Unfriended: Dark Web

⋆⋆⋆½ out of four stars

Rated: R for some disturbing violence, language and sexual references. In English, American Sign Language and Vietnamese.

 

Prepare to be creeped out big time. In his feature debut, writer/director Stephen Susco creates a bleak, relentless online horror story. Unusually plot-oriented, with a command of pace and rhythm and tone, the film is genuinely electrifying.

It applies the classic norms of a home invasion shocker in impressively tech-savvy computer screen storytelling. Our point of view throughout is the screen of a laptop computer, where every moment of a cursor hovering over a button, a typed message, a lagging video transmission or an unexpected alert tone cranks up the anxiety. Internet-based fright films are becoming the genre of the season, but here it feels both innovative and diabolically merciless. It is to the web what “Jaws” was to saltwater.

Colin Woodell is very effective as Matias, the film’s flawed hero, a lovelorn nerd programming an American Sign Language app to better communicate with his deaf girlfriend. The film’s innovative visual language resembles the actual record of a half-dozen male and female friends sharing a digital game night. The webcam of his new laptop puts him in the largest quadrant on-screen, with the others spaced around on Facebook chats, Skype connections and iPhone FaceTime calls, all on-screen simultaneously.

The mood starts off light, developing a melancholy downer quality as the protagonist and his girlfriend move toward a breakup. Then, as he pokes into hidden files left by the computer’s previous owner, malevolent forces connect with the clique in real life, pressure them one by one to relinquish control and turn cyber bullying into a literal blood sport. We’re afraid of unknowable dangers everywhere.

The film earns each suspension of disbelief and howl of shock fair and square, exploiting our sympathies for Matias and his friends, all of whom are good but vulnerable people. Step by step, it descends into the scariest use of media since ghouls took over the TVs in “The Ring” and “Poltergeist.”

Susco essentially launches a cyberattack against the audience from the movie screen. He understands that the brain has a finite bandwidth for processing alarm stimuli and overwhelms us with a flood of dreadful information. Though it is at times difficult to watch, it torments us with atmosphere that grows increasingly suffocating and brief moments of monstrous violence rather than gallons of blood and gristle. While it reportedly has come to theaters with at least two alternate endings, the incredibly unhappy fashion in which my viewing climaxed was so dark that after the shock wore off, I grudgingly admired it.

Colin Covert

 

Eighth Grade

⋆⋆⋆½ out of four stars

Rated: R for language and some sexual material.

Theater: Uptown.

Here’s a comedy about the trials, tribulations and compulsive worries of youth told with empathy that does credit to first-time writer/director Bo Burnham. At 13, Kayla (played with very funny earnestness by Elsie Fisher) is facing a backpack full of transitions that she’s totally unprepared to face.

She’s changing physically in ways that make her wonder what on earth is going on. She’s about to graduate from the familiar, if only marginally supportive, world of junior high and be housed with an unknown new species that speaks a strange language and acts frighteningly cool. She may, maybe, start dating — she wants to — but her controlled, responsible single dad (Josh Hamilton) might ask questions and that would make her need a barf bag.

Acutely observing the everyday absurdities of American life, Burnham is essentially kidding, but never avoiding needed moments of seriousness. Kayla’s ritual of improvising motivational monologues about “Being Yourself” and “How to Be Confident” on Facebook, where she has approximately zero followers, is at once goofy and deeply sad.

When her class announces their yearbook “most likely to” awards and Kayla receives her painfully accurate booby prize, Fisher’s expression is that of a girl who has had every nagging doubt about herself come true. As for her school’s shooter safety drill, you need to laugh so you don’t cry.

The film never mocks nor pities Kayla, letting us understand that her spotty skin, pudgy figure, and “uh, um” conversation may be an ugly duckling phase. Life has battered her around, but it hasn’t inflicted any lasting scars. She’s taken under the wing of a sharp, sweet older student whose encouragement makes her shoulders slope less and rethink her submissive surrender to the middle school’s mean girl. The film is a string of vignettes exploring an often ignored vein of comic eccentricity, with authenticity.

C.C.

The Cakemaker

⋆⋆⋆½ out of four stars

Not rated; in German, Hebrew and English.

Theater: Edina.

 

The debut feature of 37-year-old writer/director Ofir Raul Graizer, this provocative, unexpected and very moving work is as unusual a love story as you are likely to find. Though its story is inescapably and unapologetically melodramatic, it’s told with such low-key, unforced delicacy and tact that it becomes plausible and convincing right in front of our eyes.

The cakemaker is Thomas (Tim Kalkhof), who runs a Berlin bakery. He’s having an affair with Oren (Roy Miller), an Israeli city planner who makes monthly work trips to Germany. When Oren dies in an accident, the action switches to Jerusalem, where Oren’s widow, Anat (Sarah Adler), is getting ready to reopen the cafe she owns. Curious about his dead lover’s wife, Thomas shows up at the cafe and lands a job there.

Grazier sees no reason to rush what happens. Thomas and Anat become parts of each other’s lives so gradually, the acting and directing are so right, that we believe what transpires. We wonder how long Thomas can keep his secret and what will happen should the truth come out. The most fascinating kind of tension results.

Kenneth turan, Los Angeles Times