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: Hellion

14 06 2014

HellionRecently, the South has seen a bit of a revival at the cinema.  An emerging generation of filmmakers, headlined by Jeff Nichols and David Gordon Green, have found the region’s rich heritage to be fertile grounds for stories largely passed over by the coast-focused Hollywood.

With “Hellion,” the latest film in this resurgence, it’s time to start including writer/director Kat Candler in the discussion of prominent figures produced by the movement.  Her latest film far outshines both “Mud” and “Joe,” two similar Southern coming-of-age stories, with the raw authenticity of its landscape and the affecting emotional vulnerability of its characters.  The only complaint I can muster about the film is a selfish one: I just wish the film had been made when I was still a teenager.

Candler sets “Hellion” just outside of my native Houston, and her portrayal of the area and its residents is absolutely pitch-perfect.  I felt as if I knew the foul-mouthed troublemaking adolescents at the center of the film from my own childhood.  These are not just character sketches, either; they rang so uncannily familiar that the teens seemed like real people pulled from dusty corners of my memory.

Though I never knew a family with the particular struggles faced by the Wilsons in “Hellion,” Candler’s impeccable script quickly made me feel deeply and passionately about their well-being.  It’s the rare film these days that jolts me out of being merely a complicit spectator and makes me feel like a stakeholder in the events playing out before my eyes.  Watching the drama as Aaron Paul’s Hollis attempts to get his act together, or as Josh Wiggins’ Jacob lashes out to keep his family intact unleashed reactions in me that were not only physiological but also physical.

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REVIEW: August: Osage County

22 01 2014

August OsageI’m a firm believer that there are some source texts that are absolutely impossible to botch, provided they keep the main narrative intact.  Tracy Letts’ play “August: Osage County” belongs in such a category.

Many in the theatrical community already assert that it will be in the American dramatic canon along with works by Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Tony Kushner.  Letts provides some of the most gripping familial tensions I’ve ever read, and it’s chock full of meaty characters in an ensemble for the ages.

John Wells’ film adaptation of “August: Osage County” brings that story to a larger audience than likely could ever be reached on one stage.  Moreover, the cast he assembles is like the kind of “one night only” extravaganza that fans can only dream about.  I’ve never seen the show live, so I can’t really speak to its theatrical power.

Letts’ words did, however, jump off the page and paint such a vivid picture in my mind that I feel as if I did.  While the film does a decent job translating the action to the realm of cinema, there still feels like a bit of raw intensity evaporated in the transfer.

That’s not to say, though, that Wells doesn’t effectively harness the power of the screen to bring a different dimension to Letts’ opus of intergenerational discord.  On a stage, you can’t key off the subtleties in an actor’s facial movements, which is one of his most clever editing tricks in “August: Osage County.”  Some theorists have labeled film a fascist form because it has the power to direct your attention towards only what it considers relevant, but the way Wells chooses to organize these massive scenes is actually quite freeing.  It ensures we do not miss crucial reactions that serve to define the arcs of the characters.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 3, 2010)

3 12 2010

With the smash hit “Inception” hitting shelves next week, I thought now would be as good a time as ever to revisit a little-known movie of its star, Leonardo DiCaprio.  I’ve featured virtually every supporting cast member in the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” column before, and it’s time for the Academy Award-nominated DiCaprio to join their ranks.

(For the sake of reference and shameless promotion, I’ll list the other stars and their criminally underseen gems: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s, “The Lookout,”  Tom Hardy’s “Bronson,” Ellen Page’s “Hard Candy,” Marion Cotillard’s “La Vie en Rose,” Cillian Murphy’s “Sunshine,” Michael Caine’s, “Children of Men,” and director Christopher Nolan’s “Following.”  Ken Watanabe … perhaps coming soon?)

So for Leo’s entry, I submit “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”  This is one of his early movies, four years before “Titanic” superstardom, and at 19, he shows the same mastery of acting as he does in the psychologically tormented characters that he played in 2010.  Here, his Arnie suffers a different mental affectation: a developmental disability that was supposed to take his life at the age of 10.

Eight years later, his care is left largely in the hands of older brother Gilbert Grape, played by a younger, red-haired Johnny Depp.  Gilbert struggles with his circumstances: he’s frustrated living in the small town of Endora, Iowa, where nothing seems to happen.  He’s tired of being stuck in a job at the down-home town grocery store, preventing him from using the modern supermarket that has opened nearby.  He’s fed up with his family whose apathy leaves him with all the responsibilities since his obese mother is practically immobile, his father has deserted the family, and his siblings are caught up in their own little worlds.

But when the yearly exodus of trailers comes through the town, Gilbert is offered some relief from his dreary existence by the prospect of romance with Becky (the ever-so-’90s Juliette Lewis).  Her presence shakes up his life, making him more hesitant to add sensuality to his grocery delivery for the maritally frustrated Betty Carver (Mary Steenburgen).  But there are more profound changes that happens in Gilbert and his life, and director Lasse Hallstrom unravels the Grape family saga with such sensitivity that it’s irresistible and profoundly satisfying to watch.

There’s so much emotional depth endowed to this character that isn’t externalized by Depp, and 10 years before his first Oscar nomination, anyone who saw this movie could have seen it coming.  But the real star of “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” is DiCaprio, who surrenders to the character to the extent that it’s possible to forget who you’re watching.  To think that this is the same actor who wowed us in “The Departed” and “Inception” becomes hard to believe as we watch his overwhelming physicality draws our eyes to him for the entirety of the movie’s two hours.