The Lovebirds

Release: Friday, May 22, 2020 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Aaron Abrams; Brendan Gall; Martin Gero

Directed by: Michael Showalter 

The entertaining but uneven The Lovebirds gives one the impression director Michael Showalter wanted to do something more laidback and lightweight following The Big Sick. While The Lovebirds has a few of the elements that made his 2017 romantic comedy such a success, it doesn’t appear to have much interest in providing the same level of emotional connection.

Chief among those elements is the film’s well-chosen pair of lead actors in the innately likable Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae. They play a thirty-something couple who, over the course of one wild and dangerous night, reevaluate themselves and their status as a couple, for better and for worse. For the second film in a row Showalter features a mixed-race couple who are imperiled somewhat by the judgment they face from others. Unlike The Big Sick, which used smart, cutting observational humor to broach difficult conversations, The Lovebirds relies more on broad, goofy humor to propel a familiar wrongfully-accused story.

It opens with a prologue detailing the halcyon days of a romance blossoming between Jibran (Nanjiani), a documentary filmmaker, and Leilani (Rae), an advertising exec. Everything’s perfect. All that’s missing is a dreamlike filter on the lens for this montage of the meet-cute. Cut to four years later and the once very happy couple are miserable tenants stuck in a longterm lease in Resentfulsville. Everything’s an argument, and competitive reality shows seem to be a source of epic blow-ups. (Leilani thinks they could win as contestants on The Amazing Race while Jibran . . . doesn’t even watch the show.)

During the drive over to a dinner party with friends and colleagues, it’s looking (and sounding) more like they are a thing of the past when a bicyclist suddenly, very suddenly, becomes the thing colliding with their present and their car windshield; the thing that ends up shaking up more than just an otherwise awkward evening. Not seconds after Jibran’s careless error they’re being carjacked by an angry man with a mustache (Paul Sparks) claiming to be a cop and that the biker is a criminal. A hectic pursuit ends with Leilani and Jibran left at the scene of a murder and looking anything but innocent when some passersby profile them and call the cops.

The resulting fall-out has the two running for their lives, simultaneously attempting to clear their names and doing some freelance detective work of their own as they track down Mustache. Along the way, the script has them engage in petty crime while donning costumes and pretending to be gangsta as they “intimidate” frat boys for info. Frustratingly only a few of these comedic sketches truly land with their intended effect. It’s important to note how, even as orgies break out before them and bullets whizz by their face, the two very much remain broken up. Yet it’s their being together that gets us through what turns out to be a rather sloppily executed narrative.

Though most of the time it’s simply silly fun, the story is at its most unbelievable, in the most literal sense of the word, when the pair stumble into an Eyes Wide Shut situation involving a connection to Mustache who could help clear their name. It’s a development that comes out of nowhere and registers as nothing more than a poor homage. Nanjiani and Rae for the most part are enough to elevate the poor writing, though Nanjiani was absolutely better in his first collaboration with Showalter. Then there are the dire moments they just can’t improve, such as when they’re forced into explaining their whereabouts to their friends after crashing the party.

It is still a fun little escapade, more so if you disregard the baker’s dozen plot contrivances and leaps in logic that allow the adventure to play out the way that it does. Natural-born comedians in Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae make that so much easier, riffing their way through from one farcical and forced plot point to another.  Their winning chemistry ultimately saves the movie as much as, if not more than, their characters save themselves.

Recommendation: I wish I could stop comparing this movie to The Big Sick, they’re clearly not the same movie and yet I can’t help but wonder what this amiable but silly action comedy might have been like if once again Nanjiani not just acted but wrote the jokes. The Big Sick definitely benefitted from what he brought as a writer. (It also benefitted from the fact it was based on a true story.) Still though, I think what the two movies do have in common is maybe something more important, and that’s a really likable pair of characters the audience can really get behind and want to see succeed. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 87 mins.

Quoted: “Look, I’m sorry I have to kill you guys. You seem like a nice, though somewhat annoying couple.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: IMDb

Angel Has Fallen

Release: Friday, August 23, 2019

→Netflix

Written by: Robert Mark Kamen; Matt Cook; Ric Roman Waugh

Directed by: Ric Roman Waugh

Angel Has Fallen is the third but definitely not last installment in the Fallen action movie franchise. That there are enough of these movies to justify the word ‘franchise’ seems an indictment of the American Secret Service. How many other landmarks and VIPs are going to fall on Mike Banning (Gerard Butler)’s watch before he gets fired? Before the concept itself falls into parody? Are we there already?

Angel has probably fallen out of the memory of anyone who caught it in theaters last year but it’s the one I would return to again, no arm-twisting involved. And with no driving involved either, it’s quite possible this review is going to be much sunnier than others you have read. Ric Roman Waugh is the third different director in a series that has at least three more films planned and a TV series spinoff, so it’s anyone’s guess as to how the quality goes from here. For now it seems the third time’s the charm. Angel Has Fallen is a surprisingly fun diversion that I actually had a good time with.

The tables have turned against Butler’s bulletproof Banning as he becomes Public Enemy #1. The story sees the formerly disgraced Secret Service agent due for a promotion to Director. He would be replacing Lance Reddick‘s Director David Gentry, a man who suggests some level of class might be required for the position. The time has finally come to domesticate Banning the wild animal. (The script has these very manly men actually calling each other lions.) While his body is telling him the days of saving the president over and over again are indeed over, what with the chronic back pain and migraines that he keeps secret from his wife (Piper Parebo), his ego is what keeps him in the field and wincing off to the side.

Besides, if he graduates to a big boy office job, when is he ever going to find the time to reminisce about those crazy days in the Army with his old buddy Wade Jennings (Danny Huston)? (Now the CEO of a private military outfit called Salient Global, Wade is the second of the two self-proclaimed lions.)

During a private fishing trip President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) extends Banning the offer but a drone strike rudely interrupts the day and lays waste to the rest of the security detail, ultimately leaving Mr. President in a coma and Mr. Indestructible handcuffed to his own hospital bed. Banning awakens only to find he has been named a prime suspect by what Special Agent Thompson (Jada Pinkett Smith) of the FBI is calling an attempted assassination. One rather aggressive interrogation and a couple of pretty thrilling developments later and Banning’s on the loose, on the run, in a race against the clock to clear his name and establish the identities of those responsible.

There’s no denying Angel Has Fallen is a generic action thriller. You’re never in doubt as to whether the hero will succeed, or even as to what his next move is going to be. Undoubtedly its biggest flaw is the lack of character development. It’s pretty pathetic that after three movies we still don’t know much about Mike Banning (well, we now know he’s a lion). In fairness, the filmmakers do attempt a deeper background check on the guy than their predecessors. One of the best stretches of the story takes us down the twisty backroads of West Virginia where Banning eventually makes a pit stop at his old man’s heavily fortified cabin to lay low for a while. Clay Banning (Nick Nolte) is your quintessential disillusioned war vet who no longer trusts the government and hasn’t seen his family in years. The grizzled and bearded Nolte somewhat succeeds in providing some emotional weight to the story but his character, like all the other supporters, is a walking cliché.

It’s interesting to note that series creators and original screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt are not along for the ride this time. Filling in for them are Matt Cook and Robert Mark Kamen, who have Patriots Day, Taken and The Transporter writing creds between them — all solid action thrillers if not entirely game-changing originals. More importantly they seem the right kind of background for those looking to add their own link in this chain of middling action movies. The pair collaborate with the director on a screenplay that turns out to be very formulaic. However their concept incorporates more of an adventure element into it, making this effort different enough for me to feel more comfortable recommending. That’s definitely a first for this series.

He said I was a lion. Was he lyin’??

Recommendation: Netflix has made this a win-win situation. I get to experience more of the world’s most generic action movie franchise, now at least 60% more guilt-free: I don’t have to put gas money towards a Gerry Butler movie. I’m spared the shame and possible confusion of a ticket attendant mistaking me as a fan of this series even after London Has Fallen. I can pause the show however often I need (per empty beer glass, in this case). And best of all I get to prop my feet up and yell at the screen every time a character does or says something dumb, which in this movie happens a lot. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “I’m glad it was you. Lions, Mike . . . lions.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: IMDb

Velvet Buzzsaw

Release: Friday, February 1, 2019 (Netflix) 

→Netflix

Written by: Dan Gilroy

Directed by: Dan Gilroy

Beauty is in the eye of the soon-to-be-murdered in Velvet Buzzsaw, the new film from writer/director Dan Gilroy, who made his mark back in 2014 with the sensationally gripping Nightcrawler. His third directorial feature following 2017’s collaboration with Denzel Washington on Roman J. Israel, Esq., Velvet Buzzsaw is an apt title for a movie that leans fully into creative madness.

Gilroy’s latest is advertised as a mashup of horror and dark comedy, something that makes it immediately stand out from his previous genre-specific efforts — Nightcrawler a distinctive thriller and Roman J. Israel, Esq. firmly a legal drama. What also makes it stand out is its unapologetic strangeness. As you are no doubt aware by now, Velvet Buzzsaw is the movie where people get killed by artwork. But these are no ordinary schmucks who can’t tell a Renoir from a damn Monet. These are art profiteers who slowly get seduced and then offed by the very works they try to profit from — paintings whose fictional, beyond-tortured artist Vetril Dease seemingly imbued them with a strange and haunting power. As the story progresses, events only become more outlandish — so much so you’re all but compelled to disregard the horror part of the label and embrace the comedy inherent in all the (occasionally bloody) wackiness.

The art of the satire stems from a real-world experience Gilroy had back in the 1990s when he devoted significant time developing a screenplay for a Warner Bros. project called Superman Lives. It was set to star Nicolas Cage as Clark Kent. Try to digest that for a minute. Burp it back up if you need to. Unfortunately for anyone drawn to the image of Nic “Crazy Face” Cage donning the cape and tights they will never get the satisfaction as the studio shut down the project over budgetary concerns. That frustration informs the thematic core of Velvet Buzzsaw, a scathing criticism of the modern L.A. art scene and those who are only in the game because of the money.

The film is set in an alien environment of esoteric taste, haughty opinion and generally unpleasant personality and follows multiple perspectives through a tangled web of relationships, from rivaling art gallery owners — Rene Russo’s icy Rhodora Haze and Tom Sturridge’s creepy, conniving Jon Dondon — to influential outsiders like art critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal, reuniting with Russo from Nightcrawler) who has the power to not only sway pricing but as well make or break careers. At the ground floor you get contrast in artistic philosophies in Piers (an unfamiliarly sympathetic John Malkovich), an old-schooler struggling to find inspiration versus Damrish (Daveed Diggs), a hot new street artist reticent to display his work in a gallery. Keep an eye out for rogue players like Gretchen (Toni Collette), an art curator and close friend of Morf’s, who is also itching to make a big career move, as well as the highfalutin Josephina (Zawe Ashton), Rhodora’s frequently under-appreciated assistant, and an art installer named Bryson (Billy Magnussen) with an agenda of his own.

Granted, that is a long list of characters to keep track of. The good news is that we aren’t meant to form an emotional attachment to these creatures. Natalia Dyer’s character, a meek and mild-mannered Haze Gallery intern named Coco, is an exception. As someone rather out of place in this world — she hails from the East Coast and doesn’t seem to have much of an artistic inclination other than balancing multiple Starbucks cups on her daily coffee run — she is best positioned as an audience surrogate. By virtue of how frequently she stumbles upon the gruesome aftermath of paintings come to life, Coco gives us the key to enjoyment here. Go with the flow, absorb the imagery but don’t get too close.

Almost everyone else is disposable, many of them in a literal sense. These are near parodies of people who pontificate over artistic merit for a living. With a couple of exceptions these characters are either completely self-absorbed or cutthroat opportunists, finalists for the old “I can’t wait to see who goes down first” competition. The way they go down certainly makes Velvet Buzzsaw visually pop and feel edgy, while Gilroy’s screenplay, dripping with foreshadowing and cliché-riddled dialogue, tend to align the production with something decidedly more mainstream and predictable.

It’s a frustrating experience because as the film careens towards the absurd it delivers on its promise of comeuppance and in so doing entertains in a strange, almost perverse way. At the same time Gilroy gets so loosey-goosey with his direction the critique itself threatens to lose all meaning. The domino effect of bodies dropping ends up feeling like a gimmick after so many instances, yet undeniably the art of the kill is something to behold. And if this nobody blogger is taking note of some sloppiness, I can only imagine what Morf would do.

“Who are you to judge me?”

Recommendation: How you respond to Velvet Buzzsaw I think really depends on how you interpret the tone. I found it far more funny, albeit darkly satirical, than it was horrifying. Though I did find a few elements that were horrific, like the aftermath of The Sphere sequence and Toni Colette’s hairpiece. Either way you look at it, the premise is pretty out there — but that’s something I’d rather have than a formulaic/half-cooked Netflix Original. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 113 mins.

Quoted: “These are heinous.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.deviantart.com; http://www.imdb.com

Inferno

inferno-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 28, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: David Koepp

Directed by: Ron Howard

Ron Howard is a fairly prolific filmmaker, having maintained a schedule of roughly a film every two years throughout a 40-plus-year long directorial career. He’s not quite Woody Allen but his oeuvre is extensive enough to suggest the guy just likes staying busy, and it certainly explains his involvement with fluffy B-movie action schlock like Inferno.

Howard’s third cinematic translation of Dan Brown’s popular thrillers is pretty much business as usual as it once again follows Tom Hanks‘ Professor Langdon on a globetrotting adventure in search of some historical artifact/macguffin that becomes a particular point of interest, stringing along a female companion who goes from being incidental to the plot to playing a significant role in the way the mystery unfolds. Inferno shares in its predecessors’ sense of reckless abandon, often falsifying or embellishing historical fact for the sake of advancing (or even resolving) the conflict the world’s most famous symbolist finds himself in.

Unlike in The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons our trusted Harvard prof starts off in between a rock and a hard place, waking up in a hospital bloodied and completely oblivious to the events of the last several days. Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) informs him that he has temporary amnesia as a result of a bullet grazing his head. While trying to make sense of the moment, a member of La Polizia Municipale shows up on the scene and it quickly becomes clear she’s not here for questioning. The pair manage to escape to the doctor’s apartment, where she immediately demands answers.

Dr. Brooks’ apartment is where our adventure begins in earnest. An unlikely starting point, but that’s part of what makes these films entertaining. Langdon remains an unreliable protagonist for much of the first half of the film, his inability to shake visions of what appears to be Hell on Earth making for a refreshing change of pace from the infallible history geek he usually is. It’s no coincidence that the film begins with a fire-and-brimstone lecture delivered by billionaire geneticist Bertrand Zubrist (Ben Foster) on the matter of mankind’s imminent demise. His extreme views — he essentially plans to halve the global population by releasing a virus, the Inferno virus, in a popular tourist location — position him as the film’s obvious antagonist, but the story takes an unexpected turn when he commits suicide.

Langdon finds himself caught in a race against time when he learns that the maniac has left a trail of breadcrumbs for someone else to follow. The clues begin with something Langdon finds on his person, a pocket-sized digital device that has the image of Dante’s Map of Hell stored inside. From there they bounce between the crowds of Florence and Istanbul, having to contend with the interests of other organizations like the World Health Organization and shady underground entities like Harry Sims (Irrfan Khan)’s Consortium, a private security firm. These people have their own, equally convoluted agendas. Double-crossers like Omar Sy’s Christopher Bouchard only serve to make matters more complicated.

Along the way the familiar beats are delivered: a few twists, some pulse-pounding chase sequences, a lot of conveniently timed revelations and of course an inconveniently timed betrayal. All of this would have resulted in some fairly entertaining viewing, but unfortunately Inferno becomes bogged down by a plethora of technical issues that consistently undermine the film’s raison d’être, which is to provide easily digestible, easily disposable entertainment. We haven’t witnessed a production so disorganized and incoherent since Howard attempted to mount a sophisticated kind of situational comedy in the baffling and underwhelming The Dilemma.

Here, Howard almost comes across amateurish: Inferno‘s direction is spastic and, well, directionless; action set pieces are rushed and largely forgettable while the fundamental reason we are all here — the fun in solving the puzzle (possibly well ahead of the characters) — is all but sidelined in favor of an obsession with style and adrenaline-spiking editing. It gets to the point where many of the scenes depicting Langdon’s mental anguish feel like they’re sampled from a tutorial in iMovie. Those flourishes also present far too often, disrupting whatever flow the narrative is able to build while Hans Zimmer’s score is little more than a collection of uninspired electronic sound samples whose cacophonous presence only compounds the headache.

Suspension of disbelief has always been requisite of this franchise, whether you’re turning pages or experiencing Howard’s interpretation of them. You usually have to take these pseudo-intellectual adventures with a grain of salt, but Inferno will demand you swallow the entire damn jar. Hanks’ predictably amiable performance and some fun supporting performances, namely Khan’s scenery chewing, almost — ALMOST — make that kind of dry mouth worth it, but not quite.

inferno

Recommendation: Inferno‘s slapdash construction gives the impression it was thrown together last-minute. Absolutely a lesser Ron Howard film and perhaps one of his worst. The things I can recommend about it are basically limited to Tom Hanks and Irrfan Khan. Maybe Felicity Jones. These three seem to give it their all but the story around them and some atrocious editing sadly let them down. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “The greatest sins in human history were committed in the name of love.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

War Dogs

'War Dogs' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 19, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Todd Phillips; Stephen Chin; Jason Smilovic

Directed by: Todd Phillips

The unbelievability factor really works in War Dogs‘ favor. It has given a director of outrageous comedies and indeterminate skill considerable leverage. It has given actors who like playing jackasses free range to be themselves and we would never know the difference because this true story is ridiculous to begin with. For blind devotees of Todd Phillips getting to know the actual truth is not as important as having an approximated version of it delivered in an amusing and crass way.

See, there’s one thing you kind of have to be in order to enjoy movies made by The Guy Who Brought You The Hangover: you have to be easy to please. You need to be unapologetically so. Take the guy who sat behind me and to my right, for example: this man(-child) laughed at damn well every line that came out of Jonah Hill’s mouth. To this satisfied customer, Phillips could not put a foot wrong. You need to be in that mindset if you are to get the intended amount of entertainment out of War Dogs, a dramatic comedy about how two dopes wind up landing a $300 million arms-dealing contract with the American government.

Despite much of the film being heavily fictionalized — the drive through The Triangle of Death and that pit-stop in Fallujah, yeah that never happened . . . although I bet that towel falling off that rich client’s ass did — this bumpy ride across foreign borders and into legal gray areas becomes a pretty good watch. I mean, a lot of this stuff really happened and you just can’t help but become curious as to how and when their ultimate downfall begins. Maybe it’s when they violated the American arms embargo against the Chinese by repackaging 100 million rounds of AK-47 ammunition — 42-year-old, substandard Chinese bullets to be more accurate. Maybe it’s the fact they forgot to get their boys paid for those efforts. Maybe it’s that both of them — high school buddies Efraim Diveroli (Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller) — really were just money-hungry douchebags utterly deserving of the stigma attached to their line of work.

Yes, I think it’s that last one, a sense of fatalism, that makes War Dogs entertaining on any level. The peace of mind knowing that no matter what sequences of success-building and montages of money-stockpiling are put in front of us these unlikable, completely out-of-their-depth numbskulls are going to get their comeuppance. Phillips works pretty hard at steering us in another direction though, and yet there is a surprising amount of fun to be had while it lasts. Of course, the whole thing’s rigged with many of his unimaginative storytelling methods, like the lazy voiceover provided by Teller and highly interruptive chaptered segments with cutesy titles like ‘God Bless Dick Cheney’s America’ and ‘That Sounds Illegal.’

His film is based upon a Rolling Stone article later expanded for a novel based on the rise to prominence of Efraim’s start-up company AEY, which would eventually become a major weapons supplier for the Department of Defense. Ultimately AEY totalled $200 million in contracts dealing in ammunition and assault rifles, amongst other weapons, and its demise inspired the government to reevaluate how they would secure contracts for the future. (In other words, gone were the days of hiring stoners to do the dirty work. Fucking pot heads, man.)

Hill and Teller provide an easy repartee that won’t be difficult to find in other, albeit more traditional, stoner comedies. Even if Hill is now typically a decade older in real life than the characters he chooses, he’s still believable as a 21-year-old arms-dealer (or is that gun-runner?) because . . . well, that freedom to believe whatever you want rule as I mentioned above. Believe all of it or believe none of it (both of which would be too extreme of a reaction in my opinion). Teller has gone back to playing less interesting individuals. All he gets to do is set a bad example for husbands and new fathers everywhere. He becomes the guy who has to explain his lies to his wife when the story needs some tension.

Very little about War Dogs‘ presentation or execution strikes you as incendiary but the source material is so outlandish you’d be forgiven for thinking Phillips wanted to make this just for the opportunity to blow certain aspects out of proportion. Casting regular collaborator Bradley Cooper as a shady intermediary named Henry Girard counts as proof. We didn’t need another famous face in the mix but seeing Cooper appear in a war film that’s very, very un-American Sniper is more than a little amusing. I cackled like a hyena* when he states that he’s “not a bad man, but sometimes [he] asks [him]self what a bad man would do.” I’m not sure if I was supposed to, but I did. I felt like my friend in the row behind me there. It took me until the very end of the film, but finally I felt my money had been decently spent.

I guess what I’m saying is that despite my problems with Phillips’ generic brand — though it must be said generic isn’t the same as incompetent, lest we forget things like Old School and yes, The Hangover, two genuinely great comedies — if you give him the right material to run with anything is possible. You might have a really good time if you can let go of preconceived notions for long enough.

Jonah Hill and Miles Teller in 'War Dogs'

Recommendation: Further confirmation of Todd Phillips’ unspectacular vision as a filmmaker, War Dogs pursues an outrageous true story with the kind of attitude and conviction fans of his should expect. It’s a passable comedy made more intriguing by the facts, and another good, if loud and obnoxious, performance from Jonah Hill. Not a film you probably want to spend money on if righteous anti-war sentiment is what you seek. And I suppose that’s one more credit to the film: a lack of political lean grounds it somewhat close to neutral. Like Hill’s Efraim says, think of it not as pro- (or anti-) war, but pro-money-making.

Rated: R

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “We drive through all triangles . . . including your mom’s.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Nerve

'Nerve' movie poster

Release: Wednesday, July 27, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Jessica Sharzer

Directed by: Henry Joost; Ariel Shulman

If you accept the dare to watch Nerve, understand a few conditions first: 1) this is a teen-centric, sexed-up adventure thriller set in the Twitter Age, thereby you are volunteering up brain cells you’re never going to use again; 2) James Franco’s not in it, his lesser talented and less interesting younger brother is, along with Emma Roberts who is just as bland; 3) the film ends in such a way you may find yourself requesting a refund. If you accept these terms and conditions, by all means log in and join the action.

Based on Jeanne Ryan’s 2012 novel of the same name, Nerve addresses the addictive nature of social media and the Insta-Fame effect. It creates a world parallel to ours in which a kind of sadistic, cyber version of Truth-or-Dare (minus the Truth part) has become extremely popular. Er, rather, has ‘gone viral.’ Curious surfers are given the choice to either be a Watcher or a Participant — the film even helps itself to The Matrix‘ supply of red/blue pills in thinking we would feel shortchanged without the extremely hackneyed visual.

Watchers, yup, they just sit and observe (like total buzzkills) and Participants agree to do crazier and crazier things as requested by the Watchers, for increasingly large cash prizes. Sure enough, it has cost the lives of participants, as was the case one year in Seattle. Some poor sap apparently fell from the top of an industrial super-crane. Nerve enthusiast Ian (Dave Franco) witnessed the tragedy first-hand. How convenient that he happens to be Vee’s first challenge (kiss a random stranger for $100), parked in the very diner where she’s finally trying out the game “just this once.” She’s trying Nerve just so she stops feeling like the loser her friends have made her feel she is. It’s nice to see that peer pressure not only manifests as a theme but as an important plot device as well.

Unfortunately you can’t really just check this game out once and be done with it. There are two ways to lose the game: by Failing to complete a Dare or Bailing on it. When you lose, you don’t get the money. (I feel like there should be another consequence if you Bail, like Watchers reserve the right to kick your ass for being a ninny; merely losing the money just seems too easy.) Also, Snitches Get Stitches, people. Snitches . . . get . . . sti . . . I can’t believe I’m reviewing this movie. Long story short, Participants are strongly advised against seeking the appropriate authorities, even when you believe dares are getting out-of-hand. Even if they’re getting a little on the illegal side. If you do snitch, Watchers actually will come and kick your ass.

Nerve‘s frantic, coincidence-riddled narrative revolves chiefly around Vee’s experience as a Participant as she hooks up with Ian downtown and commits to a series of dares that have an immediate, positive impact on her bank account. Her mother, working the night shift as a nurse, is receiving a flood of notifications on her phone as a result. It’s raining virtual dolla-dollas! The adventure finds Vee completely breaking out of her shell — this happens so quickly you’d think she’s suffering from some sort of personality disorder — and leaving behind her boring, predictable self. To prove she’s got what it takes, I guess to be popular, she accepts one particular dare that demands she and Ian reach a speed of 60 miles an hour while the driver is blindfolded. Gee, I wonder how this turns out . . .

Character development is not a priority here, and it really should be. We shouldn’t feel numb when a friendship turns sour between Vee and her best friend Sydney (Emily Meade), when the latter accidentally overhears a private conversation between the two that Vee’s phone happens to pick up. (Oh yeah, I forgot to mention: one of the main complaints I’d like to file is the fact that in order for the game to work, they have to be capturing themselves on their phone’s camera. This naturally gives rise to a few preposterous moments.) We are supposed to laugh at the superficiality of Sydney’s concerns, that’s really the point. To all of this. Social media is the real enemy here!

Ignoring a plethora of contrivances — there are Watchers clinging to every single corner of the frame; they’re literally everywhere so dares come quick and they come often and always just at the right moment — Nerve still provides a perfectly serviceable experience for three quarters of its runtime. Energy levels remain high and the film glows in Michael Simmonds’ sleek cinematography. But then we run into the post-Hunger Games gladiatorial arena into which our internet sensation friends here are dropped and ordered to eliminate the other. The laziness of such a set-up should be enough to lose several, perhaps less patient followers — and then the twist happens. A twist that would make M. Night Shyamalan proud, a bizarre kink that shamelessly deletes the villainous human component in one fell swoop. It’s like we never needed it to begin with.

For what it’s worth, Franco and Roberts make a good team and while their characters certainly fail, the names are just enough to make Nerve tolerable, but not enjoyable. Everything you could possibly fear about a movie geared towards the post-Twitter teenage bracket Nerve squeezes in in 96 short minutes. It’s firmly rooted in escapist entertainment. That doesn’t mean there aren’t redeeming qualities, but predictably each opportunity the film is given to rise above and become something better it bails for an easy way out. #fail

Dave Franco and Emma Roberts in 'Nerve'

Recommendation: Socially relevant commentary really could have used the Sophia Coppola touch. Her magic wand could have turned all the sexiness into something useful and she’s really good at crafting pictures aimed at an entitled generation who think the world revolves around them. Nerve, a giddy teen-centric outing that doesn’t really offer much at all, fits that bill. The end result is pretty disappointing given that the story has something to say. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 96 mins.

Quoted: “Somebody is putting money into my account!” / “White people problems . . . “

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Lights Out

'Lights Out' movie poster

Release: Friday, July 22, 2016

[Theater*]

Written by: Eric Heisserer

Directed by: David F. Sandberg

In Swedish filmmaker David F. Sandberg’s feature debut, an expanded realization of a short film he made in 2013, something sinister lurks in the absence of light and enjoys tormenting anyone unfortunate enough to be in the same room with it. That is, of course, unless those people have a flashlight or bright cell phone screen handy and they can wield it like Father Merrin does the cross before Pazuzu himself: “Go away! Go away, you!”

Lights Out is a family drama dressed up as a fright fest. It’s well-acted and on-the-rise Aussie actress Teresa Palmer makes much of it worth your while. She’s certainly easier on the eyes than she is on your heart, a kind of bratty youth who blames her attitude on daddy walking out on the family so long ago. Her mother (Maria Bello) has lost her mind and become reclusive. After many years she’s still haunted by the disappearance of childhood friend Diana.

Her daughter Rebecca (Palmer) can’t seem to get a grip on her own life. She lives alone in her apartment and doesn’t want to call the guy she’s been seeing for eight months her boyfriend. Bret (Alexander DiPersia)’s not going anywhere though, not even after he’s finally met Rebecca’s crazy mom. Heck, especially after. Rebecca has a younger half-brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) who still lives at home but soon it becomes clear that that situation can no longer continue, what with mom talking to herself late at night and haunting the poor boy with stories of her past. Stuff about Diana. Other gibberish.

One thing that Lights Out has going for it is a strong sense of family. That manifests despite the brokenness of this particular household. Whether it’s Rebecca’s instinctive protectiveness of Martin — she attempts to take him in and care for him at her own apartment before a child care specialist shows up and impresses upon her the actual, transformative reality of becoming a caretaker — or Bret’s inexplicable devotion to his not-girlfriend; even Sophie, the sick mother, has a deep love for her son and daughter. The film is wisely, and arguably, more intimately concerned with human relationships than it is with things going bump in the night. Bello in particular manages to really dial in on the emotional heft of her character experiencing some low moments.

Palmer is less interesting, as is her boy-toy. Both actors are likable enough but the latter barely leaves his fingerprints on the story. Rebecca never really seems to change, as circumstances force her to get back in touch with her mother despite years of tension and weirdness. As Martin, the young Bateman has presence but more importantly he spares us from yet another shrieking, generally irritating cinematic creation who serves no greater purpose than to put everyone in needless danger.

Less interesting than any of these is the antagonist, some haunt that has roots in the history of this once-upon-a-time happy family. Frustratingly Lights Out is another case in which evil appears and acts only when the script finds it convenient. This would also explain the apparition’s obnoxious inconsistencies, like being able to shut down power to an entire building but not having the fortitude to withstand an attack from the light of a cell phone. Something interesting does come out of the invention — it’s creepy watching the thing move in between flips of a light switch — but if you’re in it for the wickedness awaiting all those who have trespassed, you’re in the wrong movie.

If you’ve come for the jump scares, you’ve come to the right place. That’s all Lights Out does, even if it does it well. I hope it doesn’t become Sandberg’s calling card. Despite the quality of a handful of those moments, I gotta say a person’s healthy fear of darkness is actually more intense than the fear of what Sandberg’s film has laying around in it. I can’t help but feel like we would understand the function of so many repeated jump scares if the threat were more real. Without a compelling villain behind everything the technique just feels lazy and uninspired. Repetitive.

When it comes right down to it, decent ghost story; not so good movie.

MV5BMTU1MjgzOTE5Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjUxNDgzOTE@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_

* I have never walked out on a movie because of other people in the theater being too loud. Lights Out broke that streak. I went to check it out on Friday but there were two very intoxicated guys in there who genuinely just didn’t realize how loud they were being. Unfortunately this was after they and two other groups came in after the movie had begun (like, tape rolling not the credits and stuff). I got a pass for another time, came back Saturday. I was alone in the theater (11:15p) until a rambunctious little group of teens came in and they proceeded to talk through the entire movie and were probably even louder than the guys the night before. I almost left again. So it is quite possible that this review doesn’t accurately reflect how I might have felt about it had I been able to fully concentrate on the film. So, I thank those individuals for that. Thanks for the distractions. 


Recommendation: The strong sense of family is what makes Lights Out worth sitting through at all. The steeped-in-reality tone and settings feel very James Wan but there’s little evidence of his influence elsewhere. I suppose the script isn’t the worst you could find either. But come the end of it  you’re left wanting a lot more. That’s a shame when everyone seems so committed. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 81 mins.

Quoted: “Hey Martin, what’s up? Did we wake you?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The BFG

'The BFG' movie poster

Release: Friday, July 1, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Melissa Mathison

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Great Gallywampers and fiddly tweezlesticks, I is very pleased indeed that Steven Spielberg has delivered the goodles in his very first venture into Roald Dahl‘s brilliant imagurnation. The BFG is breathtaker beautiful, and not just thanks to its scrumptioutious imagery, neither. It recalls the warminess and serenity of Brian Cosgrove’s 1989 animated adventure and ‘n fact it mighty jus’ be more endearin’ because of the live-action interplayery.

No, don’t worry, I’m not gonna speak in Dahlian tongues for the entire review. That’s just my overly dramatic way of expressing relief that The BFG turns out to be the real deal, rather than a pale imitator. The story is clumsier than you might expect with a Spielbergian production — we find as many lulls in the story as we do frobscottle-induced farts (excuse me, whizzpoppers) — but that’s merely the product of a director’s faithfulness to the source material. Spielberg otherwise hits every major note with an assured and playful touch, his knack for conjuring powerful feelings of wonder and awe giving this sweet summer diversion a personality all its own.

Indeed, The BFG is mostly a success in that it doesn’t create any new problems. It merely inherits those of its ancestor — namely, the aforementioned inconsistent and at-times sluggish pace and a few leaps of faith in logic in service of a narrative that just may well be Dahl’s strangest and most fanciful. Story concerns a young girl named Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) who is whisked away one night from Mrs. Clonkers’ Orphanage by a huge, hooded creature and to Giant Country, a wondrous place filled with beauty. Do I smell a Best Visual Effects nomination? I do, as a matter of fact: that sequence in Dream Country by the dream tree is simply mesmeric.

But Giant Country isn’t total paradise, it’s fraught with danger as well. The other giants among whom the BFG ekes out a quiet existence as a Dream Blower are much larger, meaner and they eat human beings (or, beans, rather). After learning she’s not leaving Giant Country anytime soon, Sophie encourages her big friendly giant to stand up for himself and to rid the land of these brutes, led by Jemaine Clement‘s Fleshlumpeater, once and for all. The pair seek the help of the Queen (Penelope Wilton) and her Royal Army back in the real world to do just that.

As is the case with a great many Dahl adaptations, the suspension of disbelief is a requisite and that ability serves viewers well here, especially as the fearless Sophie encourages the two worlds to collide. The performances anchoring the film are so good they allow us to overlook many a flawed concept. And there are more than a few. Spielberg’s potential new muse in Mark Rylance loses himself in the role as the titular giant and very well might have upstaged David Jason’s original voice performance that made the larger-than-life being an unforgettable creation. His spoonerisms and awkward turns of phrase were a highlight of that original as they are here as well, and once again it’s a joy watching ten-year-old Sophie trying to update and expand his childlike vocabulary.

Rylance doesn’t do it alone, though. He gets tremendous support from the young Barnhill who embraces Sophie’s wide-eyed curiosity about the strange world surrounding her with real gusto. She’s also brilliant at balancing the heartbreak of growing up without parents with a sense of maturity that makes her as well-rounded a character as you’re likely going to find with a child actor. All those years ago Sophie had already been made a strong character thanks to Amanda Root’s precociousness and intellectual curiosity, and those qualities are only bolstered by Barnhill’s live-action incarnation. Most importantly, the quasi-parental bond between the two isn’t lost in translation. The problem of loneliness is resolved with respect for Dahl’s affinity for the weird very much intact come the tear-jerking conclusion.

One of the challenges Spielberg is up against with his take on a Dahlian classic is finding an audience outside of those loyal readers and those who keep the 1989 made-for-British-television special close to their heart. The BFG is certifiably obscure material but perhaps with names attached like Spielberg and Rylance it can reach for broader audiences. This uplifting, sweet tale of bravery and dream-making certainly deserves them.

Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 7.45.12 PM

Recommendation: The BFG, as I have suspected since the announcement was first made, represents an ideal union of director and material. The world created by Roald Dahl is practically tailor-made for one of the world’s best when it comes to imaginative, inspiring filmmaking and the end product, while not perfect, is about as good as could be expected. The performances are wonderful and if you’re tired of the summer blockbuster trend, I have to recommend The BFG. Like, immediatarily. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “Why did you take me?” / “Because I hears your lonely heart, ‘n all the secret whisperings of the world.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.joblo.com; http://www.imdb.com

Keanu

'Keanu' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 29, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Jordan Peele; Alex Rubens

Directed by: Peter Atencio

The Cat in the Hat. Garfield. Sylvester. Mewtwo. Mr. Bigglesworth. Shere Khan. These are but a few of the world’s most famous felines. You can go ahead and add Keanu to this prestigious list, because he’s the best thing about a full-length movie that’s kinda-sorta-but-not-really-at-all about him.

The mischievous duo behind Comedy Central’s Key and Peele find themselves comfortably making the transition to the big screen, but unfortunately they’ve missed an opportunity to make a memorable entrance in this painfully hit-and-miss comedy that sees two schlubs turning thug under some seriously contrived circumstances. I suppose, yeah, you could say they were under duress, but . . .

The (mis)adventure begins when a kitten shows up on Rell (Peele)’s doorstep. He has traveled from afar, barely escaping with the fur on his back from a violent confrontation at a drug processing facility deep in the city. Rell, reeling after a bad break-up, takes an immediate liking to the cat and believes it will help him feel better. He names his new friend Keanu. Meanwhile, his uptight cousin Clarence (Key) is seeing his wife off for a weekend getaway with a mutual friend played by the always untrustworthy Rob Huebel.

Unbeknownst to them, the cat actually belongs to a powerful thug named Cheddar (Method Man) to whom the notorious Allentown boys — the ones involved in the aforementioned firefight and who are also played by Key and Peele — are indebted as they track down the precious fur-ball. The Allentown boys are bloodthirsty goons straight out of a Rob Zombie nightmare and will stop at nothing until they get what they’re after. These freaks are the shameless beneficiaries of Abby O’Sullivan’s fantastic costuming and make-up.

Rell takes Clarence to see the new Liam Neeson movie to try and get Clarence out of his house and to spend some “bro time,” as was suggested by his wife. They get back only to find Rell’s place has been ransacked and Keanu’s missing. Rell’s next-door neighbor/weed guy Hulka (Will Forte, sporting some awesome dreads) of course didn’t see nothin’. The hunt for Keanu eventually leads the cousins into Cheddar’s lair, a blown-out night club poignantly christened HPV, where they also find the cat, now repping a gold chain and black doo-rag. Rell, barely able to hide his outrage over the kitten-napping, snaps and declares he and Clarence are the Allentown boys and that they’d be willing to do one favor for Cheddar in exchange for ownership of the cat.

And so the rest of the film is just allowed to happen . . . somehow. It’s a parody of the Gangster Experience that flits between cringe-worthy and chuckle-inducing, its many farcical developments amounting to a parlay of good fortune that simply endures too long. And it’s so not about the cat, either. Keanu’s closer to a meowing macguffin than a functional character in a plot designed to bait animal rights activists into protesting the comedic duo’s next event. (Fear not: no animals were harmed during the making of this film.)

It’s not as if Key and Peele was the most reliable source of saucy satire but when it was good, it could really strike a nerve. In the feature film setting, however, their inconsistency is magnified tenfold and there are some very bare patches as the writers milk the faux-gangster premise for all its worth. The scene at Anna Faris‘ house drags on for what feels like an eternity as we’re forced to watch Rell (now operating under his thug alias ‘Tectonic’) and Clarence (a.k.a. ‘Shark Tank’) bluff their way through the drug deal they agreed to.

There are moments where their deadpan charm pierces like the sun through the thick clouds of uninspired writing — Key and Peele themselves aren’t the problem with their movie. In fact it’s their camaraderie that is able to pull us through Keanu‘s least compelling moments, and why I enjoyed it more than I probably should have.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 8.04.58 PM

Recommendation: Keanu mirrors the hit-and-miss nature of Key and Peele. Although there is a caveat to that: devoted fans are likely to not take as much issue as those who are less familiar with their schtick. That said, the premise as a whole still feels like a wasted opportunity to do something memorable with an animal that’s not only this photogenic but well-trained. This cat has a bright acting future ahead of him. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “We’re in the market for a gangster pet.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Housebound

Housebound movie poster

Release: Friday, October 17, 2014 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Gerard Johnstone

Directed by: Gerard Johnstone

Housebound heralds the arrival of a creative new talent in Gerard Johnstone, and though not always the most confident, his feature film debut functions as a perfectly harmless distraction that adds a few amusing wrinkles in the fabric of haunted house horror.

It centers around a young, moody twentysomething — Kylie Bucknell (Morgana O’Reilly) — who gets caught in the act of trying to relieve an ATM of its contents. Because of her recidivistic tendencies she’s sentenced to eight months of house arrest, a light punishment all things considered. But this means she’ll have to put up with her irritating mother Miriam (Rima Te Wiata) and step-father Graeme (Ross Harper) — gasp, the horror! The former seems to think the house is possessed by spirits, while the latter utters nary a word as he’s never been a talkative fellow.

Added to Kylie’s suffering is the fact she’s been fitted with an anklet that will alert authorities, the seemingly lone wolf Amos (Glen-Paul Waru), if she tries to leave the premises. What’s a girl to do if she can’t go out every night and burglarize the shit out of everything with her wayward friends? I guess just sit there and pout.

Credit Johnstone for casting an atypical lead in his first film, and O’Reilly for selling her character’s detachment from society. Unfortunately she’s too good at it; it’s a little hard to root for her when she begins experiencing some of the things that has recently sent her mother into hysterics. Completely insensitive to the needs of others, Kylie isn’t someone who seems ready to change their ways and would rather mope around for the next few months until the shackles have been lifted. Or am I just overlooking the fact that perhaps her cloudy disposition is part of the comedic appeal?

One thing that’s more frustrating than Kylie’s selfish behavior is the dynamic between her and Amos. As she slowly comes into an understanding that the house she finds herself in has a dark history — it once served as a halfway house and was the site of a grisly murder — she has trouble convincing anyone else of what’s going on. But . . . wasn’t her mother the one phoning in to a radio show to publicize her paranoias? And why isn’t Amos believing her? He oscillates between being overly protective of the young woman and skeptical to the point of accusing her of lying about everything she’s going through.

Alas, Housebound becomes one of “those” movies — the kind where everything we witness apparently comes at the expense of our protagonist’s credibility. Her frustration becomes our frustration. That is, until things take a turn for the worse when Kylie and Amos together turn their attention toward a suspicious neighbor, whom they believe could be responsible for things going bump in the night. As we’ve expected all along there’s more to this scene than what meets the eye.

Johnstone’s debut is fascinated with the concept of seclusion and secrecy, applying it to elements both physical and conceptual. As I’m obligated to keep spoilers out of my reviews to keep my readers from turning on me in a quick and hostile manner, suffice it to say his technique is what sustains the entertainment rather than the actual, tangible elements themselves. Even if Housebound gets a little too overexcited in its grander reveals — people living inside walls notwithstanding — perhaps it’s best to resist the urge to overanalyze. Like Kylie, maybe it’s in our best interests to sit back and just let this phase run its course.

things get a bit messy for Morgana O'Reilly and Rima Te Wiata in 'Housebound'

Recommendation: Housebound serves as another welcomed entry into the steadily growing marriage between comedy and horror. It does enough to satisfy casual horror fans who like their stuff more on the light-hearted side though it features a few grisly scenes and enough blood to satiate more serious horror watchers. Not a perfect film but it’s solid enough to make me want to come back for more. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: “I am not the only one who thought there was a ghost in this house, Kylie. In fact, you used to be so terrified you could not sleep.” / “Yeah, I also used to think the Moon was made of cheese. It is called childhood.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com