Shelley Hennig in UnfriendedDear Dad,

It was wonderful seeing you again this past weekend at your 75th-birthday party! I had a great time in Chicagoland with you and the family and the extended family ... although I do apologize for whipping your ass at pinochle on Saturday. Hey, I learned from the master.

But it dawned on me that while you expressed surprise at my ability to also sneak in five weekend movies despite the birthday happenings and my hours spent on the highway, I never went into detail on what I saw. So let's get you caught up. (You're likely not gonna recognize many of the names and movies I reference. If you're uncertain about any of 'em, ask Mom. She'll know.)

Thursday, April 16: In case you weren't aware, cineplexes recently started screening most of their new releases on Thursday nights, and well before midnight, to boot. For someone with my particular job, I cannot tell you how helpful this is, and so I was able to knock the weekend debuts of Unfriended and Monkey Kingdom off my to-do list before the weekend even hit.

Initially, I wasn't too psyched to see Unfriended, a horror-thriller about the bullied - and dead! - teenager Laura who cyber-terrorizes her tormentors a year after her suicide. ("Unfriended" is a term popularized after the arrival of Facebook. "Facebook" is an online social-networking service. An "online social-networking service" is ... . You know what? Check with Mom.) Written by Nelson Greaves, the premise for director Leo Gabriadze's ultra-low-budget scare flick seemed clever, but also dramatically stifling. With the entirety of the action unfurling through social-media conversations, Web searches, and pop-up windows - the film screen designed to resemble the laptop screen of our heroine Blaire (Shelley Hennig) - and the characters only visible through YouTube videos or Skype, just how scary could this thing be?

Shelley Hennig, Will Peltz, Moses Jacob Storm, Jacob Wysocki, and Renee Olstead in UnfriendedAnswer: plenty, and not necessarily for the reasons you'd expect. Just in terms of general presentation, Unfriended is a pretty remarkable feat. All five of our teen principals (all of whom, Moses Jacob Storm especially, are quite good) are required to perform in unbroken chat-room takes lasting many minutes on end, and Gabriadze's constant shifting of their Skype positioning - with Blaire frequently toggling among additional online sites - ensures that the proceedings are never visually static. Even more impressively, though, Gabriadze and Greaves totally capture the gnawing anxiety of the situation. There are numerous instances in which the kids are forced simply to stare at their screens and await instructions from the "deceased" Laura, and during those pauses, there are almost too many things to look at, or fear looking at: the teens' breathless, terrified expressions; Laura's insinuating iChats, which pop up with perfectly-timed menace; the Facebook-message notifications that the audience sometimes notices well before Blaire does. As too often happens in this genre, events take an eventual nosedive toward the silly - here, it happens when Laura engages our heroes in a murderous game of "Never Have I Ever" - and the ending is typically unsatisfying. But the overall results remain inventive and oftentimes fantastically creepy, and you may find it hard to turn on your computer for a few hours after seeing it. Mom can help with that "turning on the computer" thing, too.

Monkey KingdomRight after that, I caught Monkey Kingdom, which is our annual Earth Day documentary by the well-meaning folks at DisneyNature, and as effective a palette cleanser for the Unfriended experience as you could imagine. Too bad I didn't enjoy it. You've probably never seen one of these DisneyNature movies before. They basically involve 80 minutes of gorgeously photographed nature footage, cheeky narration by a recognizable celebrity voice, and some kind of artificial, imposed underdog story that turns the on-screen animals into real-world versions of Disney cartoon characters. Generally speaking, they irritate the hell out of me, and directors Mark Linfield's and Alastair Fothergill's latest was no exception. I mean, I understand its value; it's great that kids are getting a peek at animals of South Asia in their natural habitat. The habitat of Monkey Kingdom, however, is anything but natural. From the opening strains of (what else?) the "Hey Hey We're the Monkees" theme song to the introduction of the "wacky" supporting animals to the climactic triumph of our single-mom heroine, the film's material has been assembled with such inhuman devotion to Disney formula that it barely matters if what we're shown and what we're told are wildly contradictory. (At one point, two primates encounter one another to the voice-over "Maya returns under Raja's hostile stare," with Raja's expression indicating sleepy ennui at worst.) Still, I survived. The narration is by Tina Fey, so that helped a lot. And heaven knows it looks spectacular. But if your grandkids demand that you watch it with them when Monkey Kingdom hits home video, you may want to apologize to Gwen and Collin before explaining that you made previous plans to clean out the gutters.

Jonah Hill and James Franco in True StoryFriday, April 17: Before hitting the road for Chicagoland, I took in a local screening of True Story, director Rupert Goold's - wait for it ... - true story about disgraced journalist Michael Finkel, who investigates, and eventually befriends, accused murderer Christian Longo, a man who used the journalist's own name as an alias. Back in the '80s and '90s, we were treated to movies of this type nearly every week: dramatic thrillers for grown-ups in which writers or lawyers got a little too close to potentially monstrous figures who were either innocent or, more likely, playing them like fiddles. Nowadays, barring occasional exceptions such as Capote and its wretched bastard cousin Infamous, they're far more rare - so rare that I feel the urge to praise True Story more than it deserves. All told, the film is fairly gripping. Goold maintains an effectively deliberate pace and Marco Beltrami's suggestive score sustains what infrequent tension there is, and there are strong supporting performances by Robert John Burke, Ethan Suplee, and even Felicity Jones in the traditionally blah worried-girlfriend role. (When, near the climax, her character finally comes face-to-face with the accused, Jones is more alert and interesting in three minutes than she is in the whole of The Theory of Everything.) But while we're repeatedly told of Finkel's investigation into the name-stealing object of his fascination, we're shown precious little of him doing any actual work; too much of True Story is devoted to the re-telling of events we would've had far more fun witnessing for ourselves. And as much as I usually admire them as dramatic actors, Jonah Hill (as Finkel) and James Franco (as Longo) are less nuanced here, and far less awake, than they ever are in sketch-comedy mode: Hill with his implacable deadpan, Franco with his crinkly eyed, cat-who-maybe-ate-the-canary glare. Their relaxed banter is pleasant enough, but "pleasant enough" is hardly what you're hoping for from the potentially juicy potboiler that is True Story. I'd tell you not to bother with it, but considering the movie didn't crack the box-office top 10 over the weekend, it probably won't stick around long enough to be bothered with.

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts in While We're YoungAfter grabbing some lunch, I hit the road and make it to Chicagoland in time to meet our friend Angie for a screening of While We're Young, the new Noah Baumbach comedy that's playing at your nearby AMC cineplex, Dad - the one with the reclining leather seats. So if you're seeing a movie there and it sucks, you can always take an incredibly comfortable nap. Happily, the movie didn't suck, and until its final 20 minutes or so, was actually pretty great. Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play a married couple in their mid-40s who befriend an admiring married couple in their mid-20s (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), and the film doesn't really have a plot so much as it has themes: the stress of middle-aged childlessness; the paranoia of middle-aged irrelevance; the fear that you're left floundering while the generations above and behind you have it all figured out. You know - stuff that's right in my wheelhouse. In other hands, this material could have been incredibly depressing or insufferably navel-gazing. Blessedly, though, Baumbach is a born entertainer with spectacular affinity for actors, and between his riotous, lightly satirical dialogue and his four leads' unimpeachable performances, While We're Young is so smooth and confident and entertaining that for its first hour, I don't think I ever stopped grinning. (I grinned hardest at the first arrival of Charles Grodin, whose every screen appearance these days is reason to celebrate - though the early appearance of Beastie Boy Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz was also pretty sweet.) The film does go off the rails a bit in its final quarter, after Stiller puts on roller blades - never a good idea for people our age - and engages Driver in a generational debate that comes out of nowhere and leads to a different nowhere. But until then, it's an intensely smart and savvy portrait of lost souls struggling to find themselves - not Baumbach at his The Squid & the Whale peak, but quite possibly the next best thing. It sure made me feel old, though. As a newly minted 75-year-old reading that sentiment, you have complete permission to smack me.

Kevin James in Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2Saturday, April 18: What a day! A big, delicious breakfast with the parents! A big, delicious lunch at the birthday shindig! Why oh why did I decide, before returning to the Quad Cities, to add Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 to the menu?! Let's face facts: I was hardly predisposed to enjoy this thing. There is literally no screen star I find less appealing than Kevin James, and even though it happened more than six years ago, I can still hear the hateful cackling at 2009's Paul Blart: Mall Cop when the audience roared and cheered at the sight of James and an equally zaftig female customer beating the crap out of one another. (If you're so inclined, you can find it on YouTube under the hateful header "Paul Fights a Fat Chick.") But it only took two minutes to realize how much I'd detest this slapstick sequel by director Andy Fickman, because that's how long the movie took to re-introduce the only two things I liked about the original - Jayma Mays and Shirley Knight - before abandoning the former and killing off the latter. In fairness, James' latest laugh-at-the-fatty ordeal, this one set in a Las Vegas hotel, isn't wholly worthless. Raini Rodriguez is quite endearing as Blart's teenage daughter, Nicholas Turturro and Ana Gasteyer are allowed a few not-embarrassing moments, and Neal McDonough plays an art thief with one blue eye and one brown eye - and the brown-eyed half of his face is actually quite handsome. (If only McDonough weren't blue-eyed by nature.) For my money, though, none of this can make up for Paul Blart being perhaps without peer in regard to loathsomely designed and portrayed comedic characters: noxiously condescending, staggeringly self-involved, nauseatingly sentimental, criminally stupid, and soul-crushingly unfunny. My fellow patrons, I probably don't need to add, respectfully disagreed, and vocalized their merriment every time the titular dimwit got knocked to the floor, or gently chastised the hotel-manager hottie for coming on to him, or - in bits that defied all known laws of physics - got kicked in the stomach and sailed across the screen. There are few experiences in life lonelier than being the one non-laugher amongst a crowd that's chortling its collective butt off, and in that regard, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 was way more depressing than While We're Young. Or, for that matter, Sophie's Choice.

But at least I didn't drag you with me to see it, Dad! You're welcome! Happy Birthday!

Love,

Mike

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