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- /

REVIEW: The Blackcoat’s Daughter

29 03 2017

When it comes to horror genre fare, I’m the first person to rail against the overuse of the jump scare or other lazy techniques designed to get a quick, visceral reaction. Myself, and many others of the critical ilk, prefer tension and suspense. Or better yet – an atmospheric horror that seeps into dark crevasses of the psyche.

There’s a way for the pendulum to swing too far in the way of those aforementioned good things. When that happens, you get something that looks a lot like Oz Perkins’ “The Blackcoat’s Daughter,” a technically sound machine that feels overly programmed to the point of becoming inorganic. It’s overthought to the point of being overwrought, akin to a student thesis film. (Perhaps no coincidence that it marks Perkins’ directorial debut.)

Perkins’ film is all foreplay and very little fun. “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” weaves together two storylines of young women in peril, Emma Roberts’ Joan on the open road and Kiernan Shipka’s Kat in a suffocating religious environment. We eventually learn the reason their tales are intertwined, but … well, no spoilers. It’s half-decent because of a twist at the end. The journey there is quite tedious, filled with opportunities for true terror that too often go unconsummated. Perkins clearly has the brains for the genre. Hopefully he gains confidence to add in the nerves for it, too. C

REVIEW: Palo Alto

26 08 2014

Palo AltoAt a high school party indistinguishable from any other, Emma Roberts’ April has a conversation of unusual candor with Jack Kilmer’s Teddy.  Though she acts confidently in front of others, putting on airs to impress her peers and returning volleys from flirtatious soccer coach Mr. B (James Franco), she’s sheepish and restless.  He, on the other hand, is a misunderstood rebel drifting from disaster to disaster but somehow retains an impeccable sense of self-worth.

All the stars appear to be aligning for them to take their connection to the next level; however, a communication breakdown as well as a few stray glances lead to misinterpreted gestures.  This party at the beginning of “Palo Alto” sets April and Teddy on separate courses, each taking them increasingly further away from converting the potential energy from that evening into a kinetic spark.

They wander aimlessly towards dissatisfaction and frustration, but they do so with an eerie sense of knowledge that each further step is to their deteriment.  April and Teddy are not quite sure what they seek, though it seems impossible to attain.  This indescribable yet palpable disparity between reach and grasp that makes “Palo Alto” such a searing film about being lost in the mess that is high school.

Though it’s tempting to write off these feelings as “teen angst,” first-time director Gia Coppola treats April and Teddy’s self-estrangement as a very adult matter.  With such a seriousness, “Palo Alto” comes off as a film more in the mold of domestic drama “Little Children” than YA weepie “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”  Coppola treats the longing glances of high school students with empathetic solidarity, not with derision or patronization.

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REVIEW: We’re The Millers

13 08 2013

We're the MillersIn “We’re The Millers,” television’s “Breaking Bad” meets film’s “National Lampoon’s Vacation” as mid-level drug dealer David Clark (Jason Sudeikis) enlists a crazy cast to help him smuggle marijuana across the U.S.-Mexico border.  (So in that way, perhaps it’s more like “Maria Full of Grace” meets 2013’s “Identity Thief.”)  This motley crew from near his building includes well-meaning exotic dancer Rose (Jennifer Aniston), tough teenage street rat (Emma Roberts), and an aloof adolescent boy Kenny (Will Poulter) with a passing resemblance to Tintin.

The movie manages to provide a few decent laughs along the journey, though they are largely front-loaded.  “We’re The Millers” starts off with some very clever and witty banter, largely uttered by Sudeikis, who is quickly proving himself to be quite the sultan of snark.  It’s certainly a much better role for him than his bland characters in “Horrible Bosses” and “Hall Pass,” and he could soon be rivaling Paul Rudd for roles.

But the film starts to veer off course in the second half, resorting to more and more ludicrous gags to provide humor.  These ridiculous scenarios often provide their fair share of cringe-worthy moments, enough to make the film feel like it has overstayed its welcome by a solid 30 minutes.  Though I don’t want to say too much, at least “We’re The Millers” doesn’t end by caving to all the road trip, family, or rom-com tropes.

By the time the gag reel rolls, the film essentially arrives at a comedic standstill.  It’s got enough sardonic and standoffish Aniston and sulky Roberts to make anyone roll their eyes.  But it’s also got some good Sudeikis everyman sarcasm and a pretty winning performance from Poulter, playing naive innocence with gusto.  So, in other words, “We’re the Millers” is decidedly average.  C+2stars

REVIEW: Celeste and Jesse Forever

9 09 2012

I won’t lie: I’m a little ready for the post-“(500) Days of Summer” boom of quirky romantic comedies to die down or at least start getting somewhat original again.  Not that Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg don’t make an infinitely watchable semi-couple in “Celeste and Jesse Forever.”  And believe me, I would much rather a movie buck the genre conventions than accept them completely.

But part of the charm of Marc Webb’s movie back in 2009 was that the anti-romantic comedy was not entire subgenre; it was just one movie that dared to be real.  Now, lack of formula has started to feel like a formula in and of itself.  This reactionary spirit is now starting to inspire that same thing that galvanized it to react in the first place: fatigue.

I have a feeling that perhaps the viewing climate for “Celeste and Jesse Forever” may be the reason why my reaction to the film was not quite as rapturous.  To be sure, Rashida Jones’ script, co-written with Will McCormack, of two best friends who get married and then have to separate to regain their friendship is well-developed and acutely perceptive about the nature of romance.  It’s even accompanied by surprisingly effective direction from Lee Toland Krieger, who uses the camera for powerful emotional impact in a way that humbly doesn’t draw too much attention to itself.

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REVIEW: The Art of Getting By

18 06 2011

I never thought I would be so thankful for Woody Allen’s brand of cynicism and misanthropy than I did when leaving “The Art of Getting By,” an indie comedy revolving around a budding romance between two unlikable NYC teenagers.  This lame attempt at comedy is like watching the first draft of a script that Allen wrote on downers; it has all of his nihilism but none of his neuroses.  Gavin Weisen’s first feature lacks the palatability that makes Woody Allen’s personality bearable, and in just 85 minutes, he’ll make you wish you were sitting in a cookie-cutter rom-com.  (Yes, it’s actually that bad!)

Freddie Highmore, who you know from “Finding Neverland” and Tim Burton’s disastrous remake of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” is now moody and emo because bangs cover his eyes and he reads Camus in the cafeteria.  As George, he’s a mopey defeatist who has Woody Allen-level pessimism at the age of 18.  He’s totally detached from school, doing no work, and from home, where he refuses to communicate with his caring mother (Rita Wilson).  Even on the verge of suspension and expulsion, he can’t bring himself to put anything on his homework other than demented doodles.

Enter Emma Roberts as his desert flower Sally, the child of a broken marriage who shares some of the same bitterness and insecurities as George without wearing it on her sleeves.  They begin a strange friendship that teeters on the brink of love, but he can’t ever snap out of his negativity and she can’t seem to say much other than “you’re really weird.”  It’s really uncomfortable, filled with poorly executed melodrama and even less appealing romance.  If there was any attempt at comedy, it wasn’t even visible.  By the end, you’ll discover that “The Art of Getting By” can’t even leave you with a half-hearted smile like other disappointing romantic comedies.  All you really feel is a slight numbness in your butt as you climb out of the seat.  C- / 

REVIEW: It’s Kind of a Funny Story

15 06 2011

Any good movie fan instantly associates insane asylums with “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” Milos Forman’s classic that is one of only three films ever to score Oscar’s Big Five (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay).  It’s a ridiculously unfair standard for any movie to be measured against, so naturally, when a movie like “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” comes along that treads similar waters, it can’t help but disappoint coming straight out of the gate.  The dramedy just exacerbates the disparity by dealing with the thin line between sanity and insanity in a noticeably more juvenile manner.

The movie piddles around in the messed-up mind of narrator Craig Gilner (Keir Gilchrist), a suicidal teenager who checks himself into a psychiatric hospital after failing to execute a plan to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.  As we find out, he’s just a little misunderstood, buckling under the pressure of being a teenager in the modern world.  And since I’m eighteen and heading off to college, I should totally understand and relate, right?  Wrong.  Craig is hardly a sympathetic character, and Gilchrist portrays him so awkwardly that it’s really hard to care about anything that happens to him.

Thankfully, directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden – who have fallen far from their 2006 debut feature “Half Nelson” – don’t saddle us with only watching Craig deal with his demons for the whole movie.  They stock the nuthouse with other mildly amusing characters, primarily Zach Galifianakis as fellow patient Bobby.  He brings a few laughs but mainly makes you wonder whether Alan from “The Hangover” belongs in an institution since he’s not all that different from his character here.  There’s also some corny, schmaltzy romance between Craig and Noelle, played by Emma Roberts, which doesn’t work at all since the two have zero chemistry.  It’s hard to believe this movie came from an esteemed novel, so do yourself a favor and watch the aforementioned acclaimed movie based on an acclaimed novel.  C /