All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.

UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB

Producer: Timur Bekmambetov and Jason Blum
Director: Stephen Susco
Writer: Stephen Susco
Stars: Colin Woodell, Connor Del Rio, Andrew Lees, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Betty Gabriel, Chelsea Alden, Savira Windyani, Stephanie Nogueras and Alexa Mansour
Studio: BH Tilt

D

Stephen Susco, who started his screenwriting career with the two “Grudge” movies, has taken on the task of concocting a sequel to the surprise 2015 success about a group of obnoxious chat-rooming teens who are killed one after another by some force that accuses them online of responsibility for the suicide of a classmate. “Dark Web” is a sequel in also being told via computer screens, but naturally it introduces a new bunch of gabbing victims, and offers a different explanation for their inevitable demises. The result is better than its predecessor, but that’s not hard; by any other standard it’s distinctly subpar.

It begins when Matias (Colin Woodell), a young fellow working on some sort of app, walks off with a laptop that he notices in the “lost and found” room of an internet café, though he claims to have bought it on Craigslist. It’s the device he uses to link up with his usual “game night” pals—voluble conspiracy nut AJ (Connor Del Rio), laid-back computer expert Damon (Andrew Lees), lovers Serena (Rebecca Rittenhouse) and Nari (Betty Gabriel), and DJ Lexx (Savira Windyani). Also on Matias’ radar is his current girlfriend, the deaf Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras), with whom he’s having a tiff over his failure to learn how to sign.

The vacuous conversation of the gamers is interrupted at Matias’ end by texts from the laptop’s owner accusing him of stealing it and demanding its return. In the process of arranging to do so, Mathias discovers that the computer has files that take him into the recesses of the dark web, where the owner is connected to a series of gruesome snuff films, as well as the recent abduction of a girl named Erica Dunne (Alexa Mansour). Matias and his friends get involved in trying to force the owner into releasing Erica.

Unfortunately, that brings the ire of the group distributing the snuff movies upon the whole bunch. The owner of the laptop attacks Amaya’s roommate Kelly (Chelsea Alden) and then threatens to kill Amaya unless Mathias follows his orders. Then Matias’ other game-playing pals are targeted for interfering with what appears to be a very lucrative underground business.

But that’s only how things appear; it turns out that the whole episode we’re watching is no accident, but a diabolical plot suitable for game night. Exactly what that means won’t be revealed here, but suffice it to say that the last act takes the story into territory that’s not only pretty incredible, but awfully implausible from a logical perspective.

As is usual in pictures like this, the acting is at best serviceable, and in some cases not even that; Del Rio is so annoying as the loudmouth AJ that you might find yourself wishing that he’d become the first victim. Woodell carries most of the load as the increasingly high-string Matias, and he’s okay. So is the production, which easily surpasses that of the original. Kevin Stuart’s cinematography is actually pretty good, especially considering the restrictions imposed by the computer-screen obsession; he and Susco make use of lots of split- and multiple-screen shots, and Andrew Wesman’s editing is fast-paced, obviously in the hope of obscuring the plot holes that erupt, especially in the last act. Curiously in a movie of this sort, the violence isn’t as graphic as expected; death sequences are fairly understated by genre standards, and the blood and gore is kept to a minimum. Fans of torture porn might feel a twinge of disappointment as a result.

“Unfriended” carries a message that might be beneficial to some sticky-fingered souls—don’t steal computers others absently-mindedly leave behind. Or if you do, resist the inclination to open the files on them. But whether getting that message is worth sitting through “Dark Web” is questionable. A better decision would be not only to skip the movie but to avoid wasting your time playing dumb games with your virtual friends online.

THE KING

Producer: Christopher St. John, David Kuhn and Eugene Jarecki
Director: Eugene Jarecki
Writer: Eugene Jarecki
Stars: Eugene Jarecki, Alec Baldwin, James Carville, Rosanne Cash, Chuck D, Emmylou Harris, Ethan Hawke, Van Jones, Ashton Kutcher, Greil Marcus, Mike Myers, Dan Rather, Luc Sante, David Simon, Immortal Technique, Linda Thompson and Leo “Bud” Welch
Studio: Oscilloscope Laboratories

B-

The thesis of Eugene Jarecki’s documentary essay “The King” is pretty straightforward, and some would say equally simplistic: the life and death of Elvis Presley serves as a pretty good metaphor for the promise and decline of America. It’s a provocative argument, but even those disinclined to be persuaded by it can enjoy the mode through which Jarecki presents it.

That’s via a road trip in a vintage Rolls Royce that Presley owned. Jarecki and his crew drive—with occasional stops for needed repairs—through the places that marked the trajectory of the singer’s life, from his birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi, to Memphis, where he was discovered, to New York, where he made his mark on variety-show television, to Las Vegas, where he became a staple in his later years. Extensive found footage fills in the other major points in his career, like his stint in the army and his years churning out generally terrible movies.

Jarecki invites into the back seat at various points other musicians to sit where their idol once did. Some of them merely mumble a few words in awe, others break out into song—or both. These are agreeable shows of reverence to an icon.

They’re really tangential, however, to the film’s point, which is that the United States has entered an era of decline similar to the one Elvis suffered in the dreary latter part of his career, which had begun with such energy as he seemed to be the epitome of the fulfillment of the American Dream, the rise of a poor boy through grit (and some remarkably good fortune) to the height of superstardom. His breakout in a Memphis recording studio with Sam Phillips and Sun Records is compared to the realization of the possibilities implied in the foundational “pursuit of happiness” pledge that goes back to Jefferson (though attention is also directed to the question of to what degree his appropriation of black musical traditions represented a sort of cultural theft). And the frenzy that he soon created in the country is related to that notion as well.

But then the sinister figure of Colonel Tom Parker enters this Eden, and Presley’s career gets darker. His army service, during which drugs were introduced into his life, is treated as a turning point, and after his return to civilian life he was a changed person, driven by excesses of all kinds that led to his death in 1977 at 42. The collapse of the original promise of America’s experiment, which has led to the deplorable state into which our society has fallen in the age of Trump, is mirrored, Jarecki implies, in Presley’s decline.

That political point is emphasized in the fact that the Rolls Royce trip is occurring during the presidential campaign of 2016, and Jarecki fills the trip not only with sessions with musicians in the back seat, but with conversations with ordinary folk at the various stops, whose attitudes are hardly filled with hope about their own circumstances, or the country’s—as well as observations about Elvis and recent U.S. history from a host of commentators.

Some of these climb into the car with Jarecki and speak as they drive along—Alec Baldwin, James Carville, Ashton Kutcher and Ethan Hawke among them. Others appear in talking-head interviews shot elsewhere—Van Jones, Dan Rather (whose scenes were shot on the observation deck of the Empire State Building), and Mike Myers (who offers what he describes as a Canadian perspective). Chuck D offers a sober but biting viewpoint; after all, it was he who famously sang that Elvis “never meant shit to me.” It turns out that doesn’t mean quite what you might think. There is further insight, musical and otherwise, from such figures as Greil Marcus, Luc Sante and David Simon.

Whether the collage of archival material, commentary, and interviews will persuade you that the overarching metaphor Jarecki draws holds water will be a matter of personal choice; one suspects that the political views you bring to the theatre with you will be a strong determinative factor.

But whether or not you are persuaded by its argument, you should find something in “The King” that will appeal to you, whether it be all the biographical material, the engaging musical performances, the reverential recollections—or, on the other hand, the socio-political analyses. Though it tends to be repetitive and overloaded, “The King” should hold your interest, whether it leaves you nodding in agreement or snorting in disapproval.