, plus he’s hardly ever on the site. She responds to this by setting his gift on fire. Ah, petulant and jealous and self-absorbed concerning what a few scraps of digital bits say rather than direct, personal, face-to-face communication. It’s a brief, albeit nice slam on the myopic self-absorption of millennials, who came out of the womb with something electronic attached to their fingertips. The film doesn’t even touch the idea of millennials’ free sense of privacy and over sharing. This is not a generation -defining movie, folks.

This is all strange ground for director David Fincher (Seven, Zodiac), a visual stylist with few peers. Nerds creating a website doesn’t exactly strike anybody as fertile ground for a visually exciting drama, and yet Fincher proves once again that he is a masterful artist. The film looks beautifully sleek from beginning to end with Fincher’s typical green tinted, deep focus cinematography. Fincher also makes the best use of special effects I’ve seen this year. The Winklevoss twins were not played by actual twins. Hammer had his face digitally placed onto a stand-in’s (Pence) body. The digital cut-and-paste was remarkable in Fincher’s Benjamin Button but it also called attention to itself. Nobody would walk in believing Brad Pitt’s face somehow was on the body of a three-foot tall old man. However, in The Social Network, you would never once doubt that there are two twin actors on screen the whole time. Hammer manages to make each twin distinct and frustrated without coming across as jerky or entitled. The rest of the actors do fantastic work as well, and special notice to Timberlake who plays his mercurial role with glee.

So what does the real Mark Zuckerberg think about all this attention? Well, in a surprise to people who do not have a firm understanding of the word, Facebook has declined all advertising for The Social Network and is staying mum on the film, hoping to ride out the critical storm. I don’t think anyone is going to be using Facebook less now that they have learned the ethically murky beginnings of the website. But Zuckerberg and his Facebook crew might want to think of formulating some response strategy because this movie, and talk of this movie, isn’t going away any time soon (Zuckerberg recently donated $100 million to Newark city schools on Oprah coincidentally the same week Social Network was opening). It’s rare to find a studio film that is as polished across the bard as this film. The writing is sharp, the direction is sleek, the acting is top-notch, the film rollicks with intrigue and suspense and juicy drama, and the film can’t help but be relevant in our modern society. You do not have to know a lick about coding and websites and whatever to get absorbed in this high-stakes drama. It may not be the generation defining experience some critics are wetting themselves over in hype, but The Social Network is easily one of the best films of 2010. Perhaps the Academy will give it the ultimate “friend request” come this winter. In the meantime, log off and get yourself into a theater to see this great American movie.

Nate’s Grade: A

Catfish (2010)

Catfish is a slippery pseudo-documentary that seeks to explore the idea of human connection in the digital age. What does it mean when people’s friends originate from a glowing box?

The film chronicles the online relationship of Yaniv “Nev” Schulman. He’s a twenty-something New York City photographer who gets a painting in the mail one day. It’s a painting based upon one of his pictures published in a New York magazine. A 12-year-old girl saw the photo and was inspired to paint. She keeps sending more and more paintings to Nev in New York. He researches the 12-year-old, her family, and eyes pictures of Megan, her older sister. Megan is a strikingly good-looking model who also dances, plays the cello, writes songs, and raises horses. Nev and Megan have several conversations via phone, texting, online chatting, e-mail, and Facebook postings. It’s a relationship completely dependent on thumbs. Then Nev, along with his filmmaking friends Henry Joost and Nev’s brother, Ariel Schulman, start noticing peculiarities. Why does Megan pass off other people’s songs as her own? Why does she never seem to be around when other family members are? Is Megan really Megan? The guys start investigating and deconstructing this online romantic fable. Nev’s friends prod him into making an unexpected road trip to Megan’s family home in Ishpeming, Michigan. They’re excited and morbidly curious about what awaits them.

I suppose your ultimate feelings about this movie will depend upon whether you view Catfish as a work of fiction or non-fiction. In either case, there’s a lot of manipulation and exploitation. Even if you do some half-hearted Internet research, you can find real-life events mentioned in the film that actually happened. A real-life special needs child died in the town of Ishpeming, as described in the closing text of the film. That means that a character we see late in the film is either the genuine special needs child or was a stand-in for one and the filmmakers took advantage of a community’s loss for “authenticity.” Which is more manipulative? Nev and his pals want to expose this scheming family, broadcasting private messages and intruding upon their lives with cameras to document their foibles. From my assessment, the film felt staged from start to finish. What luck they had cameras rolling for all these important moments of inquiry. But does that mean that the film is any less believable? The movie examines how easy it is not just to create a different persona, or new friends via the Internet; it showcases how the Internet allows people to create their own world. People lose themselves in alternate online realities, not just social-networking sites like Facebook but The Sims, Second Life, World of Warcraft, and all sorts of other avatar-based sites. The Internet allows us to fashion our own worlds, our own escape door from reality. Our grasp on reality has become subjective, which is further evidence that the truthfulness of the film is a moot point (a fictional non-fiction film about people posing as fictional versions of who they want to be online?). What does identity mean in an age of ever-increasing fiction?

As a film, Catfish is a mess of digital images. We see Facebook posts and text messages, scrutinize images posted Online, scroll through Google and YouTube for damming evidence of a con, and the guys make extensive use of Google Earth to showcase their cross-country travels. The visual do-it-yourself aesthetic contributes to the stab at authenticity as well as amateur journalism. The framing of the shots, however, is another point that tips Catfish into being a likely work of fiction. Whatever the case may be, the filmmakers and the subjects aren’t speaking one way or another.

Those snookered by Catfish’s sensational trailer (there will be many) are likely in for a crushing disappointment. Catfish begins as a slightly intriguing mystery as Nev and his buddies uncover the irregularities and discrepancies of Megan. Then when the trio actually arrives in Ishpeming in the dead of night, there’s about a ten-minute stretch of “don’t go in there!” cinema. Nev’s filmmaking pals egg it on with self-aware comments about how scared they are or how creepy the situation is becoming. Then again, who exactly peaks into an abandoned horse farm in the dead of night? At this point, goaded by the trailer, you’re expecting Catfish to go down the grisly horror path. You expect they will discover some terrifying secret like that Megan is apart of a family of grifters that lure unsuspecting men from the Internet to be butchered and have their organs sold. Catfish does not go down that path. It actually pretty much goes the way you’d expect in real life. It actually turns out to be a fairly normal, mundane story, something that would have made an interesting one-hour TV special (“To Catch an Internet Poser”? It would run for decades). Catfish begins as a warning about how well we can truly know someone in the digital age, but then it concludes as a thoughtful character-piece about the steps people take to alleviate the disappointments and hardships of life.

Catfish has some moments of intrigue and tension, but at most the film is a mildly interesting experiment. It straddles many creative lines. It’s both fiction and non-fiction, humane and exploitative, probing and lethargic, a fitting contradistinction about a world that full of them. It’s a mostly well-crafted movie but what do you do with it after you know all its secrets? Nev and his crew are on a crusade for the truth, but whose truth? If you’re looking for a true stimulating experience exploring life in the Internet age, check out The Social Network again. Talking and analyzing Catfish is more intriguing than actually viewing the film.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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