‘Unfriended’ Movie Review 0 74

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Unfriended follows a group of friends who come together one night to take part in a group Skype call. Upon starting the conversation they receive disturbing and threatening messages that appear to be from a deceased friend who killed herself a year prior. At first believing it to be a prank, the mysterious messenger begins revealing the group’s dark secrets and they soon realize that it isn’t a joke.

It’s effectively a found footage horror dressed up in ultra-modern garb, told entirely from the view of the central character’s computer screen. It attempts to smash together a cyber-mystery thriller with a Paranormal Activity-esque horror experience – a “cybernatural” horror if you will (that was actually the original title before it got changed to the less clever Unfriended). It’s stuck with the central issue of just how the hell you make watching people sitting at a computer for the entire movie – much less it just being a view of a screen – interesting and, indeed, scary.

It’s to the credit of director Levan Gabriadze, then, that the film manages to keep things dynamic and interesting enough to hold attention pretty much throughout the entire film. It helps that it’s barely 80 minutes long – in real-time, as displayed by the clock in the corner – but there’s always something intriguing happening on-screen in a way that makes your eyes dart around looking for clues as to what exactly is going on or if anything is going to pop out at you from behind the various characters sitting at their computers.

Anyone who saw indie cyberchat-themed flick uwantme2killhim? or Channel 4’s recent one-off drama Cyberbully (starring Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams) will be in familiar territory to start off with but it goes to some pleasingly unexpected places throughout, achieving a nice sense of tightly wound tension and jolting moments of “ah so THAT’s what that meant!” realisation as the mystery unfolds.

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Our view throughout the movie but it surprisingly works.

For those over a certain age who may not have grown up with computers and social media as second nature might find that much of the film goes over their heads. But for the audience at which it’s aimed – those who live large parts of their lives online, regularly multitasking tabs while listening to Spotify and the like – it’s technically savvy and entirely relevant. It’s the same audience that tend to head out for supernatural horror in droves and so combining that with a cyber-world they recognise is a stroke of brilliance in a way. Rather ironically, however, it works better as a cautionary tale against cyber-bullying than it does an outright supernatural horror movie and the latter elements can sometimes feel a little jammed in there for the sake of it, especially towards the crescendo of an ending. But there’s just about enough spooky goings on in there to conjure a feeling of effectively uncomfortable fear of what might, and indeed does, come.

It suffers a bit in the character department in that they’re not particularly likeable (although there’s a case to be made that they’re intentionally written as such), not to mention the age-old horror issue of them making dumb decisions only there as an excuse to further the plot or force us into a jump scare situation. But it’s never enough to take you out of the movie because the techniques going around them – as well as the convincingly freaked out performances from its young cast (particularly Shelley Hennig as the lead) – keep you compelled and believing in their predicament.

It’s no instant classic by any means and will probably lose some of its power on repeat viewings. You’ll also have to leave logic at the door, even out with the supernatural element. But nevertheless, for what it aims to be, Unfriended is a fun, atmospheric and quite unsettling experience when it wants to be, one that uses its admittedly gimmicky premise to nicely unnerving effect while also having something halfway meaningful to say about the responsibility that at least should come with interacting with people online. Just when you thought the found footage genre is long past its sell-by-date, a film like this comes along and proves you can still put an interesting twist on it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpivjl7XVN4

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I’m a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features.

I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 353

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 380

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10