Unfriended


Someone just hacked Shelley Hennig's Facebook page.

Someone just hacked Shelley Hennig’s Facebook page.

(2015) Horror (Universal) Moses Jacob Storm, Shelley Hennig, Renee Olstead, Jacob Wysocki, Will Peltz, Courtney Halverson, Heather Sossaman, Mickey River, Cal Barnes, Christa Hartsock, Darell M. Davis. Directed by Levan Gabriadze

The world has changed. Now more than ever our lives are wrapped up in social media and the internet. Friday nights for the average teen aren’t hanging out in malls anymore; they’re hanging out in chat rooms, Skyping with your friends, checking out videos on YouTube, listening to tunes on Spotify and often all at the same time.

There is also an ugly side to being a teen, one that has been around forever. It’s the cruelty of youth, the instinct to tear down those things – and people – that don’t fit in with the norm, that don’t march in lockstep to the beat of whatever your clique is marching to. Whether it is slut shaming, outing the gay kid or posting videos of the carnage that is a drunken teen party, kids do things without thinking of what the consequences of their actions can be, not just for those they’re being cruel to but to themselves as well.

And it’s a typical Friday night for Blaire Lily. She’s chatting up her boyfriend Mitch (Storm) and on a Skype conference call with her friends Mitch, Jesse Felton (Olstead), Adam Sewell (Peltz) and Ken Smith (Wysocki). Pretty typical stuff, except what they have forgotten is that it’s the anniversary of the suicide of their friend Laura Barns (Sossaman). She’d taken her own life after a video of her drunken antics at a party had been posted to YouTube, complete with her passing out and soiling herself. The anonymous posting had devastated her world; trolls urged her to take her own life and eventually she did.

Now there’s a mystery caller who has hacked into their call, someone who knows all about their secrets but wants someone to fess up – who posted the video to the net of Laura Barns that led to her death? And the mystery caller has ways of making them talk, like a deadly game of Never Have I Ever that exposes some of their indiscretions to one another as the terrified teens begin to turn on each other. Who is this mysterious caller and what do they want? Blaire is beginning to suspect it’s Laura Barns herself.

Gabriadze has come up with a clever concept that the film is scene entirely through Blaire’s keyboard; we see her cursor moving, typing in responses to the chat, and the video on YouTube and Skype that she’s seeing. In a sense, this is a kind of found footage film to the ultimate degree. The downside is that this is going to get dated awfully fast but for 2015, it will fit in perfectly for the teens of the era.

The other side is that for all the gimmickry – and it is gimmickry, make no mistake – that no horror movie can rise above and become a classic without characters in it that will be memorable, that you want to root for and become genuinely concerned for as they are picked off, one by one. That doesn’t happen here. Perhaps I’m old and jaded but none of these kids stood out at all; all of them were spoiled, shallow and had a mean streak deep down. How can I relate to someone who would post a video of their “best friend” passed out drunk in their own poop on the internet where it will remain forever? Does that sound like someone you want to spend any time with?

And like most horror movies lately, there’s not an adult to be seen. Anywhere. It’s like teen paradise where parents are always absent and they can pretty much do what they want. That’s how you sell movies like that to teens; they’re the heroes, there are no adults telling them what to do and when there are adults around they’re generally assholes or incompetent. No wonder they think we’re all morons. Of course, so often we are from their point of view. Or from anyone’s.

Anyway, this is the kind of horror movie that’s a little short on scares; mostly you’re watching Blaire’s laptop screen. That may sound boring but there is a kind of interactive element to it; the result is that you feel like you’re the one doing the typing and it does bring you closer to the story which is more or less a Ten Little Indians revenge rehash. If only we could have cared about the characters being knocked off the movie might have been more than a passing fancy that in five years will be dismissed as being “so 2015.”

REASONS TO GO: Nice concept.
REASONS TO STAY: More concept than execution. Characters all bland and undistinguished.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of profanity and violence, some sexuality and teen drug and alcohol use as well as a couple of disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All of the Facebook accounts see in the film actually exist and can be accessed by anyone.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Blair Witch Project
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Monkey Kingdom

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I Believe in Unicorns


This is what every Disney princess longs for.

This is what every Disney princess longs for.

(2014) Drama (Animals on Parade) Natalia Dyer, Peter Vack, Julia Garner, Amy Seimetz, Toni Meyerhoff, Justin Hall, Sam O’Gotti, Johnny Sequoyah, Eric A. H. Watson. Directed by Leah Meyerhoff

Florida Film Festival 2014

I am not a teenage girl. I have never been a teenage girl. I will never be a teenage girl. On the surface, I’m exactly the wrong guy to review this movie. However, I do have the benefit of having a wife who was once a teenage girl and her insights have been very helpful in writing this.

Davina (Dyer) is not your typical teenage girl – if there is such a thing. Her mom (T. Meyerhoff) is confined to a wheelchair. She’d been diagnosed with a debilitating disease and with her marriage on the rocks, she hoped a baby might make her husband stay. It didn’t.

So Davina is her mom’s caregiver on top of having to deal with normal teenage stuff – boy craziness, needing to find herself in a world that doesn’t necessarily want you to do anything more than conform, the fear that nobody will find you attractive, the fear that somebody will. On top of that she cooks and cleans and takes care of her mom’s needs. To escape her life, she has an active imagination in which unicorns exist and do battle with monsters, but she needs more than a fantasy life. Something has to give.

In a local park, Davina observes a skater boy named Sterling (Vack). He’s really cute. A hunk, even. She envies his free spirit. He admires her beauty. She’s a virgin but doesn’t necessarily want to stay that way. A tipping point is reached. She and Sterling run away, destination anywhere but there.

Now, I will be the first to tell you that in many ways the female teen audience has been underserved. Hollywood seems content to give them Twilight clones and while that might be plentiful box office, it doesn’t really give them any insight into themselves, into the things they are going through. You know, life. Sure there are occasional movies with bitchy cheerleader cliques and high school angst but those movies have a tendency to lack any sort of reality, or even empathy.

So you’d think I’d be breaking out the champagne and party hats for a movie like this and to an extent, but that isn’t the case. I’d really, really like to, because I think the movie can be valuable to parents and their daughters, but I have a few issues with it. I will be the first to tell you that some of them might be a little unfair.

Seeing as many films as I do, you get a sense of some of the cliches that independent films are rife with. One of them is the confusion between child-like and childish. Now your definitions may vary but I define the former as possession of the wonder that a child experiences and the latter as doing whatever occurs to you without thought of consequence. While I get that the characters here are little more than children, their behavior is completely childish. It can get grating, particularly when they get all indie-cute and start running around fields like maniacs, laughing and acting childish. I wouldn’t mind so much if I hadn’t seen the same kind of scene in dozens of indie films in the past couple of years alone. I found these scenes distracting and annoying and veteran filmgoers probably will too.

I do think that the unicorn sequences which are mainly stop-motion animation are clever and imaginative and they are likely some of the most memorable things about the film. Vack plays Sterling a little bit too much with dude-ness which may irritate anybody outside the California state lines, but Dyer does a bang-up job as Davina and even though she too got on my nerves with her actions sometimes, so would any teenager I hung out with for more than an hour.

So it will come as no shock to you, dear reader, that my wife loved this movie much more than I did. I fully intended to give this a much more scathing review but she prevailed upon me with some fairly logical points and said in her gentle but firm way that just because I’m not the audience this film is meant for doesn’t mean it isn’t a valid experience for someone else. Fair enough, but that then leads to the conclusion that this movie isn’t for everybody and I honestly think it could have been. I’m not saying have the young kids act like responsible adults – that wouldn’t be realistic – but make them less cliche indie film characters. Then maybe it becomes less of a film for a certain age and gender bracket but one we can all share – and perhaps learn from. Even so, this should be mandatory viewing for teenage girls and those who love them.

REASONS TO GO: Teen girls will find this compelling. Some interesting images. Unicorn animations are fun.

REASONS TO STAY: Relies on indie sass. The immaturity of the leads may be grating on some. More childish than child-like.

FAMILY VALUES:  Occasional swearing, teen drinking and partying as well as some frank teen sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Toni Meyerhoff, who plays Davina’s mother, is actually the director’s mother and was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis shortly before her birth. She has been in a wheelchair ever since and the director’s experiences growing up as her mother’s caretaker was the inspiration for this film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/29/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Thirteen

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Yellow

Chronicle


Chronicle

Dane DeHaan wants a Ferrari and he wants it NOW!!!!

(2012) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan, Michael Kelly, Ashley Hinshaw, Bo Petersen, Anna Wood, Rudi Malcolm, Luke Tyler, Crystal-Donna Roberts, Adrian Collins, Grant Powell, Armand Aucamp, Nicole Bailey. Directed by Joshua Trank

 

The saying goes absolute power corrupts absolutely, and that is true even of people in the best of positions. When it comes to teenagers, they are still developing their value system and their moral compass is still under construction. That’s not a knock, that’s just how people grow – some may develop sooner than others but for the most part most teens are just kind of making their own way through the best they can. Making mistakes is part of growing up; but when you have super powers, those mistakes become amplified exponentially.

Andrew (DeHaan) is a bit of a loner. His mom Karen (Petersen) is slowly dying, her lungs eaten up by cancer. His father Richard (Kelly) is a former firefighter who is out on permanent disability and copes with the family’s financial ruin and impending death of his wife by drinking and beating up his son who is a disappointment to him.

Andrew copes by documenting everything on an ancient video camera he’s found – why I’m not really sure except a desire to relive every moment of his teenage years’ misery when he gets older. He has few friends at school, let alone a girlfriend. He’s not a bad kid but he’s clearly troubled.

His only friend is his cousin Matt (Russell) who is smart and outgoing although a bit socially awkward himself. He reads books of philosophy, quotes Plato and Schopenhauer and ferries his cousin around to school. Living in the Seattle area, cars are a must unless you’re fond of getting soaking wet in the frequent rainstorms.

Matt drags Andrew to a rave and Andrew decides to go, camera in tow. Predictably he gets bullied and goes outside to sit, despondent. Matt’s friend Steve (Jordan), a popular athlete running for student body president finds Andrew and brings him to a mysterious hole in the ground that he and Matt found. Matt wants Andrew to take pictures of it; the three go down into the hole and find…something.

Three weeks later that something has started developing telekinesis – the ability to move objects with the power of the mind – and their powers are growing stronger and stronger. At first it’s a big goof for the three of them, moving a leaf blower to send an updraft up the skirts of cheerleaders, or bringing a stuffed animal to life to terrify a young girl in a toy store (boys will be boys and sometimes they’re jerks, to paraphrase something Martin Zellar once sang).

Soon though Andrew’s inner rage (as the bullying intensifies as does his mother’s illness and his father’s abuse) begins to burn through and he is rapidly becoming the most powerful of the three of them. An incident causes Matt to establish some rules – no using the powers in anger, on humans or in public, all of which Andrew will soon violate.

This is Trank’s first feature film and he’s already being considered for the high profile Fox reboot of Fantastic Four. He is very successful with taking a movie in the found footage genre and augmenting it with some pretty nifty special effects (although some of the flying sequences look patently green screened with harnesses). The script by Max Landis (son of veteran filmmaker John Landis, the man behind An American Werewolf in London and National Lampoon’s Animal House as well as Michael Jackson’s Thriller video) is smart and authentic. Not only are these high school boys who talk like high school boys (perhaps only Diablo Cody is as good with young people dialogue) but they act like them too. Full of mischief, a little bit of cruelty and plenty of insecurity yet absolutely sure they are the top of the human food chain – yup, just like every teenager I’ve ever met – or the one I used to be.

The movie could easily have taken the easy route and just had three kids becoming Gods with all sorts of wisdom and benevolence and become Superman or even Spider-Man but instead their powers play into their issues and their inexperience leads to tragic circumstances.

DeHaan is the lead here and he does the best job artistically – he has much more to work with in a lot of ways as the troubled boy who slowly comes to realize that he doesn’t have to take anybody’s crap anymore. Still, I think the handsome Russell may wind up with the most success later on down the line – he has that movie star charisma and looks that studios find irresistible. Don’t be surprised if he gets a franchise role somewhere down the line and not too far, either. Ditto for Jordan who has an easy charm and might do real well in some Tyler Perry-like comedies for a younger audience.

Hinshaw as a v-blogger who captures Matt’s attention and Wood as a classmate of Andrew’s who decides to take his virginity after a successful talent show appearance (augmented by his powers) are both nice eye candy but not really called upon to stretch their talents very much. Hopefully we’ll see them do just that in some juicier roles eventually.

This was a bit of a surprise I have to admit – judging on the trailer I expected another teen-centric found footage piece that would grab the high school audience but not much more; quite frankly I thought this was a solid movie with broad appeal and certainly a nice showcase for both Trank and Landis, who I believe have awfully promising careers ahead. There’s actually some stuff to think about here along with the strictly visceral appeal – and that’s a win for a broader audience anyday.

REASONS TO GO: The teens act like teens. Some impressive effects work despite the budget.

REASONS TO STAY: More than its share of angst.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, a few cuss words, some sexuality, teen drinking and some of the themes here are pretty sophisticated for the Nickelodeon set.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anna Wood, whose character makes out with Andrew in the film, is Dane DeHaan’s girlfriend in real life.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/15/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100. The reviews are raves.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cloverfield

RAIN LOVERS: It rains all the time in Seattle, dude. It rains here a lot too.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Man On a Ledge