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A mysterious Skype user harasses Shelley Henig (left), Moses Storm (second from left), and others in Unfriended.

Only two movies are opening in wide release this week, and neither of them screened in time for our deadlines. Ex Machina is expanding to theaters in Tarrant County this Friday, and it’s your best bet for entertainment. Since I reviewed it last week, I’m clearing the decks before the behemoth sequel to The Avengers blows everything else away next week, and I’m doing a roundup of some of the movies available to you right now.

A fair number of recent films have tried to engage the relatively new subject of cyberbullying, and the result has been some pretty dire, preachy, moralizing drama: Disconnected, Men, Women & Children, and the current A Girl Like Her. Filmmakers seem to get better results by addressing cyberbullying through comedy like this past winter’s The DUFF. On the other hand, Unfriended goes in the opposite direction and uses it for horror, to striking effect.

The entire film takes place on the laptop computer belonging to Blaire Lily (Shelley Henig), an ordinary teenager in Fresno who’s cyberchatting with her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Storm) and various other friends about their school’s upcoming prom. However, it just happens to be the one-year anniversary of their classmate Laura Barns (Heather Sossamon) killing herself after an embarrassing drunken video of her was posted to YouTube and her so-called friends all posted horrible comments about her. Now, someone using Laura’s Facebook, YouTube, and Skype accounts has dropped in on the chat and starts posting messages to them that go from friendly to harassing to directly threatening their lives. Soon the friends discover that they can’t log off or even turn off their computers.

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This monster is something new in movies. “Laura” is not just a bullying victim out for revenge but the Internet lynch mob itself come to sadistic, malevolent life, targeting these teenagers who have done stupid stuff, overturning their online profiles and spilling all their dirtiest secrets, and bombarding them with messages to kill themselves until they actually do it. Georgian director Levan “Leo” Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves (who writes for TV’s Sleepy Hollow) make Laura into an incorporeal menace who seems able to turn Facebook itself against our characters, and there’s a creepy moment when Blaire calls for help only to hear the 911 operator parroting Laura’s words. Laura has a sick sense of humor, too — when one of the friends commits suicide on camera, Laura mocks the weeping witness to his death by grabbing control of Blaire’s Spotify queue and playing Katie Herzig’s “I Hurt Too.”

There aren’t many actual scares here, and some cleverer filmmakers might have linked the onscreen bullies being picked off to the audience in the theater that’s rooting for them to die. (Perhaps that can happen in a sequel where Laura goes after the users who post awful comments about Blaire and her friends.) Unfriended isn’t made with nearly the craft or complexity of It Follows, the better horror movie that’s currently in theaters. However, it feels uniquely of our current moment, which is a rare thing for a movie of any genre.

Child 44 ought to be horrifying given its subject matter, its setting, and the wealth of talent in front of and behind the camera, but a poor choice of director takes it down. Tom Hardy stars as Leo Stepanovich Demidov, a Soviet military intelligence agent in 1953 who’s given a break from his usual duties of ferreting out the Kremlin’s enemies to visit the home of a fellow officer (Fares Fares) whose young son has turned up dead by the train tracks in Moscow. The grieving father insists his boy has been murdered, but Stalin’s government regards murder as something that happens only in the degenerate West, so Leo tells his comrade to shut up for his own good. Later, after Leo is exiled for refusing to denounce his own wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace) as a spy, he’s alarmed to find a similar pattern of boys found killed, stripped naked, and mutilated by the tracks in a town hundreds of miles away. He determines that one man is responsible for more than 40 such deaths across the USSR, and he resolves to kill the monster himself, even though his own government will shoot him if they find out what he’s up to.

Director Daniel Espinosa (a Swedish filmmaker, despite his Latin name) does know how to film violence so that it looks gritty and grubby, as in an early scene when Leo subdues a suspected traitor (Jason Clarke) who’s trying to kill himself with Leo’s weapons. Still, Espinosa is a punishingly unimaginative director, who photographs everything in grays and browns to signal to us that life in the old Soviet Union was bad. Moscow looks no different from the dingy factory town that Leo is exiled to, though this undoubtedly is down to the fact that the movie was shot in the Czech Republic. Espinosa fails to get anything out of the domestic drama between Leo and Raisa, and he misses the paranoia so vividly evoked in the painstakingly researched Tom Rob Smith novel that this is based on, the atmosphere of pervasive fear where every citizen knows that they’re presumed guilty of treason, especially the people tasked with finding the traitors.

Too bad. Despite the dodgy Russian accents from this multinational cast, there are good performances by Paddy Considine as the smooth-talking killer and Joel Kinnaman (who starred in Espinosa’s reputation-making Swedish thriller Easy Money) as a sniveling backstabber trying to steal both Leo’s job and his wife. Hardy is excellent, too, as a stony man whose integrity has led him to spend his career doing the wrong thing and is now trying to do the right one. Screenwriter Richard Price (an acclaimed novelist himself and a longtime writer on TV’s The Wire) smartly does away with the insane coincidence at the heart of Smith’s book and thematically ties the killer’s perversion to the screwed-up system that has turned many of its citizens into monsters, not least of whom is Leo, who has sent innocent people to their deaths because his bosses wanted him to. Alas, all these efforts are for naught in a film that reduces its promising material to an excitement-free slog.

If you’ve had your fill of cinematic monsters, you may be tempted to head to the Modern to see Seymour: An Introduction, a documentary directed by Ethan Hawke about an extraordinary piano teacher. It would be wonderful to report that this is the next great music documentary or a great study of a master finding contentment in his work late in life like Cutie and the Boxer or Jiro Dreams of Sushi. I’m sad to report that it’s rather dull and wooly.

The Seymour in the title is Seymour Bernstein, an 85-year-old teacher in New York who was once a widely respected pianist himself despite suffering from paralyzing stage fright before and during concerts. When he finally conquered the fear at age 50, he walked away from the stage to devote the rest of his life to teaching. Seymour is interviewed by various people, including Hawke and New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, a former student of Seymour’s who competed in the inaugural Van Cliburn Amateur Competition here in 1999.

Seymour plays the German piano repertoire with exquisite refinement and seems like a lovely man. I daresay I wouldn’t mind a few sessions with him to brush up my piano technique. He has a nice story about writing a letter to Queen Elizabeth II requesting a knighthood for his mentor, the great English pianist Clifford Curzon, and seeing him knighted within the month. We could use more stories like that or more in-depth stuff about Seymour’s teaching methods. Sadly, what we get of his live-for-music philosophy is something that many people already practice, and Hawke seems more interested in what it might mean for himself as an actor who has worked on movies that he’s not proud of and seen them make a ton of money. (He doesn’t name them. I’m guessing The Purge is one.) This kind old man’s wisdom may well be profound for Hawke, but too little of it comes across for us.

 

[box_info]Unfriended
Starring Shelley Henig and Moses Storm. Directed by Leo Gabriadze. Written by Nelson Greaves. Rated R.

Child 44
Starring Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace. Directed by Daniel Espinosa. Written by Richard Price, based on Tom Rob Smith’s novel. Rated R.

Seymour: An Introduction
Starring Seymour Bernstein. Directed by Ethan Hawke. Rated PG.[/box_info]

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