REVIEW: Nerve

1 07 2017

Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s “Nerve” instantly makes us aware that, for today’s high schoolers, life is not lived alongside a screen so much as it is lived inside one. Devices are not an embellishment to reality but rather a replacement for it altogether.

The story, adapted from Jeanne Ryan’s YA novel, fashions a new kind of social media frenzy for young people called – well – Nerve. In this game, participants can enter either as watchers observing the dares or as players performing them. Cash incentives encourage increasingly bananas stunts, which both groups are forbidden to report to law enforcement.

The player/watcher divide becomes an all too convenient dichotomy for passive/active, but the Nerve game is a bit more complicated than high school cliques. It’s more like bystanders and perpetrators as shown by the misadventures of Emma Roberts’ Vee, who uses the game as an escape for a debilitating family life after the death of her brother. She’s a person of good intentions egged on by a crowd of people whose motivations are not as pure.

Not unlike Joost and Schulman’s cultural landmark debut “Catfish,” the film starts off with promising, incisive commentary about what social media does to people … only to devolve into bizarre theatrics that veer wildly off-message. “Nerve” makes excellent points about how easy it is to manipulate us with personal information that we willingly provide, and that deserves more of a horror/thriller ending than just another banal action set piece. B- /

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REVIEW: The Little Hours

25 06 2017

Sundance Film Festival

Raunchy comedies set in a distant past always run the risk of relying too heavily on anachronistic humor. (Cough, “A Million Ways to Die in the West.”) The humor that arises from performers in period garb rattling off profanities or talking in the present-day vernacular is the definition of low-hanging fruit.

Jeff Baena’s “The Little Hours” tends to lean on this dissonance to generate comedy. Aubrey Plaza dropping F-bombs in a nun’s habit is inherently pretty darn funny. Whether it leans too heavily on the ahistorical humor is up to the individual viewer – I found it a little overloaded – but thankfully it’s not the only trick Baena has up his sleeve.

The film’s story, adapted from the Medieval novella “The Decameron,” finds laughs from sending up the era’s sexual repression and religious rigor. Three naughty nuns (Plaza, Alison Brie and scene-stealer Kate Micucci) toil away in their convent under the watchful eye of John C. Reilly’s Father Tommasso, lamenting their inability to act on certain desires. Luckily, Dave Franco’s chesty handyman Massetto arrives to light their flames.

This feudal Rudolph Valentino escapes one manor, where as servant he beds the master’s wife, and gets smuggled into the nunnery pretending to be a deaf mute. Thinking him unable to hear them, the sisters let loose with some of their wildest sexual fantasies – some of which they consummate to his delight and horror. “The Little Hours” is certainly a one-of-a-kind sex comedy, worth seeing for its brazenness alone and worth staying for Fred Armisen’s Bishop Bartolomeo, who arrives at the end to scold them all with a poker-faced gall. B





REVIEW: Now You See Me 2

10 06 2016

Can two rabbits come out of the same metaphorical hat? Or two tricks from the same sleeve? Jon M. Chu’s “Now You See Me 2” does not really attempt such a feat. Rather than make a straightforward sequel to the 2013 magician caper, it goes in a totally new direction – essentially functioning like an “Ocean’s 11” style heist film. This entertains, sure, but it feels like a betrayal of the series’ core conceits.

The more interesting change from predecessor to sequel, however, is the transition of target for the magicians-cum-social crusaders known as the Four Horsemen. In the first film, their Robin Hood act harnessed the populist rage of the Occupy movement and used their cunning to get back at financiers who profited off the recession. Now, they face down a titan of technology with tyrannical aspirations of acquiring a chip that can surveil and sabotage any network on Earth. (On a pedantic note, it’s somewhat disappointing – yet maybe somewhat admirable – that the businessman is played by Daniel Radcliffe and no meta magic jokes are made around his appearance.)

Like “Spectre” last year, “Now You See Me 2” dives headfirst into Snowden-era debates over digital privacy. It only offers real commentary about the freedom from being seen in its conclusion, another predictably drawn-out labyrinthine affair. The film is primarily focused on the thrill; perhaps as it should be. When highly focused, as in an extended sequence showing the slight-of-hand of the disappearing card trick, it rightly claims the descriptor of “magical.”

But more often, it’s a lot of back-and-forth banter between the bickering magicians. The new presence of Lizzy Caplan’s enchantress Lula, a one-note annoying chatterbox with an aggravating infatuation for Dave Franco’s Jack Wilder, makes the interactions chafe a little more than before. Their dynamics feel like a potential deleted storyline from 2009’s “The Proposal,” the only other writing credit from “Now You See Me 2” scripter Pete Chiarelli. His sensibility coexists somewhat uneasily with writer Ed Solomon – the only credited writer returning from the original – whose previous work includes buddy action flicks like “Men in Black” and “Charlie’s Angels.” Their tag team gives the film a little bit of everything, just not a whole lot of consistency. C+ / 2stars





REVIEW: Neighbors

12 08 2014

If you’re Zac Efron, how do you get people to take you seriously as an actor?  See you as something more than a Disney Channel star without feeling yourself with a foam finger half-naked on television?  Treat you as something more than a Google Images search?

Taking a page from the Channing Tatum/”21 Jump Street” playbook, Efron took on a role in “Neighbors,” a comedy where his entire archetype of the ultra-macho pretty-boy is a consistent butt of jokes.  The arrangement works out well for everyone.  Those who choose to watch the movie will enjoy the self-parody of Efron’s relentless shirtlessness and his over-the-top portrayal of a self-deluded frat lord.  And those fans who just want another look at Efron’s chiseled figure are indulged in the process.

Initially, Efron didn’t seem to be meshing with his character, Delta Psi Beta president Teddy Sanders.  Perhaps I was expecting him to fit a certain model of the fraternity meathead that I knew, but it’s clear that “Neighbors” knows what it’s doing with him.  There’s pretty consistent and purposeful fetishization of Efron throughout the film, by Seth Rogen’s older and squarer Mac as well as within his own fraternity.  The desire for a firm bond with him is laced with some homoerotic undertones and really provides some interesting commentary on the kind of brotherhood fostered within fraternities.

Teddy’s relationship with Dave Franco’s Pete Regazolli, another high-ranking Delta Psi officer out to preserve his legacy, provides ample hilarious opportunities to analyze the implications of the bromance.  One particular exchange of rhyming affirmations of their friendship, which sounds like something potty-mouthed teenaged girls would exchange in gym, sounds so preposterous that it’s clear “Neighbors” does not intend for its portrayal of fraternity life to be taken at face value like “Animal House.”

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REVIEW: Now You See Me

10 06 2013

Now You See MeNo one would ever mistake Louis Letterier’s “Now You See Me” for Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige,” that’s for certain.  But if not living up to the Nolan standard was a crime punishable by death in Hollywood, we’d have corpses lining Sunset Boulevard.

We pretty much know the drill in these magic movies by now and have come to expect the unexpected.  However, even if you know that the rug is going to get pulled out from underneath you, that’s better than watching a mind-numbing formulaic genre pic.  “Now You See Me” at least engages the audience and tries to get them guessing.  Granted, the film is only about as deep as the bag of popcorn.  But at least it’s something!

Leterrier does a half-decent job of playing to the film’s strengths: the off-color comedic stylings of Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson, the allure of Isla Fisher and Dave Franco, and that singular authority commanded by Morgan Freeman when he comes into the frame.  Less effective is the FBI/Interpol duo of Mark Ruffalo and Melanie Laurent that try to get to the bottom of the magic.  They’re an awkward pairing made worse by their segueing into a dumb and forced romance. (Sorry to semi-spoil, but you’ll see it coming the second they make eye contact.)

The film packs enough twists and turns to stay captivating and interesting even through the duller Ruffalo/Laurent segments.  Leterrier is smart enough not to dwell on the novelty and gimmickry of magic as audiences have been numbed to its power thanks to decades of CGI; his emphasis on the thrill and the audacity is what makes “Now You See Me” such fun.  Though it takes one surprise twist too many, it’s still a highly enjoyable movie that makes for great summer entertainment.  The fact that such a feat is accomplished with little more than a well-imagined story is quite magical indeed.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: 21 Jump Street

16 12 2012

Recently, I watched “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” the 1982 comedy still considered to be one of the best high school movies ever made, for the first time.  It has obviously become incredibly dated (but is still absolutely hilarious), yet it took me seeing the film to realize that virtually every high school movie for the past 30 years owes it a humongous debt.  Its fingerprints are all over the genre today, so much so that it has become almost inconspicuous.

The “Fast Times” social order still reigns supreme today.  Nice guys finish last, slackers come out on top.  If you’re smart, you’re a nerd.  If you’re a jock, you’re cool.  If you don’t hang around them, you probably aren’t.  And of course, just don’t try at anything because the naturally cool will just have people attracted to them like bugs to a light.  Whether the movies that came out of this mentality actually reflect high school is questionable, but they have all served to reinforce the “Fast Times” ideal.

21 Jump Street,” on the other hand, is a bird of a different feather.  It actually dares to question the preconceived notions of high school movies and imagine an entirely different set of tropes, ones that feel modern and appropriate.  The film’s protagonists, undercover cops Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) graduated high school in 2005 in a very “Fast Times” environment and expect little to have changed when they go on a covert operation to their alma mater in 2012.  Boy, are they wrong.

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