Category Archives: Now Showing

UNFRIENDED

Producer:  Timur Bekmambetov and Nelson Greaves
Director: Levan Gabriadze 
Writer: Nelson Greaves and Parker Laramie
Stars: Shelley Hennig, Moses SWtorm, Renee Olstead, Will Peltz, Jacob Wysocki, Courtney Halverson and Heather Sossaman 
Studio: Universal Pictures 

F

It’s difficult to care about the demise of characters in a horror movie when they’re all already brain-dead. That’s the moral of the stultifyingly stupid, distinctly unfrightening “Unfriended,” a gimmicky ghost story with a cyberspace theme.

The movie, directed without style by Levan Gabriadze, portrays things entirely on a single computer screen the camera never leaves. Its owner is Blaire Lily (Shelly Henning), who’s initially shown watching online footage of the suicide exactly one year earlier of her classmate Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), along with the humiliating post of Laura drunk at a party that had gone viral and led her to kill herself. But Blaire is soon joined in a group chat by her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Storm) and their pals Jess (Renee Olstead), Adam (Will Peltz) and Ken (Jacob Wysocki). Unfortunately some anonymous hacker is horning in on their conversation, sending messages that purport to be from the deceased Laura. They suspect that another classmate, Val (Courtney Halverson) is pranking them, but once she’s added to the chat, it appears they were wrong.

Things go from bad to worse—not just for the characters, but the audience as well—when the hacker begins accusing the nattering quintet of responsibility for Laura’s death in posting horrible things about her. She also sows discord among them by posting embarrassing things that they presume come from the others. But then she strikes one of them down, presumably—as an informative website suggests—by taking possession of the victim and compelling her to commit suicide. Another will soon follow, leaving four glued to their screens and forced to play a game of “Never Have I” that reveals terrible secrets about them all and results in each meeting a well-deserved fate, though devotees of teen slasher movies may be disappointed that the gore level s surprisingly low.

You have to hand it to Gabriadze and screenwriters Nelson Greaves and Parker Laramie for finding a cheap but innovative way of tweaking the musty found footage formula to make it seem distinctive. But cinematographer Adam Sidman wasn’t able to do anything to minimize the essential dullness of having a stationary camera focus on a computer screen for nearly ninety minutes. Frankly it’s as boring to watch Blaire’s journeys through Skype, Google, YouTube, Facebook, Wikipedia and Chatroulette as one’s own surfing usually proves to be. It seems that computer screens are just dull cinematic devices, whatever data you fill them with—even if it’s a guy killing himself with a blender.

But to be fair, the entire process would be less irritating if the characters weren’t such obnoxious jerks and the acting were better than amateur-night quality. As it is, the cast should perhaps be given credit for persuading us that they’re just a bunch of dumb high school types chattering away about their past online cruelties. But that doesn’t make them any more sufferable, and it certainly doesn’t persuade you to sympathize with their plight.

In fact, the only bright spot about “Unfriended” is that it will force its target teen audience to read the messages its characters post to one another. It’s almost like getting them to watch a picture with subtitles. Unfortunately, the posts are the same sort of drivel that likely viewers probably send to one another in real life. Early on in the movie Blaire consults a chat site that warns against responding to e-mails from the dead. What’s really needed is a warning against going to a movie about jerks who do.

THE SQUEEZE

Producer:  Anne Archer, Michael Doven, Terry Jastrow, George Parra and Brian McCormack
Director:  Terry Jastrow
Writer: Terry Jastrow 
Stars: Jeremy Sumpter, Christopher McDonald, Michael Nouri, Jillian Murray. Katherine LaNasa and Jason Dohring 
Studio:  ARC Entertainment

C

If you transport “The Color of Money” from the pool hall to the golf course, you get something like “The Squeeze,” though to be honest there’s a considerable drop-off in quality from Martin Scorsese’s film to Terry Jastrow’s. Nevertheless golf lovers will get a charge out of the picture despite its flaws, and after the recent recent-breaking win by newcomer Jordan Spieth at the Master’s, it could even attract viewers who don’t spend a lot of time on the links.

Jeremy Sumpter, an engaging young actor who on the evidence provided here is a better-than-average player (there doesn’t appear to be much fakery in the action), is Augie Baccas, a spectacular golfer in his small southern town who enjoys not only winning local tournaments with ease but playing fast-paced “cross-country” games with his girlfriend Natalie (Jillian Murray) and pals. Intrigued about the lad’s potential is Riverboat (Christopher McDonald), a flamboyant gambler driving to Las Vegas with his even more extravagant wife Jessie (Katherine LaNasa). They approach the kid—whose mother and younger sister are under the thumb of his abusive father—with a tempting offer: to hustle players along the way to Nevada, where they can score big against a local kingpin named Jimmy Diamonds (Michael Nouri). Though Natalie warns him against the scheme, Augie sets aside his dreams of scoring in the pros and accepts Riverboat’s offer.

After a series of sequences showing Augie’s frequently wacky victories along the way, the trio arrive in Las Vegas and in a poker game Riverboat cons Jimmy into a golf match that will pit the supposed pizza delivery boy—Augie, of course—against Diamonds’ player, nationally-ranked Aaron Bolt (Jason Dohring). The problem is that Jimmy isn’t the pushover he appears, and Augie’s naivete lands him in big trouble. Caught between a rock and a hard place—Riverboat and Diamonds—he’ll need more than a little help from his back-home friends to survive the contest unscathed.

Written as well as directed by Jastrow, himself a golfer who was in charge of broadcasts of numerous championships over two decades at ABC Sports, “The Squeeze” claims to be based on the real-life experiences of one Keith Flatt, who’s been involved in running several golf-related businesses in Las Vegas for many years. How closely the script hews to the facts is open to question; certainly many of the plot elements, particularly the twist ending, strain credulity past the breaking point. But historicity is no more central to this movie than it was to “The Color of Money” or “The Sting”—the question is whether the story works as entertainment, and the answer is that it does, sporadically. Mostly that’s due to Sumpter, who’s sufficiently likable that he makes Augie somebody you can care about and root for. (That’s so even though a speech about his sister he delivers to Natalie before leaving for Vegas is pretty shameless in its manipulation. The fact that Sumpter delivers it without a hitch is testimony to his acting ability.)

Otherwise, however, the performances veer toward near-burlesque. One expects that of McDonald, who’s never been known for subtlety. Still, Riverboat is an over-the-top character, and so the scenery-chewing, while sometimes painful, is understandable. The same defense can be made for LaNasa, who’s equally over-the-top. But why Nouri should have chosen to play to the rafters, sporting an accent it’s difficult even to identify, is less defensible. The others—including Murray—tend to overplay too, though not as badly. “The Squeeze” is technically okay—Taron Lexton’s cinematography is attractive enough, and the editing (by Eric Treiber and Alexa Vier) is good, particularly in the golf sequences, shot—aficionados of the sport will appreciate knowing—at a couple of courses in Wilmington, North Carolina, as well as the Wynn course in Las Vegas.

“The Squeeze” won’t efface memories of the best caper pictures of the past, sports-related or not. Golfers, however, who after all are accustomed to things not always going right on the fairway, may well find it a pleasant diversion. At least it shouldn’t tee them off.