Unfriended

The cinematic equivalent of a workplace training video, Unfriended forces viewers to stare at one character’s screen interface, complete with Skype notifications and a moving mouse. Exhilarating stuff, eh?

At a budget of $1 million (spent on what, champagne and caviar craft services?) the 16-day production schedule drew a big box office gross — but we’d mostly sooner ctrl-alt-delete it from memory.

The tale unfurls via, er…laptop POV…that of bland high schooler Blaire (played by ex-pageant queen, Shelley Hennig) and concerns the bullying and subsequent online shaming of one Laura Barns, who then commits suicide. On the one-year anniversary of Barns’ death, her friends yak over Skype.

The group notices an uninvited user, billie227, and thereafter, that lewd photos of them are being updated to their Facebook pages (this was back when this young demographic actually used the social media site  — they’ve since left it in droves. Still, kudos to Blumhouse/Bazelevs co-producers for using actual websites rather than made-up ones…hence we get actual Google searches. Yay).

The new chatter is an anonymous intruder who claims to be Laura Barns’ restless spirit. He/she forces the other kids to play a game, Never Have I Ever, wherein they incriminate one another. This is similar to Panic Button, a British reality TV- and social media-based horror where the tormenter gets victims to turn on one another.

It’s this latter element that makes Unfriended fall apart.

One backstabbing Never Have I Ever revelation would’ve packed more of a dramatic punch than a series of them, especially when none of the characters is in any way developed. Yes, characters are seldom developed in horror films…but for a flick that is exclusively based on conversation, that’s no excuse here.

And as you can see from the screen shot above….a whole movie of this? In small doses, perhaps, a short film, most definitely…but the Brady Bunch / Hollywood Squares visual set-up begins to wear thin pretty quick.

As aficionados of weird horror movie weapons (see our book, Death by Umbrella) Unfriended features one pretty neat demise we shan’t spoil here, as well as 1-2 genuine scares. That’s not really enough to justify Unfriended: Game Night, its sequel.

So, is it better to deftly execute something that’s been done to death, or to break new creative ground and mostly fail? See for yourself.

**1/2 (out of 5)

Death Wish (2018)

[Check out our DEATH WISH PODCAST if you like.]

Miles Davis said “Time isn’t the main thing, it’s the only thing.” Another way to put it is of course, timing is everything. And given that we’re so close to what just transpired tragically at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida…there are some who’d say that maybe now is not the right time for a new Death Wish movie.

Those people would be wrong, as instead of focusing on the hair-trigger paranoia and ugly racial undercurrents of the 1974 classic or delving too much into polarizing gun politics, director Eli Roth gives us an at-times mordantly funny, straight-up dumb-dumb action movie that’s a surprisingly worthy entry in the “urban scum” canon.

In the original Death Wish, Bronson was an architect, one of the greatest depictions of the profession ever (other than George Costanza’s fantasy-land version on Seinfeld). And it was a great conceit: a guy whose job it is to bring order to chaos, going wholly chaotic when he turns vigilante.

So Paul Kersey’s back for a new generation, with Bruce Willis. Except that this time, he’s a doctor so that Hippocratic dictum, Primum non nocere, or “first do no harm” is inverted and PK goes all Dr Kevorkian on the South Side of Chicago with nary a community organizer in sight.

The film flies out of the gate with a harrowing depiction of a busy ER where PK is the trauma surgeon, tending to yet another in a spate of weekend shootings for which Chi-Town has become renowned. Soon, as we all know, his immediate family falls victim and it’s up to the doc to set things straight.

There’s an audacious split-screen of the surgeon stapling together a wound at his day job, and dis-assembling his piece at his night job, set to the strains of AC/DC’s Back in Black. Kirby Bliss Blanton (The Green Inferno) does a scene-stealing turn as Bethany, a gun shop sales assistant and Vincent D’Onofrio is fun as Kersey’s sad-sack ever-broke ex-con brother.

The Windy City has never looked grittier. There are little nods to CS Lewis and Milton Friedman (after all, he’s part of the Chicago School and all that) and the performances are largely solid.

And there’s a scene with a bowling ball that’s wildly over-the-top. Death Wish is as moronic as it is hugely entertaining.

***1/2 (out of 5)