Quick Review: Catfish

Perhaps we could consider the movie Catfish a companion to the more publicized film The Social Network (reviews from Brian here, Joel Sage here): both films consider the effects that Facebook and other digital technologies have on our world. But while The Social Network was a stylized retelling of the founding of Facebook, Catfish covers the lives of more ordinary people as they use these technologies to search for love. Here are a few thoughts about this film:

1. The story revolves a guy, Nev, from New York and a girl from Michigan, Megan, who build a relationship built around a Facebook friendship, IM chats, text messages, and phone calls. Both parties are looking for love though why they are doing this ends up being the plot twist of the film.

1a. I think what makes this film work is that Nev is an appealing character. Even though he hasn’t met Megan in the early stages of the film, he falls hard and ends up giggling and swooning like a teenager. But when things turn out to be more complicated than this, he still finds a way to make sense of it all.

2. More broadly, the film presents a question that many people wonder about: can two people really build a lasting relationship through Facebook?  While this is an interesting question, research on Facebook and SNS (social networking site) use suggests most younger people are not looking to meet new people online. Rather, they are reinforcing existing relationships or reestablishing past relationships. And this film deserves some credit: whereas a film like You’ve Got Mail suggests that email and other electronic communication work the same way as traditional dating (and the typical romantic comedy happy ending), this film introduces some complications.

3. The Social Network seems to suggest that technology helps keep us apart. (A side note: this seems to be an argument from the older generation talking about younger generations. One thing I wonder about The Social Network: was it so critically acclaimed because it fed stereotypes that older people have about younger people? How much did the characters in this film resonate with the lives of younger film-goers?) In that film, Zuckerberg founds Facebook in order to join the in-crowd, is being sued by two people after arguments related to developing community-building websites,  and at the end, he is shown still searching for a connection with a girl he lost years ago. Catfish seems to make an opposite argument: despite the imperfect people who try to connect online, the film suggests there is still some value in getting to know new people. When Nev’s love becomes complicated, he doesn’t just withdraw or call it quits – he tries to move forward while still getting to know Megan.

4. This film claims to be a documentary though there is disagreement about whether this is actually the case. Regardless of whether the film captures reality or is scripted, it is engaging. (The presentation seems similar in tone to Exit Through the Gift Shop, reviewed here.) Have we reached the point in films where the line between what is real and what is written doesn’t matter? And should we care or do we just want a good story?

Overall, this film seems more hopeful about the prospects of Facebook and other digital technology. With a documentary style and an engaging storyline, Catfish helps us to think again about whether people can truly get to know each other online.

(This film was generally liked by critics: it has a 81% fresh rating, 109 fresh out of 134 total reviews, at RottenTomatoes.com.)

Winklevoss twins continue lawsuit against Facebook

The key conflict in The Social Network (reviewed here and here) is the lawsuit that the Winklevoss twins bring against Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. This lawsuit is continuing as the Winklevosses seek a larger settlement:

If they prevail, their legal appeal would overturn the settlement, now worth in excess of $160 million because of the soaring value of the privately held company.

The Winklevosses won’t say exactly how much they would seek in their high-stakes grudge fest with the billionaire Facebook founder, but by their own calculations they argue they should have received four times the number of Facebook shares. That would make any new settlement worth more than $600 million based on a recent valuation of Facebook at more than $50 billion…

Facebook has won multiple court rulings, and legal experts say the Winklevosses are likely to lose this one too…

The controversial origins of Facebook — who actually founded it and how — have been the subject of renewed debate since Hollywood offered its dramatization of the conflicting stories from the Winklevosses, both portrayed in “The Social Network” by actor Armie Hammer, and former Zuckerberg friend and Harvard classmate Eduardo Saverin, portrayed by Andrew Garfield. In 2005, Saverin sued Facebook for diluting his stake in the company and reportedly reaped a $1.1-billion settlement.

Zuckerberg has called the film, which received eight Academy Award nominations including best picture, “fiction.” In it, his character tells the Winklevosses: “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.”

But that’s exactly what the Winklevosses said they did.

The article suggests that the Winklevosses can’t really lose here: if the courts say they shouldn’t receive more money, they still get to receive the initial settlement. We can ask how much The Social Network influenced the decision to seek more money. There were relatively few people in the media who concentrated on the veracity or one-sided nature of this story. For many who saw this Oscar-nominated film, Zuckerberg looks like a jerk.

Of course, this movie and portrayal should have little influence on the courts. And the Winklevosses say they have new evidence for the courts to consider. But I suspect the case was brought in part because of the positive portrayal of the Winkevosses in this film. If this case were in the court of public opinion (and perceptions), would the Winklevosses win?

Quick Review: The King’s Speech

The upcoming Oscars seem to be a battle between two films: The Social Network (see my earlier review here and sagescape’s here) and The King’s Speech. I just had a chance to see the second film and have some thoughts about this Best Picture contender.

1. Since this is a historical drama, I expected this film to be somewhat bland and formulaic. It was neither.

2. There is a little bit of a storyline about the gap between British royalty and the common people. In the film, this gap is between King George VI and his speech therapist, an untrained but effective practitioner. The question arises: how can someone rule a country (and empire) if either side has little idea of how the other lives? We could probably ask similar questions today about many of the people at the top of our social hierarchy.

3. The film had more humor, albeit fairly dry, than I was expecting. I don’t know that I would think of Colin Firth as a comic actor but he has some good lines spoken by a struggling character.

4. The context of the film is engaging as Europe inches toward World War II. Even if the timeline in the movie doesn’t quite match the historical record, the struggles of King George VI are heightened by the gathering storm.

5. The peak of the film is a speech by King George VI. Even though it is an important speech delivered at a key historical moment, I appreciated that the musical score and the editing was understated and intimate. Too often, I think films use music and editing as a crutch to cover up less-than-exciting climaxes. Good plots don’t need to be oversold.

6. I thought The Social Network was interesting but not great. In comparison, The King’s Speech is weightier, has better acting, and doesn’t have to rely on edgy dialogue or a current storyline. My vote for the Best Picture (between these two and the other nominees I’ve seen including True Grit, Toy Story 3, and Inception): The King’s Speech.

(Critics also like this film: RottenTomatoes.com says the film is 94% fresh with 188 positive reviews out of 199 total reviews.)

Quick review: Watching The Social Network at Harvard

This weekend, the movie The Social Network, a disputed origin story about the founding of Facebook, hit theaters to nearly universal acclaim.  I had the opportunity to see the movie on the second day of release and can add my wreath to the many laurels heaped upon this Aaron SorkinDavid Fincher collaboration.  However, since so many others have dissected this film so thoroughly, I will refrain from a typical movie review as I feel I have little to add.  I will instead comment briefly on just how surreal it was to watch this movie at Harvard.

The AMC Loews Harvard Square 5 is located one block off the Yard at Harvard University, and the mood at the 6:30pm showing on Saturday, October 2nd was electrifying.  The audience appeared to be a mix mostly of college students and their professors, and they clearly had come to have a good time.  When the Mark Zukerberg character, played by Jesse Eisenberg, made a crack early in the movie about Boston University students not needing to study, there was a collective gasp.  When the exterior of The Thirsty Scholar made a cameo appearance, there were actual cheers.

This movie was about us–not as representatives of some abstractly-defined generation nor as students coming of age during web 2.0–but as residents of Mt. Auburn Street, two blocks away.  In the men’s bathroom after the movie, I overheard a conversation between two students debating the wisdom of trying to get into one of Lawrence Summer‘s classes now that he is returning to Harvard (after working as director of the White House National Economics Council).

Many of the best movies take us from our own specifics into the universality of the human condition.  While I am sure that The Social Network will do this for many people, it had quite the opposite effect on me.  For me, it took that most abstractly universal of all web phenonmenon–Facebook–and gave it a specific human face.  One that might well have been in the theater with me last night.