Unfriended: A screen of screams

Director Levan Gabriadze’s English-language feature debut Unfriended is, like a lot of contemporary horror films, one with a gimmick. In this case, the entire story is conveyed through the computer screen belonging to its principal character, in this case comely high-schooler Blaire (Shelley Hennig, who made her screen debut in last year’s gimmick shocker Ouija).

Blaire and her friends (Moses Jacob Storm, Renee Olstead, Will Peltz, Jacob Wysocki and Courtney Halvorson) are chatting away on-line when they are joined by “Billie 227,” a newcomer who has accessed the on-line account of a classmate who committed suicide – exactly a year ago – after a humiliating video of her went viral.

This unseen interloper accuses all of them of participating in the girl’s demise and appears to know their deepest, darkest secrets. Not heeding a website’s advice “Don’t answer messages from the dead,” these six teenagers find their number reduced to five, then four, then three … Despite the limitations it sets for itself – such as never identifying or specifying the exact nature of the threat (which, in a horror movie – especially a gimmick horror film – isn’t really necessary, one supposes) – Unfriended is well-assembled and fairly efficient. There are even a few bits of black humor, as when “Billie 227” programs inappropriate songs during intense moments. The young cast brings a measure of intensity to the proceedings, even if their characters are completely archetypical for the genre. Die-hard gore mavens, however, may be disappointed by only brief snatches of blood and guts. (The film’s R rating is primarily due to its incessant profanity.)

Although it exploits the relevant topic of cyber-bullying for entertainment purposes, Unfriended is hardly as tasteless or tactless as it might have been. Indeed, there’s even a cautionary moral at work here: Don’t be a cyber-bully, because you’ll pay (dearly) for it.

Oh yeah … and don’t answer messages from the dead. Thus ends the lessons of Unfriended. !

Clouds of Sils Maria: The deal of the art

Writer/ director Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria offers Juliette Binoche as Maria Enders, an international star about to revisit the vehicle that made her career 20 years before – a play called Maloja Snake that depicts the stormy emotional relationship that develops between a high-powered career woman and her seductive, ambitious young assistant.

This time, Maria is tapped to play the career woman, her ingenue days being long past. Considered for the other role is Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), an American starlet who spends most of her time baiting the paparazzi, battling various chemical dependencies, dominating the tabloids and generally making a fool of herself. In this day and age of massmedia saturation, any number of real-life candidates could make for a comparison.

Maria and her faithful assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) debate, discuss and rehearse the play at Maria’s home, each offering their observations on the story’s deeper meanings. The parallels between Maloja Snake and Maria’s life are brought to the fore in cool, controlled fashion by Assayas, augmented by Yorick Le Saux’s gorgeous cinematography. (As the film is set in around Zurich, the Swiss Alps offer picturesque diversion throughout.)

Assayas has crafted an informed, intelligent, tart screenplay that offers an insight into the artistic process, and also adds satirical elements that are unexpected and welcome. As a character notes: “All that matters is what’s in the movie.”

That observation is absolutely true. No matter what took place behind the scenes, what difficulties there were, or what might have been edited out, a film (or a play) is judged by what’s in it, not the circumstances around it.

The exquisite Binoche is in fine form, carrying off a role that could easily have slipped into bitchy caricature. She’ll play Maria dowdy and unglamorous, then do an about-face and look absolutely ravishing. Maria Enders may be a diva, but she’s got a heart and she’s got soul – along with the ego.

Stewart, who won the Cesar Award (France’s equivalent of the Oscar) as Best Supporting Actress, completely atones – well, almost – for some of her moony, sloe-eyed performances (Twilight, anyone?) with a lively turn that involves a lot of give-and-take with her formidable co-star. She more than holds her own.

The most delightful surprise is Moretz, making a sharp transition into more complex, adult roles as the bratty but not untalented Jo-Ann, who can turn on the charm and faux innocence then revert to the self-absorbed shrew she really is. Veteran Hanns Zischler contributes a winning appearance as a long-ago co-star and lover of Maria’s whose relationship still crackles, both with disdain and an acute awareness of who each other was and is, whenever they see each other.

Clouds of Sils Maria is scheduled to open Friday at a/perture cinema, Winston- Salem !

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The Wrecking Crew: Making beautiful music

Denny Tedesco’s feature directorial debut, The Wrecking Crew, ranks alongside Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002) and the Oscar-winning 20 Feet from Stardom (2013) as it chronicles the history of background musicians – in this case the titular “Wrecking Crew,” the West Coast session musicians whose work can be heard on countless classic albums and songs.

Tedesco’s own father Tommy was known as “the Los Angeles Session King,” and the film is as much a valentine to his late father (who died in 1997) as it is a grand celebration of the music he and his fellow “Crew” members created through the 1950s and ‘60s – until the ‘70s saw the decline in the use of session musicians.

A veritable “Who’s Who” of superstars chime in, among them Herb Alpert (also an executive producer of the film), Brian Wilson, Dick Clark, Frank Zappa, Nancy Sinatra, Al Jardine, Roger McGuinn and Glen Campbell, the latter a session favorite who ascended to his own stardom.

The Wrecking Crew was completed in 2008, hence the participation of some who have since died, and the delay in its release is hardly due to its quality (which is first-rate), but more likely due to the machinations of sorting through certain music rights.

Denny Tedesco also has access to rare home movies and vintage footage (pure gold), including his father’s appearance on “The Gong Show” in the ‘70s (!), which lends the film a more personal insight. He might well have concentrated more on how the Crew members were taken for granted and how they likely deserved more credit (and more money) than they received, but the film never loses its whimsical, even friendly, approach.

Indeed, those aforementioned issues are addressed periodically, but aren’t overemphasized. That’s not the kind of film this is. The Wrecking Crew is an affectionate, warm-hearted salute to some of the best music-makers you’ve never heard of – although you’ve unquestionably heard their music … and still are, to this day. Denny Tedesco has fashioned a fine, fitting tribute to his father and his fellow “Wrecking Crew,” one that encapsulates, ensures, and celebrates their legacy in melodious, magical fashion. !