The Hate U Give


Driving while black can be fatal in 21st century America.

(2018) Drama (20th Century FoxAmandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, Anthony Mackie, Issa Rae, Common, Algee Smith, Sabrina Carpenter, K.J. Apa, Dominique Fishback, Lamar Johnson, TJ Wright, Megan Lawless, Rhonda Johnson Dents, Tony Vaughn, Marcia Wright, Al Mitchell, Karan Kendrick, Jevon Johnson, Mike Stoudt, Tye Claybrook Jr., Andrene Ward-Hammond. Directed by George Tillman Jr.

 

In the latter years of the 20-teens, it was fashionable for those of white privilege to say that race relations had markedly improved. After all, blacks can vote now, can’t they? They can use the same bathrooms as white people, can’t they? They’re not in chains anymore, are they?

The chains that African-Americans wear in the 21st century are much more subtle than iron but just as binding and just as evil. We can see those shackles so clearly in this adaptation of a best-selling young adult novel.

Starr Carter (Stenberg) is a bright, vivacious 16-year-old African-American girl who lives in Garden Heights, a predominantly black working-class neighborhood. Her father Maverick (Hornsby) is a former activist who had a bad run a few years ago and ended up doing jail time as a gang member for local gang leader King (Mackie). He currently owns a corner grocery market in the Heights; Starr’s mother (King), however, wants her babies to escape the Hood and to that end she has sent Starr, her brother Seven (Johnson) and younger sister Sekani (TJ Wright) to Williamson Prep, an upper-crust private school which is mostly white.

Starr exists in two different worlds which she is able to compartmentalize at first. However, while being driven home from a party by her childhood friend Khalil (Smith), they are pulled over by a white cop for no apparent reason. Although Starr begs Khalil to keep his hands on the dashboard and to obey every command given him by the obviously nervous patrolman, Khalil adopts a more confrontational attitude and when he reaches for a hairbrush inside the car, the panicked cop shoots him dead.

The shooting of another unarmed black youth puts the community into an uproar. Starr, the only eyewitness, is terrified if she comes forward to testify in front of the grand children that she and her family will be targeted by the police. Equally real is King’s desire that Starr not testify because it would come out that Khalil worked for King as a drug dealer. This is not information King is particularly eager to see go public.

Starr is caught in the center of a ticking time bomb. On the one hand, she wants to honor Khalil’s memory by standing up for him; on the other hand, she wants to protect her family. Doing the right thing never seemed so hard.

The movie captures the flavor of the African-American community in a way that makes it seem almost idyllic, from the ranks of the community to the warmth of family. It also doesn’t shy away from portraying the violence in the community; a party is interrupted by gunshots, and King in a particularly vicious move orders a store to be firebombed with children inside.

Still, the frustration of the black community is very palpable and very understandable from the very first scene, in which Maverick explains to his children how to survive an encounter with the police. This is not a talk white parents need to have with their kids but it is tragically all-too-common in African-American homes. The script makes no bones about the conditions that have created this situation.

The star here is Starr, or rather, Amandla Stenberg who is absolutely riveting. She gives Starr an inner strength that shows through even when she’s full of doubt. Starr has a playful side that Stenberg captures nicely, but also a vulnerable side. Starr is one of the most nuanced characters to come out of literature in the past decade, and she’s one of the most nuanced characters to come out of the movies as well, thanks largely to Stenberg. Hornsby also gets points for a strong performance as Maverick.

The movie stumbles a bit in its occasional strident tone; not that it’s unjustified, mind you, but it can be preachy in places. The ending is a little bit out there, and there are a few plot contrivances that felt a little forced. It also is a fairly long movie which might not sit well with its target audience. However, if you give this film a chance you will find it might just strike a powerful chord in you. That is, unless you’re one of those folks who think that African-Americans should be grateful for the strides they’ve made over the past sixty years. Then again, those folks are the least likely to want to see a movie like this.

REASONS TO SEE: Stenberg shows real strength in her performance. Captures the positives of African-American culture; the sense of community and family, for example.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sometimes grows overly strident in its message (although that is somewhat understandable).
FAMILY VALUES: This is definitely adult, thematically speaking. There is also quite a bit of profanity, some violence and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Screenwriter Audrey Wells died of cancer the day before the film was released, 13 days before the national wide release.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews: Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monsters and Men
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Sisters Brothers

The House With a Clock In Its Walls


Welcome to the dark ages.

(2018) Young Adult Fantasy (UniversalJack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Colleen Camp, Sunny Suljic, Lorenza Izzo, Braxton Bjerken, Vanessa Anne Williams, Ricky Lynn Muse, Charles Green, DJ Watts, Aaron Beelner, Joshua Phillips, Christian Calloway, Caleb Lawrence, Dylan Gage Moore, Eli Roth, Alli Paige Beckham. Directed by Eli Roth

 

I don’t know why Hollywood has such a problem with adapting young adult fantasy franchises from their original book form. Other than the Harry Potter series, every attempt has led to movies that ranged from dreadful to dull and were more often than not, both. This first book in a series from author John Bellairs fares no differently.

Young Lewis (Vaccaro) has been orphaned. It’s 1955, so he has been sent to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Black) in Michigan. Jonathan lives in a mansion that you just know is haunted – all it lacks is hitchhiking ghosts – that is stocked with odd magical creatures, like a chair that is too eager to please and a garden topiary shaped like a griffin that – I kid you not – craps mulch.

Then again, Lewis is a bit of an oddball himself so he fits right in. Along with their prim and proper neighbor Florence (Blanchett) who carries on a platonic friendship with Jonathan, they are investigating the mystery of a ticking clock in the walls of the house that could well signal an apocalyptic cataclysm enacted by the fully evil previous owner (MacLachlan) who is definitely dead but certainly not gone. Jonathan is a warlock and Florence a witch but are they powerful enough to stop the evil machinations of a much more powerful magician?

Eli Roth, who helped popularize torture porn with films like Hostel back in the 90s, might at first seem like an odd choice for this kind of movie until you realize that before he started his run of blood-soaked horror features he was directing animated shorts for children, so he isn’t without understanding of the kid mentality. That’s why it’s sad that the film falls victim to the same trap most of the other failed young adult franchise adaptations fell into – talking down to their audience. Kids are definitely not dumber versions of adults; they’re just less experienced. Sure, you can make ‘em laugh with vomiting jack o’lanterns as Roth and screenwriter Eric Kripke (who helmed the superior Supernatural series on the CW) do but that is disrespecting your audience. If you wonder why the Potter series succeeded where so many others failed, look at the way they developed their characters and respected their story as well as their target audience. Studios don’t seem inclined to do that these days, I’m afraid.

Blanchett is a ray of sunshine as Florence and she gets many of the best moments in the film. Black does his best, but he’s a much more effective performer when there’s a bit of an edge to his game. Vaccaro is likely a nice kid, but he’s playing a boy who is supposed to be grieving and the scenes in which he’s called upon to cry for them are just appalling. I don’t blame him; I blame the casting director who put him in a terrible position.

The effects are passable and the movie is loaded – perhaps overloaded – with them. It lacks character development, substituting quirks for characters, and humor that will appeal to parents as well as kids. Toilet humor is the refuge of the faithless, and it is clear that the filmmakers had no faith that their audience could handle humor that’s above the level of a three-year-old.

REASONS TO SEE: Cate Blanchett is absolutely terrific.
REASONS TO AVOID: Simplistic plot and passable effects.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some scary content, fantasy violence, rude humor and mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film directed by Roth not to receive an R rating in the U.S.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Fios, Fubo, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Showtime, Sling TV,  Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews: Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  Goosebumps
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Collette

Wonderstruck (2017)


Sometimes the most exciting adventures can start on the other side of a closed door.

(2017) Drama (Amazon/Roadside Attractions) Julianne Moore, Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Michelle Williams, Tom Noonan, Jaden Michael, Amy Hargreaves, Morgan Turner, Ekaterina Samsonov, Lilianne Rojek, John Boyd, Cory Michael Smith, James Urbaniak, Anthony Natale, John P. McGinty, Damian Young, Sawyer Niehaus, Raul Torres, Lauren Ridloff. Directed by Todd Haynes

 

The difference between childish and childlike is the difference between being self-focused and being struck by wonder. In the former, all we can think about is our immediate desires; in the latter, the world is fresh and new and worthy of exploration. Deep down, all of us yearn to be wonder struck.

It is 1977 and Ben (Fegley) is grieving the loss of his mother (Williams) in a car accident. He doesn’t know who his father is and his mother refused to discuss the matter, wanting him to wait until he was older but she passed before she could tell him what he wants, what he needs to know. Sent to live with his aunt (Hargreaves), he sometimes sneaks back to his old house to immerse himself in the things that surrounded him. There he finds a clue to his father’s identity on a bookmark with a New York City address, a far journey from his Gunflint, Minnesota address. On his way back to his aunt’s, he is struck by lightning and left deaf.

It is 1927 and Rose (Simmonds) has been deaf all her life. Her overbearing father (Urbaniak) wants her to learn how to lip read but she’s having none of the tedious lessons from an insensitive teacher. She is obsessed with silent screen star Lillian Mayhew (Moore) who is performing on Broadway so she leaves her Hoboken, NJ mansion and runs away to the city to see her idol.

Both of these children will encounter New York’s Museum of Natural History – the one where the displays come to life after dark if such things can be believed. Both will be captivated by similar displays and both are connected over time without knowing it.

Haynes is an extraordinary visual director who tends to favor films that are concerned with transformative experiences, so in a sense this is right in his wheelhouse but at the same time it’s a bit of a departure for him. The film is a lot more mainstream than his films normally are – although his last one, Carol, was Oscar-nominated and was at least a modest success but it certainly couldn’t be described accurately as “mainstream.”

Some distinctions need to be made here; this is a film about children but it isn’t a children’s film. While some kids who are a bit more eclectic in their cinematic taste might appreciate it, it is adults who are going to find more magic here than the younger set. Haynes has always had a really good sense of era; the 1977 sequences are in garish color and as Ben emerges from a trash-strewn Port Authority to the strains of Deodato’s funky version of Also Sprach Zarathustra which is perfect for the moment. We see New York in a moment where it is grimy, gritty and harsh, a city decaying from its grandeur but still confident in its greatness. The 1927 sequences are in black and white and are silent which is also appropriate; in these sequences New York is magical, the center of the world, the place everyone wants to be and for good reason. Haynes and editor Alfonso Gonçalves skillfully weave the two stories into a viable whole without jarring the audience, a masterful feat.

Here I must mention the music. I’ve never been a huge Carter Burwell fan but this is by far his most brilliant score to date. It is the kind of music that breaks the heart and centers the viewer in both eras. The use of period music, particularly in the more recent sequence, is near-perfection and hearing two era-appropriate versions of David Bowie’s “A Space Oddity” shows not only intelligent planning on the matter of music but a good deal of intuition. I don’t often buy film scores but I just might this one.

This is based on a book by Brian Selznick (who also did the book that spawned Martin Scorsese’s Hugo) and Selznick wrote the screenplay. I haven’t read the book but judging on what I saw on screen it couldn’t have been an easy adaptation. I do have some complaints about the film however; there were a few too many plot contrivances that made this feel like one of the Disney Channel’s weaker efforts at times and distracted from the overall magic of the film. Also Fegley was somewhat over-the-top in his performance; he should have been instructed to dial things down somewhat. Simmonds was much more effective in her role. Moore, who has collaborated with Haynes on four films now, shines as the silent film star but more so in a mystery role that she appears in near the film’s conclusion – more I will not tell you.

Capturing the sense of wonder of childhood is no easy task and Haynes can be forgiven if he wasn’t always entirely successful. We do get a sense of the frustration that physical limitations can put on someone and while this isn’t the definitive story about deafness, it is at least one that I think that the non-hearing community will appreciate. I wasn’t quite wonder struck by Wonderstruck but I did appreciate it and I do recommend it and I think that you will enjoy it if you give it half a chance.

REASONS TO GO: The score is amazing. Making the 1920s sequences silent and black and white is very clever.
REASONS TO STAY: Fegley is a little bit hammy. Overall the movie is a bit Disney Channel-esque.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are a little bit on the adult side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Simmonds is deaf in real life; her performance so moved Will Smith at the film’s Cannes screening that he personally congratulated the young actress.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Life in Wartime
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
A Murder in Mansfield

Everything, Everything


Young love is a heady thing.

(2017) Young Adult Romance (Warner Brothers) Amandla Stenberg, Nick Robinson, Anika Noni Rose, Ana de la Reguera, Taylor Hickson, Danube R. Hermosillo, Dan Payne, Fiona Loewi, Sage Brocklebank, Robert Lawrenson, Peter Benson, Françoise Yip, Farryn VanHumbeck, Marion Eisman, Allison Riley, Valareen Friday. Directed by Stella Meghie

 

There is something about young love that is intoxicating, not only for those experiencing it but for those around them. We all remember those first throes of our first real love, the high highs, the low lows, the amazing mood swings. Our hormones sizzle our bodies like steaks on a grill and we have no clue how to handle the intensity of our emotions. It’s sweet and horrible and wonderful and bitter all at once.

The movies and television often celebrate this particular event which is common to nearly everyone, but there are some movies that give us a twist on that; the dying teenager finds love sub genre. The tragic element tends to put young girls hormones into overdrive, either in maternal sympathy for the beautiful young boy who is dying or identifying with the beautiful young girl who is dying.

In this case, it’s the latter. Maddy (Stenberg) lives in a hermetically sealed house with filtered air and a sterile environment. She suffers from severe combined immunodeficiency disorder, or SCID. Simply taking a stroll outside could kill her, so for the past 17 years of her 18 years of life she has lived here, watching the world go by through big glass windows.

She wants to be an architect and has designed a diner and a home that she sometimes imagines herself inhabiting. She often feels like an astronaut adrift in space, unable to touch down back on Earth and in her imagination she often sees an astronaut in her creations.

Maddy’s mom Pauline (Rose) is a mother hen, protecting her daughter with almost drill sergeant-like ardor. She’s a doctor who specializes in immune system disorders and she’s responsible for a lot of Maddy’s care. The only two people who ever interact with Maddy besides her mom is the housekeeper Carla (de la Reguera) and Carla’s daughter Rosa (Hermosilla) who undergo a pretty thorough sterilization procedure every time they come in.

Maddy dreams of going to the beach but that seems an unlikely reality until Maddy’s reality is turned upside down by literally the boy next door. Olly (Robinson) moves in and soon the two are trading soulful glasses through the window and then it’s phone numbers. They begin to text and call like well, a couple of teenagers. The two fall head over heels. Carla tries to foster this relationship but Pauline finds out about it and soon, no more Carla.

Soon Maddy and Olly decide that their only alternative is a trip to Hawaii – it turns out that Olly’s dad (Payne) is abusive. Olly is a little reluctant but Maddy is willing to risk everything for a single perfect teenage day at the beach – including her life.

This is based on the young adult romance novel of the same name by Nicola Yoon. I haven’t read it but I’m wondering how similar the plot is to the movie because quite frankly, this feels like too many movies I’ve seen before from Romeo and Juliet to The Boy in the Plastic Bubble to dozens of young adult-aimed movies over the past few years.

One of the things that bothers me is that Olly is literally too good to be true; despite having to deal with his father’s physical abuse, he almost never acts out in ways that most abused kids do. I don’t know Yoon or screenwriter J. Mills Goodloe have spent much time around abused kids but given their tone-deaf portrayal of Olly I’d say the answer is no.

The movie is definitely aimed at a tween/teen crowd, especially young girls. Olly is dreamy/handsome and Maddy is a prototypical spunky teen heroine with a tragic disease.. Oh, and the plot is preposterous, the teen characters are all smart and terrific and the adult characters are all jerks. Not to mention that rules and common sense don’t mean squat when you’re doing what you want to do instead of what you should do. There’s a time and a place for being rebellious but not when it puts your life at risk but I suppose that feels pretty noble and everything.

There’s not a lot of realism here and the big twist is so completely unbelievable that it would have ruined a much better movie than this. As it is I just sat there watching and nodding to myself, muttering “Yup. Of course that’s where they went.”

I wish that Hollywood would stop treating tweens and teens and kids as underage morons. They are capable of figuring things out and I’m convinced that, just like adults, they want good movies and not crappy ones. The fact that they pretty much stayed away from this in droves bears me out. I think that there are better versions of this type of story to be made (and likely a few that have already been made). Teens deserve better than this.

REASONS TO GO: There is some decent cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie suffers from too-good-to-be-true boyfriend syndrome. The plot is predictable and goes completely off the rails once the action shifts to Hawaii.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the book, Olly has a shaved head. In the movie version, Pauline (Maddy’s mom) tells him he needs a haircut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fault in Our Stars
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Camera Obscura

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children


There's nothing quite so cozy as movie night.

There’s nothing quite so cozy as movie night.

(2016) Fantasy (20th Century Fox) Asa Butterfield, Eva Green, Samuel L. Jackson, Judi Dench, Rupert Everett, Allison Janney, Chris O’Dowd, Terence Stamp, Ella Purnell, Finlay MacMillan, Lauren McCrostie, Hayden Keeler-Stone, Georgia Pemberton, Milo Parker, Raffiella Chapman, Pixie Davies, Joseph Odwell, Thomas Odwell, Cameron King, Louis Davidson, Kim Dickens, O-Lan Jones. Directed by Tim Burton

 

I think that as children we can be divided into two categories; those who want to fit in, and those who don’t care. Many who want to fit in often feel like they don’t. We feel alien, peculiar and not at all like someone who is popular or admired. We feel like we’re on the outside looking in. What we fail to realize as children is that sometimes being on the outside looking in is far cooler than being in a cage.

Jake Portman (Butterfield) is one of those kids who doesn’t feel like he fits in. The only place he feels halfway normal is at his grandpa Abe’s (Stamp) Florida home, where the old man regales him with tales of fighting monsters during Worlds War II, and staying at an orphanage run by a Miss Peregrine, who presided over children with strange powers known as Peculiars.

After getting a call for help from Abe, Jake and his co-worker Shelley (Jones) arrive at Abe’s place to find signs of a struggle. They later find him dying in the yard, both his eyes plucked from his head. This understandably messes Jake up and he starts seeing a shrink, Dr. Golan (Janney). She urges him to follow Abe’s story, particularly after he discovers a letter from Miss Peregrine to Abe which takes him and his father Franklin (O’Dowd) – who is more interested in researching his book on bird-watching which he’s been working on for years without progress than in bonding with his son – to an island off the coast of Wales.

There he finds the ruins of the orphanage, bombed into rubble by the Luftwaffe in 1943. He also finds some of the Peculiars who take him into a cave which brings him back to 1943 – on the very day the house would be destroyed. There he meets Emma Bloom (Purnell), a lighter-than-air girl who has control over air (she can create windstorms and bubbles of air underwater) and would float away if not tethered or wearing her lead boots whose heart was broken by a young Abe back in the day, the necromancer Enoch O’Connor (MacMillan) who can bring life to lifeless things, Olive (McCrostie) who is a pyrotechnic and Miss Peregrine (Green) herself. As it turns out, Miss Peregrine is kind of a guardian spirit called a Ymbryne who are able to morph into birds (in Miss Peregrine’s case, a falcon).

He learns the story of the Peculiars and those who are chasing them – the terrible Wights, who are led by the white-haired Mr. Barron (Jackson) who have been experimenting on Ymbrynes to make themselves immortal. Some of the Wights who are quite human-looking have turned into Hollows, hideous tentacled monsters who eat the eyeballs of Peculiars to revert back to human form.

It turns out that Mr. Barron is much closer by than they think and Jake has become an integral part of the fight. It turns out that Jake is able to see Hollows and sense their presence – a gift that Abe also had. With Jake and Emma falling in love again despite Emma’s best efforts, time is running out and Jake must find a way to protect the children from the evil Wights and from the ravages of time itself.

Burton is one of the most uniquely visionary directors in history. This is the kind of material that is right in his wheelhouse, or at least you would think so. This film is based on the first of a trilogy of young adult books by Ransom Riggs, which are in turn based on vintage photographs Riggs had collected that were somewhat spooky or hinted at uncanny powers (if you buy the young adult books, you’ll see the actual photos but some of them can be seen on the Internet if you’re willing to spend time Googling them). Riggs showed these pictures to Burton before filming and it’s plain to see that Burton used them as inspirations for his character design of the children.

That said, this doesn’t feel like a typical Tim Burton film in many ways. I thought it far more mainstream than what we’re used to from the director and far more vanilla in tone. Now while I admire Burton’s work a great deal, even as an admirer I’m willing to admit that his work has been less consistent in the past decade or so, with great work (Big Fish) interspersed with not-so-great work (Dark Shadows). This falls somewhere in the middle, with leanings more towards the latter.

Butterfield is a decent enough actor, but not one who fills a screen up with charisma. Much of the movie depends on Jake becoming a leader, but I’m not sure I’d follow him very far. He just seems kind of…bland. Green, who has maybe the most incandescent smile in Hollywood, doesn’t seem to be having much fun here; she comes off as a kind of second-rate Mary Poppins only less cheerful. I almost expected her to say “Spit spot!” Thankfully, she doesn’t.

Burton reportedly tried to go with practical effects as much as was possible, but you really can’t use them for an army of skeletons battling giant tentacled creatures which takes place during the climax. The effects are reasonably good and the setting reasonably moody but nothing here really impresses other than that Burton seems to do a good job of capturing the tone of the antique photos which colors the whole film.

One of the big missteps oddly enough is Jackson. One of my favorite actors in Hollywood, he doesn’t seem all that motivated here. When I see Samuel L. Jackson in the cast, I want to see Samuel L. Jackson whether that expectation is fair or not. Instead, we get a kind of mannered performance, like what would happen if Tim Curry was impersonating him. He just never convinces me that he’s all that malevolent or dangerous.

This could easily have been a major event film and franchise establishment but instead we get a movie that kind of just gets by. It doesn’t really feel like a Tim Burton movie. Fox currently has a reputation of being a studio that meddles in the product more than most of the others, so one wonders if there is studio interference at play here. Regardless of whether that’s the case or not this is a movie I can only moderately recommend. Chances are it will be a momentary distraction that will escape your memory faster than Emma Bloom escapes gravity.

REASONS TO GO: The film has an odd kind of antiquarian feel. The climax is thrilling.
REASONS TO STAY: The whimsy normally associated with Burton is missing. Jackson is wasted in a bland villainous role.
FAMILY VALUES: There are children in peril and some violence of a fantastic nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Miss Peregrine’s home actually exists; it is called Torenhof and is located outside of Antwerp in Belgium.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/22/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Storks

Nerve (2016)


Isn't it hip to stroll into a party fashionably late?

Isn’t it hip to stroll into a party fashionably late?

(2016) Thriller (Lionsgate) Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade, Juliette Lewis, Miles Heizer, Kimiko Glenn, Marc John Jeffreries, Colson “Machine Gun Kelly” Baker, Brian Marc, Ed Squires, Rightor Doyle, Josh Ostrovsky, Eric D’Alessandrio, Samira Wiley, Albert Sidoine, Chris Breslin, Wesley Volcy, Damond McFarland, Deema Aitken, Michael Drayar, Kim Ramirez. Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman

 

In this age of instant Internet gratification, it seems sometimes that those of a certain generation are fame-obsessed. They document every aspect of their lives, as if they were famous; some achieve a kind of fame on YouTube or Instagram or other websites with videos, music and art. Some even become mainstream media sensations as well.

Vee (Roberts) – short for Venus but nobody calls her that – is a high school senior in Staten Island and if there is a metaphor for boredom that’s better than that, I don’t know what it is. She is a bit of a milk-toast, unwilling to take chances. She’s been accepted at Cal Arts but is too afraid to tell her clingy Mom (Lewis) the news. Instead, she prepares to go to college locally with her mother as her “roommate.” You can imagine how enthusiastic she is at the possibility.

Her best friend Sydney (Meade) is much more of a risk-taker. She introduces Vee to an online game called Nerve in which you sign up either as a player or a watcher. Players are given time-sensitive dares to perform on camera of increasing difficulty and danger with cash awards increasing the more dangerous the dare. Watchers pay $19.99 for 24 hours and can suggest dares to be performed and follow their favorite players; the most popular players end up in a tournament of champions where the players can win big money – and everlasting fame.

Vee impulsively signs up as a player after she is embarrassed in front of the guy she’s crushing on. Despite her nerd friend Tommy’s (Heizer) misgivings (and let us not forget that he is crushing big time on her) she goes on her first dare – to kiss a stranger in a diner for five seconds. That stranger turns out (perhaps non-coincidentally) to be Ian (Franco), another player. Vee and Ian are thrown together in another dare which involves trying on ridiculously expensive clothes in Bergdorf’s before they are forced to leave the store in only their skivvies – although the clothes they were modeling mysteriously turn up for them to wear outside, bought and paid for.

As Vee’s popularity grows, the dares begin to get more and more serious – including riding on a motorcycle at 60 MPH with the driver blindfolded – and her popularity grows, becoming an instant Internet sensation, which infuriates her friend Sydney who has always been the attention-getter in their relationship. Still, as the stakes get higher and higher Vee discovers that leaving the game isn’t an option for her – and what seemed to be harmless fun has become something far more sinister. How far will she go to take the game down?

Let’s get something straight right off the bat; this movie is seriously aimed at an audience that is likely no older than 20. It is aimed at a generation that thinks anyone over that age is hopelessly techno-illiterate, hopelessly uncool and hopelessly clueless. The arrogance of youth is in perfect representation here; the feeling of invincibility that comes with someone who has a 1 or a 2 in front of their age (single digits only, wise-asses).

The look of the film is part of that. It’s cool and slick, almost like live action anime. This is the prettiest B-movie you’re likely to ever see; the lighting is superb. Roberts and Franco are perfectly cast; Roberts the good girl with a bit of a dark side and Franco the wisecracking player who’s kinda cute and kinda sweet. Both actors play what are essentially archetypes (and I don’t know if the characters come off that way in the Jeanne Ryan-penned young adult novel) and sadly, have about zero chemistry together. You never get a sense of attraction between the two of them which is one of the main faults of the movie. Perfectly cast individually yes, but the two actors can’t seem to forge a connection that is perceivable on the screen.

A lot of the stunts that the players are supposed to do don’t really generate a lot of tension; crossing between buildings on a ladder which plays to Sydney’s fear of heights seems almost anti-climactic. You never get a sense of jeopardy The same goes with the motorcycle stunt. By the time the final confrontation comes with the “evil” player TJ (Baker) there doesn’t seem to be any sort of tension whatsoever. Joost and Schulman are excellent directors visually, but this won’t go down as one of their best works. Something tells me that there are better things down the road for these guys. I certainly hope so.

REASONS TO GO: The look of the film is very cool and modern.
REASONS TO STAY: A very shallow look at fame, a very shallow subject. None of the stunts were really all that convincing.
FAMILY VALUES: The film espouses risky and dangerous behavior as entertainment, condones teen drinking, drug use and sex. There is also some brief nudity and plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kimiko Glenn and Samira Wiley appeared in Orange is the New Black as a romantic couple.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gamer
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Tallulah

The Spiderwick Chronicles


Who says kids don't listen?

Who says kids don’t listen?

(2008) Fantasy (Paramount) Freddie Highmore, Sarah Bolger, Mary-Louise Parker, David Strathairn, Nick Nolte, Joan Plowright, Martin Short (voice), Seth Rogan (voice), Andrew McCarthy, Jordy Benattar, Tod Fennell, Mariah Inger, Jeremy Lavalley, Lise Durocher-Viens, Ron Perlman (voice), Tyler Patrick Jones, Kyle Switzer, Stefanie Broos. Directed by Mark Waters

Young adult fantasy novels have fared poorly when given the cinematic treatment by various Hollywood entities, some worse than others. While studios are obviously eager to find the next Harry Potter or the next Katniss Everdeen, sometimes in an effort to make a franchise they overlook the simple solution of telling a good story well.

The Grace family has taken their share of blows lately. Mother Helen (Parker) has packed up and moved from New York City into “the middle of nowhere” to a decrepit estate she has inherited from her Aunt Lucinda (Plowright), who has been taken to a sanitarium after a suicide attempt. Her children are handling their situation differently. Mallory (Bolger), the oldest, clearly is behind her mother. She’s obsessed with fencing (the kind with swords, not pickets) and carries her sword with her nearly everywhere she goes. Younger brother Simon (Highmore) has become decidedly non-confrontational (perhaps in response to conflicts between his parents) and instead focuses on his love for animals.

It is Simon’s twin Jared (Highmore again) who is having the toughest time. Already burdened with anger control issues, he feels betrayed by his mother and is anxious to live with his father (McCarthy) instead. He lashes out at his siblings and mother, who tries very hard to be understanding but is obviously close to cracking herself.

It all starts with Jared hearing noises in the wall, banging on them with a broom. Eventually, Mallory accidentally uncovers a dumbwaiter, hidden in the walls behind plaster. In the dumbwaiter are trinkets, including some small items that have disappeared, such as Mallory’s fencing medals and Helen’s car keys, as well as a curious looking key with an old-fashioned letter “S” fashioned into it. Jared is blamed for this (it seems he is usually blamed for any mischief that occurs) and decides to see what is at the other end of the dumbwaiter.

He discovers the dusty old laboratory of his great grand-uncle Arthur Spiderwick (Strathairn), who disappeared years ago. Using the strange key to open up a trunk he finds in the room, he finds a hard-bound book that has been sealed with wax accompanied by a note warning the finder not to read the book upon peril of their lives. Of course, that only whets the boy’s curiosity and of course like any idiot Hollywood boy he opens it up and reads it.

What he finds is Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You, with copious notes about magical creatures – fairies, trolls, goblins, griffons and ogres, to name a few – as well as means of performing all manners of magic. Unfortunately, the opening of the book has set into motion events that put the lives of the Grace family, as well as all the magical creatures in the book, in mortal danger. Young Jared will have to summon all the courage he can find to survive the perils of the Fantastical World.

A surprisingly solid cast for what is intended to be the first of series of movies which, I’m sure, Paramount was hoping to be successful along the lines of the Harry Potter novels. Children’s fantasy movies, however, have fared less than stellar other than the Potter and Narnia books – see The Golden Compass, The Last Mimzy and Eragon if you haven’t already.

Getting Highmore is a good first step. He’s done exceedingly well in such movies as Finding Neverland and August Rush. This isn’t, sadly, one of his better performances – I think it was a bit much to ask him to take two differing roles. He does OK with Jared, but Simon becomes washed-out and forgettable. The producers would have been better served to get another young actor to take the Simon role. Bolger is decent enough as the sister and Parker does some good work as the much put-upon mother.

Plowright nearly steals the movie as Aunt Lucinda; she is simply so much better than the rest of the cast. Strathairn is one of my favorite actors, but he doesn’t have a whole lot to do here. Even so, he makes the role of Arthur Spiderwick living and breathing.

As for the voice actors, Martin Short is decent as the brownie Thimbletack, but it is Rogan who is so much more entertaining as the easily distracted hobgoblin Hogsqueal. Nolte gets brief on-screen time as the shape-shifting Mulgarath but it is mostly his rumbling voice that we hear throughout.

As solid as the cast is, the talent behind the camera is impressive as well. Producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall have, among others, E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark to their credits. Legendary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (father of Zooey and Emily) is responsible for the creepy atmosphere and gorgeous vistas. Oscar-winning composer James Horner has supplied some memorable theme music over the years, although his score doesn’t really hold up as well in this instance. Some Jim Dandy special effects here, mostly from ILM and Tippett Studios (Phil Tippett himself worked for ILM back in the Star Wars days). That’s a good thing, since the movie relies heavily on special effects.

The supporting performances are certainly worth noting. Some of the special effects are magnificent, although not groundbreaking. The creatures (particularly Hogsqueal) are all given a certain amount of individuality and come off realistically and holistically. The story is a little different from most children’s fantasies going on at the moment, although for God’s sake can’t the kids in these stories have two actual parents present? Ye Gods!

The kid actors can be kinda grating. Jared is not an easy character to like and at times, you wonder if everyone involved wouldn’t be much happier if Mulgarath would only eat him.  Occasionally, the effects work actually overwhelms the action. There are some instances in which the children are being chased by various nasty varmints and quite frankly, couldn’t possibly get away given the speed of the creatures and the distance behind the kids they are. After the third instance of this, you really begin to notice it.

It is very enjoyable for the whole family (except as delineated above). Sometimes, kid’s fantasy movies seem a bit too sanitized; this is most assuredly not that. The peril seems real and life-threatening, and while the effects aren’t eye-popping, they nevertheless are enjoyable. Think of Grimm’s Fairy Tales in a modern setting with all the viscera intact and you won’t be far from the mark here.

WHY RENT THIS: Impressive cast, impressive effects. Refreshingly original as recent young adult franchise novels go. The creatures, although frightening, are plenty imaginative.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Jared is intensely unlikable. Some of the physics don’t work.
FAMILY MATTERS: Some of the creatures are much scarier than the PG rating would indicate. There are also plenty of instances of kids in peril, and some of the thematic content is on the mature side.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the first Nickelodeon branded film has been released in the IMAX format.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are interviews with the book’s authors, as well as comparisons between the book’s illustrations and the creatures as they appeared in the film. These appear on both DVD and Blu-Ray editions.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $162.8M on a $90M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray only), iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango Now
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seeker: The Dark is Rising
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Eye in the Sky