MOVIE REVIEW: UNFRIENDED and TRUE
April 13, 2015
Seems that not just Spring has sprung, but so has the movie box office which is jam-packed with a multiplicity of new releases in limited and wide release this month. This week I turn your attention to two films: TRUE STORY - based on the true story of a killer and a journalist and, UNFRIENDED - conceived by the innovative and cutting edge Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov, sheds a frightening light on the internet, Skyping, instant messaging with some horrifying results.
As producer and cutting edge filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov related to me, "Remember when Skype was first invented, the screen share mode? It was somewhere 5, 10 years ago, and I was on Skype with a friend of mine, one of my colleagues, and he didn't know, he didn't use it, but I see what he is doing on the screen. . . I saw him moving the mouse, sending documents to print and talking to his mother. . .chatting about me with somebody else. It was very surprising how much I know about the person by watching his desktop. And it was clear that I should make a movie because we live in this world. It's a totally new reality where we live. It's not really connected with our world - it is connected, but it's not really the same, and we're developing relationships in this new computer world. . .[B]ut creepy is that millions of people die everyday but they come still alive [through the internet]. It's so creepy. It's so different. And I was sure that it should be new language, new type of filmmaking which is capturing your behavior on the desktop." And thus became the genesis for UNFRIENDED.
A film shot and told in real time from the computer screen of Blair, UNFRIENDED focuses on the "return from the dead" of Laura, a teenaged girl bullied by her friends - Blair, Kenning, Val, Jess, Mitch and Adam - all of whom are concurrently doing their nightly end of day ritual of concurrently Skyping with each other, instant messaging and texting as the drama - and terror - unfolds on Blair's desktop. Blair and boyfriend Mitch have a sexually overtoned Skype conversation going when the rest of the gang pops up with each clearly Skyping from their homes and their lovely faces coming in loud and clear on Blair's computer. But then a vacant unnamed "box" pops up. A hacker? A glitch? Computer wiz Kenning starts to investigate while Blair is being IM'd "This is Laura." Believing it to be a sick joke, neither Blair nor anyone else takes this intruder too seriously, until they can't be removed from the web connection. He or she claims to be Laura. But Laura is dead. Or is she? As panic beings to set in, "Laura" makes threats via typing, manipulating each person's computer screen and then plays a game of her own.
UNFRIENDED rises and falls not only the cutting edge technology and cinematic style, but on the cast. Embracing the youth of today, director Leo Gabriadze, has assembled of cast of youth who are believable, engaging and resonant of today's cyber world.
As Kenning, Jacob Wysocki is a standout. Although a bit beyond his high school days, Wysocki (who you may recall as the charming "Cyrus" from the Duplass Brothers) has that terrific high school hijinks energy and elan but with the smart kid techy brains. As a result, he pulls off the fun-loving, friend-supporting brainiac beautifully and truly resonates with authenticity and believability.
Moses Jacob Storm had me doing double-takes thanks to not only his looks, but his performance as Mitch; he is most definitely channeling Josh Hutcherson in look and demeanor. Not fresh, but effective. On the other hand, Will Peltz, whom I took note of in Robert Luketic's "Paranoia" is perfection as Adam. He expertly plays Adam "playing a bad boy" but who really isn't so bad and allows a vulnerability to come through - difficult when all you have is a space the size of a monitor in which to make the most of the face space for physical and emotional expressiveness and nuance.
Renee Olstead is an interesting casting choice. As Jess, her emotions vacillate from one end of the spectrum to the other and truly capture the teen bravado, angst and fear. Sad to say it, but Courtney Halverson's Val was just annoying from the start and I for one kept hoping her phone line would be cut.
You know from the get-go that Miss Goody-Two Shoes Blair is anything but. That's just the high school structure and dynamic. It's always the ones trying to play themselves off as so virginal and loving and friend to all, that are really the ones with the meanest streak and darkest secrets. Shelly Henning does well enough, but gets to the point of extreme annoyance. How many times can you see tear-filled wide eyed smiling before the insincerity and disingenuousness pour forth as friends as cyber violence begins to take hold. Where Henning does excel, however, is in bringing this terrific nervous edge to Blair; the more Blair communicates with "Laura" and the more leading "Laura's" threats and statements are, the more guilt Henning brings to the story with nervous freneticism.
From a story aspect and technical construction, this is where director Levan "Leo" Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves soar thanks to producer Bekmambetov's rulebook. "First of all, it should be real time. It should be 83 minutes without editing, without trying to manipulate because then you feel it's a real piece, it's not directed. Second, I made the decision that sound should be sound you can hear when you are dealing with the computer. There is no score, no score music, no special sound effects. It was an idea. It should be based on your real experience. And so the third was you cannot zoom in, you cannot zoom out. You show the screen and the kids. I want the audience to understand what's happening by using their own experience to observe the screen. . .And also, what was important was that the typing and messaging, you should the same elements available we are using in real life which is the faces and people talking. The acting is sometimes less important than just typing. What I did was just have our team to follow very specific rules. And I think by following those rules we had a limitation which helped us to figure out and discover new language and to create a new experience for cinema, for filmmaking.
Following the rules laid out, UNFRIENDED is similar in theory to elements of a "found footage" film but using a different medium than a camera and film, here, we are watching everything unfold in real time. The layers of windows, tabs, googling, concurrent messaging, skyping, music, freaking out is seamlessly natural while creating strong antsy and angsty elements. Gabriadze allows us to simmer in the stew of immediacy and "must see this now - must do this now - must answer now" mentality that plagues the world today thanks to technology. What this also does is allows us to be a participant; not a voyeuristic participation, but active, as sitting in the audience you become another caller on the Skype hook-up. And THAT is what makes the mind reel with possibilities - and not even that much about the ideas of "supernatural" elements inhabiting phone lines and satellite circuitry as we've seen that before - but the whole Big Brother ideology that has permeated the Baby Boomer generation which the Millenials often quite don't comprehend. UNFRIENDED puts that into language they can understand and comprehend. Someone, something, is always watching.
Nelson Greaves script addresses many of the issues at the forefront of the headlines today, including bullying and cyber bullying, which then leads to thematic subplots of atonement and remorse, and which also then sets the stage for Gabriadze to add visuals elements of gore and terror, much of which is not seen, but heard and smartly left to the imagination of the characters and the audience. It's one thing to see intermittent shots of horror but with the screen going black before you can focus on the full visual and see the totality of what is happening, just ratchets up the tension and terror. UNFRIENDED is a testament to the idea that the imagination is a powerful thing, making the fear more palpable - or funny - as the case may be.
Technically, UNFRIENDED has a level of creative excellence with the lensing, the editing of the screens within the screen and pixelization of the individual characters and their Skype calls which at times lends to killer haunting skeletal imagery, making the film even more unique and exciting.
As if reading a stream of consciousness, or like an internal voiceover, we feel what each character feels, what each wants and we know they cannot hide - nor can we when seated at our own computers at home doing the same thing. They know everything and so do we. Time to friend, UNFRIENDED.
No matter what film it is, you have me interested with the name "James Franco". Then you toss in the fact the film is based on real people and a true story and I'm in for long haul. Such is the case with TRUE STORY. Reminiscent of the well known relationship that developed between Truman Capote and Perry Smith during the writing of "In Cold Blood", such is the case with TRUE STORY and the strange relationship between disgraced New York Times reporter Michael Finkel and convicted killer Chris Longo. Big difference, however, is that Perry Smith never tried to impersonate or take over the identity of Capote while Chris Longo did just that to Finkel, setting the wheels of Fate in motion for an extraordinary story. I knew of the story and it fascinated me - particularly Finkel's gullibility and obvious insatiable need for validation of himself and need to be someone more than a good investigative reporter, to be a "star" and make himself the story rather than let a story be the story. To see everything unfold in TRUE STORY through the writer/director Rupert Goold's vision is enthralling.
We meet Michael Finkel deep in the heart of Africa doing interviews with young African boys about cocoa plantation slavery on the Ivory Coast. Unfortunately, Finkel fabricated much of his story and misrepresented the boys and their stories, resulting in his getting booted from the New York Times. At the same time, we meet a man in Cancun who looks nothing like reporter Mike Finkel but who introduces himself as such; that is, until he's arrested by the authorities for extradition to the United States for as is discovered, he is in reality Chris Longo, a man wanted for the murder of his wife and three children. So why is Longo trying to pawn himself off as Finkel? He admires him. He admires his writing. He "aspires" to be him. Or is there something else motivating Longo?
Finkel, squirreled away in a cabin with his girlfriend/fiancé Jill, learns of Longo when a local reporter contacts him for a quote about Longo stealing Finkel's identity. Could this be the break Finkel needs to be welcomed back into the loving arms of the journalistic community? Or could it give him some insight into himself by speaking with a man who pretends to be him? Taking advantage of the situation, Finkel wrangles a prison meeting with Longo who ultimately agrees to tell Finkel his story if Finkel will teach him how to write.
As time marches on, a friendship develops between the two with Longo sending written missives to Finkel and Finkel absorbing every word. But just how much is truth and how much is fiction? Jill starts doing her own investigation into Longo's writings and drawings, driving a wedge between she and Finkel; a wedge that deepens after her own visit to Longo in prison. No matter what, Finkel believes every word of what Longo has said to be truth to the point he thinks Longo is innocent. After all, who could be a killer and be so kind, so humble, so soft-spoken. And were Longo lying, Finkel knows he is such a great reporter that he would see through any lies. Or would he.
To see this story and these individuals played out by James Franco as Chris Longo and Jonah Hill as Michael Finkel is delicious - particularly when it comes to Franco. As Longo, Franco is hypnotic. The camera captures all the Francoisms with his eyes and head tilts, the uncomfortable quiet and calculated pauses - something Franco fans from his days on "General Hospital" know intimately - but which fuel the character and performance. You see the unspoken glee and satisfaction in his eyes or in a sly grin when he knowingly puts one over on Hill's Finkel. It is divine. And then, a big surprise is that Hill plays Finkel as a somewhat egotistical buffoon, blind to what the camera sees as fact and fiction in Longo's stories. We don't see this from Hill in dramatic films and it's a testament to his skills as an actor. There's an interesting tacit visual duality/split screen at play here that director Rupert Goold masterfully elicits.
Felicity Jones is so under used as Jill, but with one powerhouse seen in jail playing opposite Franco, she electrifies. You see that one scene and you KNOW why Jones is an Academy Award nominee. She commands the room.
Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi delivers a haunting yet methodical imagery that creates a palpable emotional sense of blurring the lines of truth and fiction. His lens - and the starkness of lighting - keeps us at arms length, almost out of the fray, as if trying to give the audience the objectivity and ability to see the truth and machinations of Longo that Finkel should have seen. Longo's flashbacks are haunting with fragmentation that grows in clarity like a lens coming into focus.
Written and directed by Rupert Goold based on Michael Finkel's memoir, what I particularly find engaging about Goold's approach to TRUE STORY is the lack of subtext. He hits us with straight dialogue (albeit somewhat clunky at times), much like an investigative reporter would do when delivering the facts. The very manner in which he wrote the script provides its own tacit commentary as well as dichotomous texture. Through it all, thanks to Goold's straightforward approach and the strength of Franco and Hill, the creepy factor is undeniable which makes one wonder - who is the creepiest and most to be feared and disdained - Longo? Or someone like Finkel?