Friends Don’t Let Friends Watch Unfriended – A Spoiler-Free Review

unfriendedtitleIf you like to see people in your movies, Unfriended probably isn’t the film for you. Facebook and Skype don’t simply serve as a framework for the movie, they are the movie. The film is just 82 minutes of main character Blaire’s computer screen, typing either on someone’s Facebook wall or in Skype’s text chat, with a few small squares of Skype video chat friends minimized and mostly covered by multiple windows and tabs.

It should also be noted that the trailers for this film were deliberately misleading in this yes, the entire film looked like this regard; all the full-frame footage from the trailers was actually played out in tiny windows lost among desktop clutter during the actual film.

There were oddly long stretches of silence despite the fact that for most of the film they were in a group voice chat. When Blaire did her typing, more often than not there was complete silence aside from the computer’s keyboard and a few random beeps. There is “low budget” filmmaking and then there’s just “not even trying” filmmaking. Unfriended is firmly in the latter category.

rottenratingInterestingly this film is praised more highly by critics than moviegoers. Normally I wouldn’t bring up such a fact in a review. But the consensus of those positive reviews is that the movie is a success specifically because they claim its flat, unengaging methodology reaches people on a visceral level by being so true to life in this digital age. They claim that it has captured real life in this era of Facebook and social media like no film before it. Given that it’s barely managed to skim more than a 50% approval rating from audiences (which have a much larger sample size at 12,400+ compared to 71 critical reviews), I feel confident in saying that Unfriended‘s creators gambled on a gimmick that did not pay off. The very millennials they seem to think will be awed by this film have given it a half-hearted shrug of mild disinterest.

A filmmaker can intend to subvert tropes and cliches, but whether they succeed is for the audience to decide. If people just aren’t enjoying themselves when they see a movie, something has failed, and all the witty and subversive intentions can’t fix that. The filmmakers also should have perhaps considered that people watch movies when they feel like doing something other than staring at their Facebook page.

unfriended3.gifIn keeping with this film’s ability to set the bar ever lower, the characters are astoundingly unlikable. There was very little suspense in Unfriended, because there isn’t much dramatic tension if the audience doesn’t care if the characters die. The longer the film wore on, the more everyone ended up revealing the horrible things they’ve done to their own friends, all played out to the general backdrop of calling all the female characters sluts and stupid bitches non-stop.

To round out the general tragedy of this film, almost every single scary bit and money shot is shown in the trailer, including the only really scary death. The audience goes in having seen all the exciting parts and then has to sit through the padding.

If I seem like a completely humorless killjoy, I’d like to point out that I’m normally the first person to defend the films of Blumhouse Productions to others. Paranormal Activity is among my favorite horror franchises and I consider even my least favorite of the lot to be enjoyable enough. Aside from specific criticisms, I like both the Sinister and Insidious series. I like Blumhouse films enough that I’ll be seeing most if not all of their upcoming offerings. Having said that, Unfriended is a disappointing hot mess, and is one of only three films I’ve ever considered walking out of.

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iZombie Takes off With Flight of the Living Dead

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Warning:  This review contains major spoilers for iZombie episode 5

Things are heating up on the CW’s new hit show iZombie. We’re five episodes in and the both the characters and the plot have grown complex and multilayered, with a healthy balance between the ability to function as stand-alone episodes and the desire of returning viewers to see progress in the season’s story arc.

It’s a testament to the skill of the creative minds behind iZombie that the simple visual cue of a bottle of hot sauce has become so charged with meaning and potential that the sight triggers an immediate combination of recognition and excitement. This simple but effective use of imagery was key in introducing two major plot twists without the need for exposition or unnecessary dialog that could have detracted from the emotional impact of the scenes.

First, we learn that Detective Babinaux’s boss is also a zombie, which leads to a multitude of questions. Is he in the service of Blaine, or are there two contenders for zombie kingpin of Seattle?s1e5cap8

That would be a simpler question to answer if not for another delicious tidbit dropped in a A-story for this episode. An interrogation for the murder case of the week reveals that an energy drink company has a formula that causes violent rages in a fraction of the people who consume it. Is Blaine truly the kingpin he appears to be, or is he in turn a company man setting the stage for his employers?

s1e5cap4Either way, the reveal that the police have been infiltrated by zombies is likely to have dire repercussions in the near future. Not only is Liv’s brain buffet in jeopardy, but if zombies recognize one another so readily, it can’t be long before others catch on that Detective Babinaux is getting frequent visits at the station from Liv. She receives some lingering glances that hint he could be on to her already. And how Babinaux will react upon learning the secret behind Liv’s “psychic” visions is perhaps the most exciting question of all.

My only quibble is that this big reveal took place in a scene where Liv wasn’t present. In keeping with the detective story framework, seeing things mostly from the perspective of one of the protagonists adds to the suspense. If the audience knows too many things Liv and Clive aren’t privy too, the show might lose some of its noir charm.

s1e5cap6Liv’s love life is growing complex as well, and the introduction of potential love interest Lowell Casey again uses the hot sauce method of zombie identification. This was a more subtle use of the hot sauce clue-in and it managed to inject a healthy dose of suspense. There was a gap between the audience seeing Lowell pour the very spicy-looking drinks and Liv tasting it when we were left in suspense. It was rewarding to see that suspicion pay off when Liv realized he’d made her drink so hot, and the dawning realization on her face.

While I’m not usually a big fan of love triangles, iZombie has managed to set up a compelling one.  Instead of the trite conflicts that normally lead to a love triangle, Liv is actually in a very tough situation. Being with Major could quite likely kill him, and at this point it’s too early for her to know if a cure is possible. Her zombie status is no danger to Lowell, but he’s not the ex-fiance she’s loved for years. Watching this situation unfold will be interesting.

s1e5cap3On the more platonic front, there were a few touching scenes between Liv and Peyton as they mourned the loss of their former sorority sister, and they provided a much-needed insight into their friendship. After the previous few episodes conveyed quite a bit of tension between the roommates–due to Liv’s frustrating apathy–it was nice to see some female bonding.

iZombie started off with a modest pilot and quickly amped up the quality of each successive episode. For a show that’s only been on the air a little over a month, there’s already been a multitude of competing agendas to add interest and make this a weekly must-see.

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In Defense Of Ben Affleck As Batman

Ben Affleck getting cast as Batman in the upcoming Batman vs Superman film has–as one could easily predict–sent shock waves of rage through the internet. I get it. Really, I do. His acting credits are very mixed, with some spectacular lows dragging down many people’s view of his body of work as a whole.

But he has it in him to be a great actor when he picks the right project (admittedly, that happens a lot more rarely than one would like).  I’ve hated quite a few Ben Affleck movies (or to be more blunt, I’ve hated most movies he’s been in), but I can honestly say that’s because I hated the way the films were written and directed; I don’t recall ever watching one of them and having critical feelings towards his skill in the craft of acting. Responsibility for horrendous dialogue, cliched characters, and stupefyingly dull plots doesn’t fall on an actor.

An actor’s job is to be the character the director wants in his or her film. The brutal truth is that most movies coming out of Hollywood run the gamut from just kinda shitty to spectacularly shitty; unless you’re on the radar of the few quality directors, any actor who wants to regularly work in the industry is going to do some pretty awful films.

Perhaps as indie films, crowdfunding, and alternate distribution channels continue to grow and diversify, that’s won’t be the case in the future. Maybe (hopefully) we’re nurturing a generation of creative types who can and will insist on doing movies on their own terms. But most of Ben Affleck’s films, especially the truly lambasted ones, came out long before Kickstarter was even a vague notion in the back of someone’s mind. I don’t blame him for making the decisions he did when the only two options were “arty” independent films almost nobody would ever see and Gigli*.

Ben Affleck has the chops to do justice to Batman.  I hope Snyder gives him a great character to work with, combining both the aspects we’ve come to love in Batman and new nuances to this iconic character that will keep us guessing.

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* Okay, I can kinda blame him for Gigli. Plus, you probably would have felt a little cheated if I didn’t find a way to work at least one Gigli reference into this post. Maybe you won’t admit it, but you know deep down it’s totally true.

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Welcome To Night Vale Podcast Exlpodes In Popularity

Welcome To Night Vale, a podcast in the style of old-time radio dramas, experienced a surge of Tumblr-driven popularity over the summer. It went from being relatively unknown to the #1 podcast on iTunes.  This always quirky, often creepy podcast is set in a fictional town called Night Vale, and consists of radio announcements that combine Lovecraftian monstrosities with a shadowy, Kafkaesque local government whose edicts are carried out by “the Sheriff’s Secret Police.” Floating cats, angels, five-headed dragons running for public office, and strange glowing clouds that spew dead animals are among the more benign occurrences in Night Vale. If you’ve been looking for an original, humorous podcast to add to your life, this is it.

You can download it at iTunes, podbay, or FeedBurner.

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Take A Stand Against Sexual Harassment At Comic Conventions

San Diego Comic Con looms ahead, and everywhere the nerds are aflutter; there’s last minute travel arrangements to make, luggage to be hauled from the dark recesses of the garage or attic (not that anyone will bother to pack until the night before they leave, but damn, they’ll feel so productive every time they walk past those suitcases), all punctuated by nail-biting sessions on the Programming page, hitting refresh again and again in the vain hope that the schedule will be released a few days early. Heady images of themed after parties, geek band gigs, or simply the chance to meet Twitter/Tumblr friends for a drink in the hotel bar (and considering what you’re paying for a hotel room during Comic Con, don’t you deserve a good stiff drink?) provide the finishing touch on the fantasy that gets us through the last few weeks of work and general drudgery before we’re let out to play.

But not all is well in the Land of Geek. After almost every major convention, women come forward to talk about the harassment they faced during what should have been a fun vacation from the real world. That is, indeed, why Comic Con and its peers exist: To celebrate the refuges we take from the daily grind, and perhaps inspire us to figure out how to make our reality a tiny bit closer to the alternate realities we so love. Whether SDCC, NYCC, Dragon*Con, E3, Heroes Con, or all of the above are your stomping grounds, I ask you to stop and take a few minutes to read about how you can make these gatherings a safer place for everyone who attends.

The comments directed at women who step forward tend to be rife with opinions about how people think she should have handled the situation. Some commenters will at least limit their criticisms to what they think the convention staff should have done, but there’s a glaring omission from all these responses.

What I don’t see very often are people making suggestions for what we, the convention goers, should do to tackle the issue of sexual harassment. Women are often taken to task for not speaking up about harassment right away, but here’s the thing: On the convention floor, there are usually dozens of immediate witnesses. If something happens, and none of the people who witness it even acknowledge they’ve noticed anything, will the woman being harassed feel like she’s going to get much help from from con staff? If the people who watched it happen act like they don’t care, how can she have any faith that she’ll be believed in a he said, she said scenario minutes or even hours after the fact?

We need to be proactive. If you notice a cosplayer surrounded by a group of guys, take five seconds from your day to slow your pace and listen for anything inappropriate as you pass by. If you overhear something you know is wrong, stop and say something. If you notice a Slave Leia posing for a picture with a guy who’s hand is starting to drift somewhere it has no business being, say something. It’s a few seconds out of your day, but the anger and hurt the woman can feel from harassment can dog her for weeks, for months, or even far longer.

You don’t have to give a dissertation on feminism, or body autonomy, or even the basic manners the harasser should have received growing up.  You don’t have to be clever or powerful or any other adjective you think stands in your way of doing the right thing. Like street harassment, con harassment thrives because the men doing it know that people just don’t like to get involved in a potentially ugly scene. The strongest weapon we can wield against them is not a clever put down, but simply to let them know that we are paying attention, and that we will speak up about what we see. You get embarrassed easily when speaking up in a confrontational situation? Sometimes you stutter or mumble a bit? That’s ok! Because the goal is not “winning” an argument of any type against the person doing the harassing. The goal is to let him know he’s being watched, and to offer support to the girl being harassed.

Look at his badge and make a point of using his name; nothing tends to take harassers down a notch like realizing that all that stands between their poor choices at the con and their “real life” is a quick Google search.

While on the subject, let the girl know you’d be happy to act as a witness if she wants to report harassment to the con staff. If the person who harassed her really got to her, and she looks upset, ask if she has any friends she can call, and offer to stay with her until they arrive. Get other people involved; if you’re meeting friends at the con, casually mention that you’re planning on keeping an eye and ear out for harassment.

Though sexual harassment is by far the most troubling, there are other types of harassment to watch out for. No one of any gender, race, or body type deserves to be made fun of for deciding to cosplay. Remember to speak up when you witness something. Not only will you be helping someone out of a bad situation, you will also be inspiring the passersby to stand up when they see something wrong.

If you see someone who looks a little (or a lot) self conscious, give them a compliment. Yes, even if the guy you follow on Twitter did that costume so much better, and you’re the type of person who just hates it when people put together costumes from stuff they got from the thrift store. There will always be assholes ready to tear someone down; kind people willing to build others up are rare.

Stand up. Be kind. Do the right thing.

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First Desolation Of Smaug Trailer

Sadly, Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice acting didn’t make the cut for this trailer. Some of the graphics still seem a bit rough as well, but it’s early yet.

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‘Kindle Worlds’ Allows Fan Fic Writers To Legally Sell Ebooks

Kindle Worlds, a new Amazon program that’s already being hotly debated among both professional authors and fan fiction writers alike, will allow fans to sell ebooks based on certain licensed TV shows, movies, comic books, and various other media. No launch date has been specified, but an excerpt from the Amazon website lays out the compensation rates.

 

  • All works accepted for Kindle Worlds will be published by Amazon Publishing.
  • Amazon Publishing will pay royalties to the rights holder for the World (we call them World Licensors) and to you. Your standard royalty rate for works of at least 10,000 words will be 35% of net revenue.
  • In addition, with the launch of Kindle Worlds, Amazon Publishing will pilot an experimental new program for particularly short works (between 5,000 and 10,000 words). For these short stories—typically priced under one dollar—Amazon will pay the royalties for the World Licensor and will pay authors a digital royalty of 20% of net revenue. The lower royalty for these shorter works is due to significantly higher fixed costs per digital copy (for example, credit-card fees) when prices for the entire class of content will likely be under one dollar.
  • As with all titles from Amazon Publishing, Kindle Worlds will base net revenue off of customer sales price—rather than the lower industry standard of wholesale price—and royalties will be paid monthly.
  • Amazon Publishing will acquire all rights to your new stories, including global publication rights, for the term of copyright.
  • Kindle Worlds is a creative community where Worlds grow with each new story. You will own the copyright to the original, copyrightable elements (such as characters, scenes, and events) that you create and include in your work, and the World Licensor will retain the copyright to all the original elements of the World. When you submit your story in a World, you are granting Amazon Publishing an exclusive license to the story and all the original elements you include in that story. This means that your story and all the new elements must stay within the applicable World. We will allow Kindle Worlds authors to build on each other’s ideas and elements. We will also give the World Licensor a license to use your new elements and incorporate them into other works without further compensation to you.
  • Amazon Publishing will set the price for Kindle Worlds stories. Most will be priced from $0.99 through $3.99.

Although Amazon’s terms have made a lot of people very angry, I have to admit that I don’t think it’s the raw deal some are claiming. People are angry that the original license holders will be given the right license characters created by the new authors without compensating them. But writers playing in someone else’s world have never had rights to anything they created in a licensed universe; they write the book, collect their paycheck, and then they are shown the door.  Timothy Zahn doesn’t get compensated whenever Lucasfilm (now Disney) uses Mara Jade.

There is also the issue of liability. Say, for example, Supernatural becomes one of the available licensed shows, and I decide to write a story about Jimmy Novak’s kid coming to look for him. Even if the Supernatural writers had already planned on doing an episode just like that for months or even years, they’d now be obligated to pay me for it if the Kindle Worlds program said I had the rights to any original ideas I had for my book, or else risk a huge lawsuit. If dozens or hundreds of fans are rushing to sell ebooks for a given show, they are likely, by simple coincidence, to come up with a lot of plots and minor characters very similar to ones the show’s writers are already thinking of doing. The show would essentially have to pay for all those ideas twice.

Writing in a popular licensed universe with millions of die-hard fans in place and ready to hand over their money is not the same thing as creating a novel from scratch, and I don’t think the copyright holders should be obligated to treat it as such. There are a lot of shitty deals out there for writers, from both traditional publishers and vanity presses. I don’t think the Kindle Worlds program is one of them.

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