REVIEW: Unfriended

3 10 2015

Movies – in particular the horror genre – are great at tapping into our digital anxieties, and “Unfriended” may very well be the ultimate representation to date.  The action unfolds entirely on a computer screen in real time over the course of roughly 85 minutes, following a group of teenagers who get terrorized by an online presence. This omnipotent force takes the name of a girl, Laura Barns, who everyone thought had committed suicide after some particularly vicious bullying.

Laura threatens them primarily with the disclosure of secrets that each individual kept from the group, usually of duplicitous or just plain malicious nature.  In particular, she uses the leverage from social media where images can be deleted but never really die.  If ever there was any doubt why teenagers are flocking to apps like Snapchat where images supposedly disappear, “Unfriended” has the answer.

Writer Nelson Greaves and director Leo Gabriadze execute the daring formal conceit well, even managing to throw in some interesting micro-observations about the way people communicate with divided attention and crossed alliances.  Yet no clever presentation can hide the fact that the story plays out like an episode of “Pretty Little Liars.”

At its core, “Unfriended” is still a bunch of whiny, obnoxious adolescents clawing at each other because of someone unknown, supernatural force.  The film is sure to make Laura some kind of technical wizard, able to control the computer’s mouse and rewire the Internet at will.  This makes her a little bit more frightening but a whole lot more ludicrous and unbelievable.

Still, “Unfriended” emerges as more positive than negative.  This feels like the best case scenario for the kinds of assembly-line horror movies cranked out overt at Jason Blum’s prolific Blumhouse Productions.  It’s entertaining and lowbrow enough to satisfy the lowest common denominator of moviegoers while also offering a little something to chew on for those who need a more existential terror to really scare them.  B-2stars

REVIEW: The Visit

9 09 2015

The VisitM. Night Shyamalan might be moviegoers’ favorite punching bag, but for his latest outing as writer/director, he brought something to deflect the blow.

In “The Visit,” a found footage horror film, all action comes from the camera of teenaged Rebecca Jameson (Olivia DeJonge).  She’s an aspiring Albert Maysles who thinks she and her brother Tyler’s (Ed Oxenbould) upcoming trip to their grandparents’ rural Pennsylvania home might make a good subject.  Since their mother Paula (Kathryn Hahn) has been estranged from them for years, this visit will mark the first time they meet.

Don’t like a turn the movie takes?  Blame it on Rebecca, then.  It’s a pretty smart way for Shyamalan to avoid criticism.  And if moviegoers land one more punch on the battered director, it might be enough to push him into oblivion for good.

But “The Visit” looks like the first step toward the rehabilitation of his reputation.  The film demonstrates a rigor of style and storytelling not seen from Shyamalan since at least 2002’s “Signs.”  The limitations of his chosen narrative technique force him to exhibit more creativity and less bombast, both of which he does decently well here.

At times, the script feels a bit retrofitted for the found footage format; various scenes feel unnatural to film but unfortunately necessary to move the plot forward.  The scares are a bit on the conventional side, too.  Overall, though, “The Visit” proves a satisfying move in the right direction for a director once hailed as the heir to Spielberg.  He taps into anxieties about America’s growing gray population while also capturing something true about the current generation of teenagers and how the omnipresence of video guides their every action.  B / 2halfstars

REVIEW: The Purge

12 06 2013

The PurgeThe amateur sociologist in me finds plenty to love about “The Purge.”  Though not without its holes, the film is aiming at some deep social commentary about the causes of our seemingly never-ending modern woes.  It posits a quasi-utopian 2022 where unemployment and crime have virtually disappeared thanks to a single night called The Purge where nothing is illegal for 12 hours.  Robbery, assault, and even murder are all acceptable because it provides an opportunity for society to unleash all its pent-up anger.

Sound a little elementary to you?  All society needs to do to achieve harmony is get out some rage?  That’s because it is.  Writer/director James DeMonaco has a brilliant concept, but it probably needed a little bit more time to be developed.  For example, for all the psychological good The Purge supposedly does, could you really go to work the next day if your boss tried to kill you as if nothing happened?

Yet while the oversimplification allows for plot holes aplenty, it also allows the film’s message to (hopefully) reach the average horror film viewer, normally not accustomed to anything deep from the genre.  Not to bash an entire class of movies, but horror generally waters down to small universes where only the moral stave off their doom.  “The Purge” is not particularly subversive, but it’s closer to Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” than it is to “Evil Dead.”

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