Sunday, September 13, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE HARVEST (2015); EXTINCTION (2015); and UNFRIENDED (2015)

(US - 2015)

THE HARVEST is one of those intense thrillers that has you on the edge of your seat until you start thinking about it and it promptly falls flat on its face. Shown at festivals in 2013 but unreleased until its stealth VOD premiere two years later by IFC, it's also the first new film in over a decade by HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER and WILD THINGS director John McNaughton, whose last film, the obscure Bill Murray comedy SPEAKING OF SEX, sat on the shelf for seven years before going straight-to-DVD in 2007. In a rural, wooded area, a sickly 13-year-old boy named Andy (Charlie Tahan) is housebound and under the constant care of his overbearing, overmedicating doctor mother Katherine (Samantha Morton) and his passive, weak-willed father Richard (Michael Shannon). Andy is homeschooled, has never been outside of the house, and is surprised when his first friend comes knocking at his window. Maryann (Natasha Calis) is a feisty orphan who just moved in with her grandparents (Peter Fonda, Leslie Lyles) across the nearby creek. The two lonely kids enjoy playing video games, but the possessive Katherine is threatened by Maryann, and after a conversation with the grandparents, it's decided that Maryann is no longer welcome to visit Andy. That doesn't stop her, and as the observant Katherine sees evidence that Maryann is still visiting, she goes off the deep end, unable to give Andy any freedom despite protests from Richard to let the dying boy have as normal a life as possible in what little time he has left.

Something odd is going on in the house and what sounds like a fusion of coming-of-age and disease-of-the-week dramas makes an abrupt switch in direction with a doozy of a midway plot twist that unfortunately backs first-time screenwriter Stephen Lancelotti into a corner from which he can't claw his way out. The implausibilities abound--how is Maryann able to so easily sneak in and out of the house, and once she finds what she finds, she exclaims "Nobody believes me!" but we only see her tell her incredulous grandparents. Grandpa says "stay off the computer," then when she pleads with him later about what's really going on in the house, does he call the police? No, he tells her to "follow your heart." What? THE HARVEST has no idea what to do with Fonda's character, who starts out the film as a rock for his grieving granddaughter and quickly turns into a useless old fool, giving the actor literally nothing to do but parody himself and mutter "Far out!" a couple of times. Calis and Tahan are fine, even though it feels like they're 13-and-14-year-olds playing characters who should be eight or nine. Shannon is terrific in a rare restrained, sympathetic performance--watch him in one scene where he contorts his upper body and looks to be in agony trying to avoid hugging the bonkers Katherine. It's Morton who rules THE HARVEST, with a terrifying, mad performance as the off-her-rocker mother desperately clinging to her control over a child for reasons that only become clear later on. Fast-paced and gripping, THE HARVEST is nonetheless too dumb to be taken seriously, wrapping up with one of the more frustratingly inane closing shots in recent memory, one that looks like a hasty reshoot a year after the rest of the movie was finished. (Unrated, 104 mins, also streaming on Netflix Instant)

(Spain/Hungary - 2015)

This week's new zombie movie is the European-made EXTINCTION, which valiantly tries to bring an emphasis on characterization to the proceedings, but gets so bogged down in tedium and belaboring its points that it's a full 90 minutes before the creature mayhem even gets rolling. Directed and co-written by Miguel Angel Vivas (KIDNAPPED) and produced by frequent Liam Neeson director Jaume Collet-Serra (UNKNOWN, NON-STOP, RUN ALL NIGHT), EXTINCTION's prologue briefly goes into the initial zombie outbreak before cutting to "Nine Years Later." The world is now a frozen apocalypse with scant few human survivors, the plus side being that the extreme climate change wiped out the zombie population and killed the undead infection. The first hour and change primarily deals with a still-seething feud between a pair of neighbors in the middle of iced-over nowhere: bearded, long-haired Patrick (LOST's Matthew Fox) hunts for food with his loyal dog, while next door, overprotective Jack (BURN NOTICE's Jeffrey Donovan) helicopter parents his spunky, starting-to-rebel nine-year-old daughter Lu (Quinn McColgan). Patrick and Jack have a past--they were on a bus in the prologue, with a woman named Emma (Valeria Vereau) and a crying infant. When the bus was sieged by rampaging zombies, Emma was bitten and Patrick killed her before she turned. Jack has never been able to forgive him and forbids Lu to speak to him.

It seems hard to buy that this level of grudging tension and neighborly hatred could go on for nine years--almost as hard as it is to buy Lu eating a box of Froot Loops that looks like it was just brought home from the grocery store. When Patrick is out scavenging for food and encounters an evolved version of the zombies--able to withstand the cold but hobbled by blindness--the men set aside their differences to battle the approaching creatures and protect Lu, who's clearly the center of a pre-zombie outbreak babydaddy dispute. Even with its frequently shoddy greenscreen work, it's hard to dismiss EXTINCTION's efforts to do something different in an absurdly played-out genre, but it doesn't do itself any favors by pulling a Gareth Edwards and keeping the zombies offscreen as much as possible (for most of the film, there's one zombie and Patrick has him chained up outside). And when they do finally arrive, they seem to have sprinted in off the set of Neil Marshall's THE DESCENT. The film's sympathies clearly lie with the more proactive and heroic Patrick, who wins the respect of Lu, who seems to realize that Jack is a bit of an asshole and a coward, especially when his first reaction when the zombies attack is to try and pre-emptively shoot Lu in the head. Young McColgan is a scene-stealer, especially in a really nice bit where she traps a zombie in a downstairs freezer and allows herself a brief smile, marveling at her own ingenuity and badassery. More moments like that, and less of a pouting, butthurt Jack scowling at Patrick might've made some improvements. There's a solid 90-minute movie hiding somewhere in the bloated two-hour one that got released. (R, 113 mins)

(US - 2015)

An ambitious stunt that sticks to its game plan but still really works only once, UNFRIENDED is a real-time social media fright flick that plays out on a multi-window Skype session. Nacho Vigalondo's OPEN WINDOWS attempted this with hapless results, and while UNFRIENDED is much more successful at adhering to and exploiting the gimmick, they payoff isn't quite worth the buildup. A year after the tragic death of high school student Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), who committed suicide after a humiliating video of her was posted to YouTube, her group of friends are taunted during a group chat on Skype by a blank-icon user going by the name "Billie227." All attempts to ditch the intruder fail, and Billie seems to have insider knowledge about all of them. As Billie Facebook messages Blaire (Shelley Hennig), who at one time was Laura's best friend, the stakes are raised, secrets are revealed, and people start dying. Director Leo Gabriadze (a protege of producer Timur Bekmambetov) and screenwriter Nelson Greaves hint at things under the surface, whether it's lip service being paid to the issue of cyberbullying or some dark secret involving an incident with Laura's uncle when Laura and Blaire were younger, but they also do an admirable job cranking up the tension, making harmless sounds like text message and chat alerts come off as nerve-wracking and dread-inducing. As Billie starts to mercilessly expose the wrongdoings and hypocrisy of Blaire and her friends--both to Laura and to one another--it's clear that everyone has secrets and the bonds of friendship are tenuous at best, as evidenced by the nail-biting game of "Never Have I Ever." It's an often bleak and misanthropic film (kudos to the filmmakers for going for the R rating), but it's one that should've dug a little deeper instead of going the easy route of everyone shouting over one another, climactic jump scares, and tilted BLAIR WITCH camera angles. It's also another horror film where the "teenagers" are played by actors in their mid-to-late 20s and looking it. But for the most part, UNFRIENDED is better and more compelling than it has any right to be, and has enough good things going for it that its shortcomings are all the more frustrating. So many genre films of a reality-based style (faux-doc, found-footage, etc) start cutting corners and cheating as soon as they can, but UNFRIENDED establishes its rules and sticks to them. The real-time element is believably-handled and Gabriadze never once strays from the central position of having the camera planted on Blaire's laptop, from her POV (that was where Vigalondo dropped the ball with OPEN WINDOWS--he couldn't wait to get the action away from the laptop), and the whole film really does look like it was pulled off in one take in real time. Of course, a pretty good thing always has to be ruined: UNFRIENDED 2 is coming in 2016. (R, 83 mins)

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