Monthly Archives: April 2015

Ghost in the Machine

Online, anyone can stream your scream

Cybernatural

Unfriended

Starring Shelley Henning, Heather Sossaman, Matthew Bohrer, Courtney Halverson, Moses Jacob Storm & Renee Olstead

Directed by Levan Gabriadze

R

Hackers, spammers, scammers, trolls and identity thieves can make going online pretty scary, right?

You’ll have even more reasons to fear clicking and scrolling when you watch this freaky-fresh take on a classic horror-movie standby—teenagers in peril—seen entirely through the perspective of a character’s laptop computer screen.

In Unfriended (originally titled Cybernatural), a group of high school friends having an online chat notices an anonymous, lurking intruder on their call. Ominously, it’s on the anniversary of the suicide of Laura Barnes, one of their classmates, who took her life after being victimized by cyber bullying. Then weird things start to happen: The friends can’t boot the lurker off the line; other web5713_FPT2_00024 pages malfunction; unsettling messages begin coming in—and they say they’re from Laura.

“Something srysly wrong,” types one of the chatters. Indeed it is, and it’s about to get much wrong-er…srysly.

Director Levan Gabriadze takes what might have been a gimmick—the computer-screen format—and totally makes it work. We see everything as the character of Blaire (Shelley Henning, Malia on TV’s Teen Wolf) sees it, does it and experiences it. We watch as she moves her cursor around the web—Skype, Facebook, Google, Gmail, Spotify. We follow each click as she types, enters a command or searches frantically for answers. We read, as she reads, messages as they come in, often bearing hair-raising news. We watch, as she watches, terror contort her friends’ faces—and her own—in the windows of her screen.

Computer viruses never seemed so dangerous; a hovering cursor over a link can be a thing of wrenching suspense; that spinning “beach ball” icon becomes not just maddening, but positively malevolent.

Can their late classmate really be taunting them, and haunting them, from beyond the grave? What role did each of them play in her death? What other terrible secrets might be buried—online or elsewhere—just waiting to be brought to light?

5713_FPT2_00101_000123_COMP cropWhen things turn nasty—and they do—the gore is seen as either on a terrifying, in-and-out, glitch-y pixelated webcam connection, or via attachments that the teens have opened to view. The audience, like Blaire, never knows what’s going to pop up on the screen. Our eyes, like hers, are glued.

It’s a nifty-nightmare premise for an online-saturated culture, so much so it’s a wonder someone hasn’t done it already. It taps into several themes—the illusion of online privacy; the “permanence” of online content; the compliance of everyone who creates, uploads, downloads or even views material on the web; the evils of cyber-bulling; how social media has supplanted so many other former means of communication, information and interaction.

Unfriended delivers some truly unsettling jolts with a minimum of effects and what was surely a micro-fraction of the budget of much bigger, bloodier, more bloated horror flicks. Once you see it, you might not stare into your computer screen so casually—or comfortably—again.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Young at Heart

Bittersweet Ben Stiller comedy explores growing up, growing older

WWY_DAY_3__0501.NEF

While We’re Young

Starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried

Directed by Noah Baumbach

R

The search for the fountain of youth, both literally and figuratively, has captivated imaginations for centuries. Who hasn’t dreamed of turning back the hands of time?

7G5A8614.CR2

Naomi Watts & Ben Stiller

In the latest movie comedy from indie-favorite writer-director Noah Baumbach, Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play Josh and Cornelia, a childless New York husband and wife in their forties who find themselves out of the loop with their friends, whose lives now revolve around new babies and toddlers. But they’re suddenly rejuvenated—as if spritzed by the mythical fountain—when they intersect with a couple of twenty-something hipsters, Jamie and Darby, played by Adam Driver (from the HBO series Girls) and Amanda Seyfried, who remind them of all the things they used to be.

At Jamie and Darby’s intoxicatingly funky digs, Josh and Cornelia swoon over their new friends’ retro-iffic love of old vinyl records, classic board games, VHS tapes, vintage fashion and manual typewriters. “It’s like…everything we once threw out,” Cornelia gushes. “But it looks so good they way they have it!”

Jamie, it turns out, is also a documentary filmmaker, like Josh—although Josh has been struggling with one movie for the past seven years, unable to complete it. Jamie strokes Josh’s frail, needy ego; Josh falls under the spell of Jamie’s freewheeling, youthful energy—and, at least for a while, how everything seems to work out so easily for him.

EE_LARGO_D2__0316.NEF

Amanda Seyfried

When Josh and Jamie collaborate on a new project, and Cornelia’s father (Charles Grodin)—an esteemed documentary filmmaker himself—gets involved, things get complicated. The couples’ relationships begin to unravel; jealousies and suspicions arise. Is Jamie using Josh for his connection to his famous father-in-law? Is Josh just being neurotic and resentful? When is a kiss more a kiss, a “meeting” more than a meeting? What do Jamie and Cornelia see in Josh and Darby that they can’t find in themselves?

Director Baumbach, whose critically acclaimed films include Frances Ha and The Squid and the Whale, has a very Woody Allen-ish way with his New York settings, characters and situations, coaxing out humor in the way Jamie and Cornelia are attracted to the lifestyles of their new friends—and the way their “old” friends react to them. Josh begins sporting a fedora and sockless dress shoes, like Jamie; Cornelia takes up hip-hop dance classes with Darby.

WWY_DAY_001_0599.NEF

Josh (Ben Stiller) begins dressing like his new friend Jamie (Adam Driver).

“We’re worried about you,” their friend Fletcher (Adam Horovitz, of the ’80s rap trio the Beastie Boys) tells them. “You’re an old man in a hat.”

The soundtrack’s mix of tunes from David Bowie, Paul McCartney and Wings, Vivaldi, Danny Kaye, the Psychedelic Furs and A Tribe Called Quest adds to the movie’s feel of a crisscrossing mash-up of generations.

In the second half, the plot strains to connect Josh’s principles about “truth” in documentary films to a major point about Jamie’s approach to moviemaking that doesn’t seem to be a such a big deal to anyone else, even in the big climatic showdown to which everything builds. The movie’s much better when it sticks to the “smaller” human comedy of people dealing with the foibles of growing up and growing older, finding out who they are and what they want out of life, and learning that every age—and every stage—has its joys as well as its jolts.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A Lotta Bull

Latest Nicholas Sparks movie adaptation really piles it on

THE LONGEST RIDE

The Longest Ride

Starring Scott Eastwood, Britt Robertson, Jack Huston, Oona Chaplin & Alan Alda

Directed by George Tillman Jr.

PG-13

Maybe The Notebook didn’t make you sigh, sob or swoon enough. Perhaps you really liked Channing Tatum in Dear John, but wondered…hmmm, how would he look on top of a big, bucking bovine? Or maybe, even with fireworks, a huge explosion and a character that turned out to be a ghost (!), there still wasn’t quite enough going on for you in Safe Haven.

If, somehow, none of the other nine movies made from romance novelist Nicholas Sparks’ popular, heart-tugging tearjerkers had enough whatever-it-is that you go to Nicholas Sparks movies for, well, the tenth might just be the charm.

THE LONGEST RIDEFirst of all, The Longest Ride doesn’t just give you one love story, but two—a pair of parallel passion tales stretching across more than two hours of screen time and four-fifths of a century. And it’s positively loaded—with sorority girls, hunky cowboys, country music, horses, bulls, modern art, love letters, World War II battlefield heroics, playful beach frolics and a sex scene so hot and steamy it seems to smoke up the whole Smoky Mountains.

It also has massive amounts of hoke, contrivance and manipulation. The plot, driven by a series of outrageously ramped-up coincidences, sets up a tale so implausibly fluffy, you wonder if the characters would be able to set foot on anything solid if they happened to come across it. A slow-mo shot of snortin’ bull snot is about as close as things gets to a sense of gritty reality.

Britt Robinson (who played Angie McAlister on TV’s Under the Dome) is Sophia, a Wake Forest University student who falls for professional bull rider Luke (Scott Eastwood, son of Clint), which threatens to put a wrinkle in her plans for a post-graduate internship at a prestigious New York artTHE LONGEST RIDE institute. One dark, rainy night after their first date, they come across a wrecked car and its badly injured driver, Ira (Alan Alda), whose own story then begins to unspool in flashbacks as the rapt Sophia visits him in the hospital, reading aloud to him from the box of letters he’s saved over the years from the love of his life, his late wife, Ruth.

THE LONGEST RIDE

Oona Chaplin & Jack Huston

Like the big bowl of mac and cheese Luke says is his favorite dish, it’s all mostly a bunch of squishy, deep-dish goo—but hey, it does look pretty good. The on-location photography, in and around Wilmington, N.C., is picture-perfect, which adds to the feel of dreamy romantic fantasy. Scott Eastwood—who bears an uncanny resemblance to his famous father in his early acting days—is a bona fide hunk, and time seems to slow down every time the camera pans across his sculpted, shirtless torso (which is often). Pay attention to the actors who play the younger versions of Ira and Ruth, Jack Huston and Oona Chaplin, not only because they make Ira and Ruth’s story so much more interesting and compelling than Luke and Sophia’s, but because you’re watching the progeny of Hollywood royalty: He’s the grandson of legendary actor-director John Huston, and her granddaddy was silent-movie icon Charlie Chaplin.

The Longest Ride likely won’t convert any newcomers to the Nicholas Sparks fold. But if you’re already a fan, hey, saddle up: This bull’s for you.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Need For Speed

A masterful cavalcade of carefully orchestrated vehicular mayhem

2431_SB_00003R

Furious 7

Starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker & Jason Stratham

Directed by James Wan

PG-13

Fast cars and stunt driving have always been Hollywood staples, but nothing raised need-for-speed thrills to the level of pop-art success like the Fast and Furious franchise, which began almost 15 years ago, spawned six sequels and became a $2 billion-plus property—one of the most lucrative ever—for Universal Studios.

Now, in the seventh installment, Vin Diesel and his virtually indestructible crew of pedal-slammers reunite to save the world from more devious dudes, including a super-bad Brit (Jason Statham) out to avenge the death of his brother from a previous movie. But the plot’s just so much air whizzing by from the dozens of vehicles that zoom, smash and sail across the screen. Don’t worry about following a storyline: Just sit back and marvel at the masterful cavalcade of carefully orchestrated vehicular mayhem, a dose of high-octane escapism ramped up to ridiculous, fantastical extremes.

Furious 7

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

In addition to Diesel (who’s also one of the franchise’s producers), the parade of gear-jamming, road-ripping all-stars includes Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, rapper-turned-actor Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson, all of whom will be very familiar to anyone who buckled up for previous F&F joyrides. Kurt Russell comes aboard as a slick, mysterious quasi-governmental deep-cover operative, Mr. Nobody, who needs Diesel & crew’s help to put the brakes on an international criminal (Djimon Hounsou) who’s kidnapped a mastermind computer hacker (Nathalie Emmanual, who plays Missandei on TV’s Game of Thrones).

Director James Wan, the maestro of horror and suspense whose resume includes Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring, creates some absolutely stupefying set pieces, jaw-dropping scenes of stunts and special effects. In one, cars drop from a cargo plane, parachute onto a winding mountain roadway and roar off to assault a heavily armored convoy, leading to a literal cliffhanger—then keep going! Another features the world’s most expensive car racing through—and I do mean through—the world’s tallest building.

And, as usual, the car scenes are broken up by equally impressive fight scenes, magnificent, crashing, smashing slam-o-ramas, choreographed to perfection and shot with inventive, topsy-turvy camera angles that bring you right along for the tosses and tumbles. Mixed martial arts fighting champ Ronda Rousey and Muai Thai warrior Tony Jaa both have bone-crunching cameos.

2431_TPI_00030R

Paul Walker

But for all the speed and spectacle, something else truly makes this one special for Fast and Furious fans—and that’s the final appearance of Paul Walker, one of the series’ top stars, who died (ironically) in a car crash in 2013 while it was still in production. Using footage already shot, digital effects and body doubles as stand-ins, the filmmakers were able to complete all the scenes—and amazingly, most viewers will likely never be able to spot any trickery.

Rather than simply a character, Walker’s role is a cornerstone of the entire movie, which actually becomes a eulogy and a tribute to him. At the end, as Vin Diesel’s character rides, literally, into the sunset and says farewell, literally, to his old friend, a montage of scenes from their previous movies plays. It’s not fast, and certainly not furious, and it may make your eyes misty, for just a sweet moment or two, from something other than gravel dust, exhaust fumes and the head-spinning speed at which the next sequel, number eight, is already being readied to head our way.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,