Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Social Network: A Review

“You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.”

David Fincher’s highly anticipated film, The Social Network, has been advertised as a story about the origins of Facebook, the social networking website that now boasts over 500 million users. But at its heart it is a story about the origins of the site’s creator – the brilliant, arrogant, and entrepreneurial Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg).

Based on Ben Mezrich’s 2009 bestseller The Accidental Billionaires, the movie is fast paced and carried by sharp, witty dialogue. Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay prevents this story from being just another film about a down-on-his-luck-genius who becomes an accidental, overnight billionaire. Rather there is something about the storyline that is exciting, energetic, and suspenseful. The rise to fame is never easy and the view from the top can be lonely.

The Social Network artfully jumps from flashbacks of Zuckerberg’s college years (when he invented Facebook in his Harvard dorm room) to an office where Zuckerberg testifies in depositions in two lawsuits. One involves the Winklevoss brothers (both played by Armie Hammer), who accuse Zuckerberg of stealing their idea for a social networking site. The other involves his best and only friend Eduardo Saverin (played by Andrew Garfield). Saverin, Facebook’s former CFO, lent Zuckerberg money to start up the website, but was later frozen out. While the audience might sympathize with the claims of Saverin and the Winklevoss twins, Zuckerberg at one point exclaims, “If you were the inventors of Facebook, you would have invented Facebook.” Essentially, this is the story of a man who had a brilliant idea, made that idea a reality, and then found himself the victim of everyone who wanted a piece of his success.

While many of the scenes are lighthearted and there are a few laugh-out-loud moments, the film is actually quite serious and becomes a cautionary tale about the costs of fame. Though a brilliant computer programmer, Zuckerberg was fallible and made a few regrettable decisions along the way. At one point, he follows some bad advice and betrays his best friend for the sake of Facebook. By the end of the film, Zuckerberg may have 500 million Facebook friends, but he finds himself terribly alone. This is one of the subtle messages of the movie – thousands of virtual friends on the Internet cannot substitute for meaningful relationships in everyday life.

And, thus, the movie is a frank portrayal of our culture. Although it is a time of such great opportunity when a young twenty-six year old can become a billionaire, it is also a time of great depersonalization. Perhaps The Social Network has performed so well at the box-office because it is not infected by the culture’s depersonalization. It gives the audience three dimensional characters that we can understand and empathize with: the Winklevoss brothers who had good ideas but not enough drive to see them through; Eduardo Saverin who could not handle living life in the fast lane; Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake), the former co-founder of Napster, who jumped onboard the Facebook bandwagon and was destroyed by his own success. But most importantly it is about the creative genius of Mark Zuckerberg and a fascinating glimpse into the mind of an inventor.

Watch the trailer here.


Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 5:19 PM |

Friday, October 08, 2010

Finding Neverland: A Review

This Week’s Edition of Friday at the Movies: Spotlighting Films About Writing (Part II)

Missed last week's edition? Read Part I of this series (a review of Finding Forrester.)

Tonight's Spotlight: Finding Neverland (a review)

This review was originally written in March 2005 following the release of the film.

The story of Peter Pan has endeared itself to young and old alike. Many remember the theatrical adaptations or the bright colors and winsome songs of the Disney cartoon. But to understand the story of the boy who never grew up, one must read the original version written by the Scottish novelist and dramatist, J. M. Barrie. Tinged with childish longing, sorrow, and cruelty, this tale does not have the same feel as its adaptations. One may well wonder why it became a children’s classic. Yet, many parts are also filled with beauty and innocence.

Such is also Finding Neverland: a movie delving into concepts of happiness and sorrow -- the beauty of life and the tragedy of death.

Johnny Depp plays the eccentric novelist, J.M. Barrie, in a winning and believable role. However, as an article in The New Yorker observes, "Depp resembles Barrie in no way, except in his slenderness of form. We get a passable, soft stab at a Scottish burr but no mustache; we see more of the sweet side of Barrie." Indeed, this is not a film about Barrie's life (it barely touches the surface), but it is a well-done tribute and shows how Barrie came upon his inspiration for his most famous play, Peter Pan.

The movie begins in 1904 on the opening night of Barrie's play, Little Mary, which proves a terrible failure. However, the theater manager (played by Dustin Hoffman) is willing to give Barrie a second chance. Slightly scarred by the rejection of his previous attempt, Barrie professes, "I can do better."

Barrie seeks out the solace of Kensington Gardens to begin brainstorming ideas for a new play. Here he finds his inspiration in the form of the four young Llewelyn Davies boys (George, Jack, Michael, and Peter) and their recently widowed mother, Sylvia (played by Kate Winslet).

Barrie, throughout the film pictured as a child at heart, immediately befriends the family. He becomes a sort of surrogate father to the grieving children, enchanting them with afternoon games of Cowboys and Indians, knights and kings, and explorations of "darkest Africa."

Peter (movingly played by the young Freddie Highmore) appears to be the one most affected by his father's death. He has grown up too fast, losing the imagination of a child, unable to participate in the games of his brothers. Barrie helps him to regain the childhood he lost, encouraging him to write and pour out his thoughts on paper.

Barrie sees himself in Peter. When he was only six years old, his older brother, David, died in a skating accident. Barrie explains that his mother was terribly affected by this and would never speak or look at him. One day he dressed up in David's clothes and went to her. He says that after that day the boy James just disappeared. "I like to think he went to Neverland."

Barrie mourns over his lost childhood and that he grew up too quickly. He laments, "Boys should never be sent to bed. They wake up a day older."

But the film does not idolize childhood -- only the innocence and the romantic imagination of children. It is also a beautiful coming of age story. When one of the Davies boys shows concern for his mother, Barrie remarks, "The boy is gone. In the last thirty seconds, you just became a man."

Unfortunately, Barrie's friendship with the Davies means that he spends most of his time with the boys and with Sylvia, instead of trying to mend his crumbling marriage and damaging his reputation in the process. As his life begins to unravel, Barrie is struck by tragedy a second time. And it is clear that the success of his play Peter Pan can do little to ebb the despair he feels inside.

Yet, the film is not so much about tragedy as about not giving up in the face of failure, about inspiring others to pursue their dreams, about the power of friendship. Barrie, even at the rejection of his first play, persists in his novel idea for a new one, helped at every turn by the Davies family. In a touching scene, Barrie and Sylvia encourage Michael to fly a kite, even though he is the smallest and cannot run as fast as the others. And Barrie urges Peter to write a play, even though the boy states that his brothers write better than him.

Further, Finding Neverland shows that imagination can help mend grieving hearts and bring people closer together. However, it does not necessarily advocate escapism. A clear balance exists between being serious and pretending, as Barrie reminds Sylvia at one part in the film over a serious issue, "You can’t keep pretending."

The movie is not without its problems. Lacking a Christian worldview, it does not quite reach the excellence that it could have. There is never a reference to God and Neverland takes on the form of Heaven. It's quite simply Romantic Humanism. This is probably why the conclusion of the film feels a tad bit unsatisfying.

In spite of this, it is a fine piece of storytelling with strong acting, enchanting scenes, and a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack. And, notwithstanding its obvious problems, it still conveys countless truths. Finding Neverland is about growing up but retaining the innocence and wonder of a child, about getting over grief, about understanding death, about comforting people and bringing happiness to others. But, most importantly, it is about the exuberant imagination of a brilliant storyteller. It is about J. M. Barrie.

He thought that he had found that innocence and wonder in the Davies boys. But he was wrong. As Peter exclaims at one part in the film, "I'm not Peter Pan. He is."

Watch the trailer here.

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Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 10:02 PM |

Friday, October 01, 2010

Finding Forrester: A Review

This Week’s Edition of Friday at the Movies: Spotlighting Films About Writing

I’m reserving Fridays for writing about some of the movies that I love. This October I’ll be spotlighting five of my favorite films about writing. These are the movies that I turn to when I want to be inspired. I’ll be posting them in alphabetical order over the coming weeks.

Do you have a favorite movie about writing or about a famous writer? Please do share in the comment section below. I’m always looking for more movies to add to my list.

Tonight's Spotlight: Finding Forrester (a review)

"No thinking - that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is -- to write, not to think!"

This is one of many writing tips that Jamal Wallace learns from his mentor, William Forrester, in the 2000 drama, Finding Forrester. Theirs is an unlikely friendship. Wallace (played by Rob Brown in his first film role) is an African-American teenager from the Bronx who spends most of his time on the basketball court. Forrester (played by Sean Connery) is a reclusive writer, hiding in an apartment, and using binoculars to spy on the neighborhood. Wallace's friends dare him to sneak into Forrester's apartment one night, but when Forrester finds him, he runs off and accidentally leaves his backpack behind. It turns out that Wallace is an exceptionally gifted writer; his backpack is filled with journals of his writing.

Forrester is annoyed at Wallace for invading his privacy, but tosses the backpack and journals out the window (his comments are scrawled across the pages in red ink). Likewise, Wallace is annoyed at Forrester for reading his journals, but is also intrigued that someone has taken interest in his writing. He returns to the apartment with more of his work and slowly wins over the lonely and rather bitter old man.

Forrester is not the only one to discover Wallace's talent. Although Wallace has been underachieving at his inner city high school in an effort to fit in with his friends, he scores particularly high on the Stanford Achievement Test. This catches the eye of a selective private school (who are also impressed by his skill on the basketball court) and he is soon awarded a scholarship. In this new world and completely different culture, Wallace will find his friendship with Forrester particularly invaluable.

Directed by Gus Van Sant (of Good Will Hunting fame) and written by Mike Rich, Finding Forrester is a classic hollywood tale of unlikely friendship and the importance of following one's dreams. While this storyline might seem a tad cliche, it is rescued by Connery's convincing portrayal of a brilliant author who achieved the success many writers can only dream of, but ultimately found it a hollow victory. It could not bring him happiness.

Connery's and Brown's rapport drive the film, especially their conversations about writing. The film gives  a very unique image of the writer than one we are used to seeing. He is not to be shut up in a room all by himself, banging away on his typewriter. Rather, writing is a communal art, like music or dancing. It is to be shared and read aloud. Writers find their best ideas when brainstorming with others. (C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien certainly understood this when they formed The Inklings).

Though Forrester has much more experience than his young protégé, it is Wallace who utters one of the most mature and insightful lines in the movie, berating Forrester for hiding from the world, and having a locked file cabinet full of writing that nobody else can read. Forrester is squandering his gifts, burying them in the ground like the foolish servant in the Parable of the Talents. People are given gifts in order to use them to impact others, not to shut up their gifts in a drawer. Even if we write everyday, that writing will only be truly alive if others read it and are moved by our turn of phrase. One of the main purposes of writing (and of art in general) is to uplift and encourage the soul of man. Wallace accuses Forrester of being too scared to "walk out that door and do something for somebody else."

Ultimately, Finding Forrester tells a coming of age story about overcoming adversity -- having the tenacity to hone and develop one's individual talents. It certainly does not paint the road to success as trouble-free. Wallace soon comes into conflict with a teacher at his new school who refuses to believe that a student of Wallace's background could possess such a tremendous gift for writing. But Forrester teaches Wallace that it is better to exceed than simply measure up to the expectations of others. And in many ways the film exceeds our own expectations by taking a familiar plot-line and retelling it in a new and inspiring way.

Watch the trailer here.

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Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 10:10 PM |

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