Phoenix Forgotten


A billboard you don’t want to see your image on.

(2017) Horror Sci-Fi (Cinelou) Chelsea Lopez, Luke Spencer Roberts, Justin Matthews, Florence Hartigan, Clint Jordan, Cyd Strittmatter, Jeanine Jackson, Matt Biedel, Ana Dela Cruz, Mackenzie Firgens, Jay Pirouznia, Marc Marron, Don Boyd, Tony Duncan, Richard Cansino, Hector Luis Bustamante, Joseph J. LaRocca, Larry Toffler, Cynthia Quiles. Directed by Justin Barber

 

Some may remember the notorious Phoenix Lights that on March 13, 1997 were witnessed by thousands of Phoenicians. Some in the UFO community consider it one of the most important sightings in history; others pass it off as military planes in formation dropping flares. Either way, it is still something of a mystery.

Three teens – Josh Bishop (Roberts), his crush Ashley Foster (Lopez) and their mutual friend Mark Abrams (Matthews) decide to head towards a remote area of the Arizona mountains to investigate the lights a week later. Their car was found abandoned by the side of the road but the three young people were never seen again.

Twenty years later Sophie (Hartigan), the younger sister of Josh, comes back to Phoenix to help her mom (Strittmatter) move. She comes across some of the videotapes her camera-obsessed brother took, including those of the lights themselves and decides to make a documentary of her brother’s disappearance. She interviews as many subjects as she can including her dad (Jordan) and other interested parties. At length she discovers a badly damaged camcorder found in the desert with the tape in it amazingly intact – which may solve once and for all the mystery behind the disappearance of the three teens.

The movie is in reality two separate movies; the story of the three teens told through their own videos, and Sophie’s investigation, which is a more standard storytelling method. The more interesting of the two is surprisingly the found footage. Barber has recreated it well, making it look like it was recorded on a camcorder circa 1997 complete with wavy lines, static and shaky cam. It looks real authentic as does the environment depicted; kudos to Barber for that.

The three “teen” leads are all as they tend to be in low budget horror movies attractive and do at least an adequate job of performing. Lopez in particular seems to have some screen presence and might well be on her way to a bright future in the business.

The thing here is that it borrows a little bit too much from The Blair Witch Project, even one of the character’s names is present. The plot is just about identical, adding elements from last year’s Blair Witch to sweeten the pot, substituting the Arizona desert for the Maryland woods. Imitation is of course flattery and in all honesty Phoenix Forgotten does imitate well, but if you’re looking for something more, you might end up disappointed.

Speaking of disappointing, the special effects are pretty poor for a film of this caliber – although they do get the aging of the found footage right. Mostly the effects consist of colored lights, wind machines and wires and it would have looked primitive back in 1997. In 2017, well, it’s simply not good enough. With maybe a little bit larger budget they could have done a more realistic job.

Still, the movie delivers where it needs to. I’m pretty sure I’m alone in this assessment; the movie disappeared without a trace (much like its protagonists) at the box office and the critical reception was less than enthusiastic. I liked it though; there was plenty that worked that I can recommend it to horror fans and to thriller fans alike. Sci-fi fans might have issues with the subpar special effects. Phoenix Forgotten is likely to be forgotten judging on the overall lack of interest in it (there are only six reviews up on Metacritic; most major releases have anywhere from 20-45) but it doesn’t deserve to be.

REASONS TO GO: The found footage is cleverly utilized, making it more palatable. I got a bit of high school nostalgia watching this.
REASONS TO STAY: The special effects are nothing to write home about.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of peril and terror as well as a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The footage of the Phoenix Lights was digitally simulated and then saved onto VHS tape. It was then converted back to digital. The analog effects are a result of this process and help to integrate the CGI into the era-proper technology.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 33/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Blair Witch Project
FINAL RATING:7/10
NEXT: The Discovery

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Deidra and Laney Rob a Train


Deidra and Laney are on top of the train situation.

(2017) Young Adult Comedy (Netflix) Ashleigh Murray, Rachel Crow, Tim Blake Nelson, Missi Pyle, Sharon Laurence, David Sullivan, Danielle Nicolet, Myko Olivier, Sasheer Zamata, Arturo Castro, Kinna McInroe, Brooke Markham, Cj Strong, Deborah Lee Douglas, Tua Kealoha, Lance Gray, Chad Wright, Gerry Garcia, Nick Moceri, Kami Christiansen, Monica Moore Smith. Directed by Sydney Freeland

 

When you’re a single parent, making ends meet can be no easy task, especially if your employment options are limited and your ex isn’t paying the child support they owe. It’s a difficult situation, one which can go from precarious to catastrophic in a single moment.

Deidra (Murray) is the class valedictorian in a small Idaho town where she is the oldest of three children, including her middle sister Laney (Crow) and her youngest brother Jet (Gray) who likes to play with action figures. They live on the wrong side of the tracks (literally; the train tracks border their back yard) with their mom Marigold (Nicolet) who works at a Best Buy-type electronics store.

One afternoon she unexpectedly loses it at work and goes on a rampage, smashing a big screen TV to pieces. Her erstwhile employer not only presses charges, they insist on making her out to be a domestic terrorist, raising her bail to unaffordable heights. There are bills to pay and Deidra realizes that not only can they not afford to keep food on the table or the electricity turned on, a social welfare worker (McInroe) is threatening to move Jet into a foster home if they can’t demonstrate that the environment is suitable.

In desperation, Deidra visits her ex-con dad Chet (Sullivan) who works as a technician for the railroad. He only has $13 to give them but he gives Deidra something much more valuable; an idea for a way out. He offhandedly mentions that there have been a spate of train robberies lately that have gone unsolved and the railroad brass has sent a security specialist named Truman (Nelson) to investigate. Vaping incessantly, he also has a checkered past in which he’d been drummed out of law enforcement for excessive use of force. He is clearly not a man to be trifled with.

Nonetheless Deidra figures out that she can hop aboard a freight car, break the lock and take whatever she can find in them. She knows she can’t do this alone so she enlists her sister Laney – who is embroiled in the Miss Teen Idaho pageant which she had only entered to support her “friend” Claire (Markham) who immediately turned her back on Laney when Laney was also selected as a finalist . Laney is at first reluctant but when things start to get desperate she agrees to help.

Deidra also enlists her ex-boyfriend Jerry (Olivier), who she dumped for selling pot, to sell the stolen merchandise on E-Bay. She’s set a goal of $12,000 which would be sufficient to catch them up on their bills and get their mom out on bail. She’s also pressured by the guidance counselor Ms. Spencer (Zamata) who believes that if she can get just one student out of town on a scholarship she’ll get promoted and Deidra is her best shot at it. With all this going on, the social worker and the railroad dick both sniffing around their lives and her dad trying to make up years of neglect to his kids, can this high school senior and her sister pull off the larceny they need to get their family whole again?

Those who have paid attention to my reviews over the years should by now realize that I’m not a big fan of the programming on the Freeform cable network. This movie positively reeks of the things that really make me frown about the cable network’s offerings. The script is absolutely ludicrous; for one thing, can you imagine a mother, particularly one who realizes she is the sole support for her kids, melting down like that and then treating her jail time as a vacation? None but the most irresponsible of parents would react that way and even then if they were of that nature they likely would have had their kids taken away from them long before. For some reason (and this goes back a long ways before Freeform was a gleam in Disney’s eye) kids movie/TV show writers delight in making adults be absolutely incompetent so that they can show how kids can solve their own problems.

Of course, normally Freeform and other Disney outlets don’t approve of using crime to solve the problems that their heroes and heroines are grappling with, but these are interesting times. For the working class, these types of conditions are reality and while the mom being hauled off to jail would in reality have ALL the kids taken to foster care, life for the working class particularly in rural towns is bleak and hopeless in a lot of ways – you can see why they chose to vote for the maverick outsider when it seemed like neither political party gave a rat’s behind about their situation. The movie reflects that frustration.

Murray, who also starred in the CW series Riverdale this spring, is a find. She plays Deidra as smart without being condescending and compassionate while being fierce. She avoids the clichés that so many young adult actresses fall into. Sadly, the material she has to work with here isn’t really up to her performance.

While the movie is entertaining for the main part, it’s clearly meant for a young adult audience and will offer little for audiences with a “two” or more as the first number in their age. I’m of the perhaps misguided belief that you can write terrific material for young adults without talking down to them as this movie does; it creates a world where the right thing to do is the wrong thing to do also. While empowering the girls in the movie, it also empowers them without consequences to their actions, something that really doesn’t happen often in the real world, even for adults. I applaud the filmmakers for making this an inclusive film that looks at the real economic situations faced by working class families everywhere; I just wish they could have presented real solutions and real information that kids who find themselves needing to be empowered can do so without fear of being jailed for it.

REASONS TO GO: Murray avoids young adult actress clichés. There is a decent entertainment value here.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie has a Freeform/Afterschool Special vibe (not necessarily a good thing). The ludicrous plot is clearly meant for youngsters, not adults.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and some just as mild violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The high school scenes were filmed at Judge Memorial Catholic High School in Salt Lake City, Utah.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hell or High Water
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Meghan Leavey

Power Rangers


Welcome to your childhood, revisited.

(2017) Science Fiction (Saban/Lionsgate) Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Ludi Lin, Becky G, Elizabeth Banks, Bryan Cranston, Bill Hader (voice), Matt Shively, Cody Kearsley, David Denman, Robert Moloney, Anjali Jay, Sarah Grey, Morgan Taylor Campbell, Caroline Cave, Kayden Magnuson, Lisa Berry, Wesley MacInnes, John Stewart, Fiona Fu. Directed by Dean Israelite

 

Never underestimate the value of nostalgia in selling a franchise movie. The toys and games of our youth become the $100 million franchise film of our present. Michael Bay turned a TV show meant to sell toys into a billion dollar film franchise which shows no sign of abating.

The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers were arguably a bigger kid’s show in their day. Certainly it paved the way for all sorts of shows that were arguably toy ads and included such shows as Pokémon and Animorphs.  There were a couple of movies made with the Rangers (the first one I was forced to endure since my son was a MMPR junkie at the time) but while the show has continued in a variety of forms over the years, it hasn’t quite had the same cache as it did back in the day. Now Saban, the American distributor of the original, has started a film arm and is pulling out what is arguably their most valuable property to help get it going.

Five misfit teenagers in the sleepy California town of Angel Grove have been drawn together. Jock Jason (Montgomery) has a bright athletic future ahead of him but throws it all away for the sake of an unfunny prank that ends up getting him arrested. Kimberly (Scott) is a cheerleader whose clique has turned against her. Billy (Cyler) is a brilliant but bullied young man who is on the autism spectrum. Jason, who hates bullies, stands up for Billy but not because he is bullied – Billy is able to disarm the ankle bracelet he’s forced to wear.

Billy takes his two new friends to an old mine his late father used to take him to. There they meet Zack (Lin), an outgoing Asian kid and Trini (G), a Latina loner. The five of them discover that they picked a mine that happened to be above a buried alien spacecraft where they discover five coins. The coins give them a variety of super powers but nothing like what they would have if they could manifest the Power Ranger suits.

At least, that’s what giant head Zordon (Cranston) tells them. With his snarky robot sidekick Alpha 5 (Hader), the five are meant to be the new Power Rangers who have to battle interstellar baddie Rita Repulsa (Banks) who has plans to nab the Zeo Crystal and destroy the planet – unless the bickering teens can get their act together and team up to beat her and her giant robot Goldar. We’re doomed.

It’s hard in some ways for someone like me to review this; I really didn’t follow the show and while my son was way into it for a certain part of his youth, it was his show, not mine. We didn’t watch it together but that was okay – it was something that could be his and his alone, which is important for a young boy. The connection I have to the show is tenuous and the Easter eggs and cameos that litter the film go straight over my head. Younger people who grew up with the show in the 90s will find more resonance here than I ever could so keep that in mind.

The special effects are fairly spectacular for the most part – the climactic battle is a little bit overwrought and difficult to follow. It takes a long time to get there however; the Rangers don’t appear in uniform until the movie is nearly done and the dinosaur-like vehicles they operate, the Zords don’t appear until even later.

The movie is chock full of terms and expressions that will only make sense to those who grew up with the show.  That’s okay, mind you, but just be warned that those of us who weren’t into the show will have less of an experience. The same thing can be said about the Marvel movies, Star Trek movies and so on and so forth. That’s kind of the point of going to see a movie like this.

The movie is a bit schizophrenic in that part of it seems to want to be a slam-bang action movie and the other more of a Freeform teen angst movie. Israelite is more successful at the latter than the former and quite frankly the integration of the two could have been better and I think that’s where the movie has its biggest issue. When the action sequences come, they are a bit on the cheesy side and don’t look terribly convincing. They’re also quite jarring when you put them together with teens who are sexting, experiencing sensuality for the first times in their lives, dealing with autism and bullying and alienation from not only the adults in their lives but from people in general. All the special effects in the world can’t help you with those.

If you loved the original series, chances are that you’ll enjoy this depending on how much a stickler you are for keeping things the way they were in the 90s. Chances are you’ll have seen this already as well. For those wondering if they should catch this at the local dollar theater, do. It should definitely be experienced on a big screen with big sound. However, keep in mind that this is essentially a mediocre movie that could have used less of an eye on the bottom line and more of an eye on writing a great story involving these characters instead of one drowning helplessly in liquid cheese.

REASONS TO GO: There is a nostalgia factor for those who grew up with the original TV show.
REASONS TO STAY: Tries to be both an action movie and a young adult drama and doesn’t really integrate the two disparate sides together very well.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find plenty of sci-fi violence, a smattering of mild profanity and a little bit of crude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third Power Ranger movie to make the big screen (although as a reboot it isn’t connected to the other two) and the first in 20 years to be released.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chronicle
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Pandora

Manchester by the Sea


Grief is an emotion best shared.

Grief is an emotion best shared.

(2016) Drama (Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, C.J. Wilson, Josh Hamilton, Tate Donovan, Jami Tennille Mingo, Anna Baryshnikov, Liam McNeill, Gretchen Mol, Kara Hayward, Joe Stapleton, Brian Chamberlain, Christian Mallen, Oscar Wahlberg, Ruibo Qian, Tom Kemp, Chloe Dixon, Matthew Broderick, Quincy Tyler Bernstine. Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

 

Joseph Conrad famously wrote that “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” but like all aphorisms, it isn’t always true. There are some things, some horrible terrible things, that may not necessarily kill us but they destroy us emotionally, mentally and spiritually. They turn us into the living dead, unable to recover, unable to die.

Lee Chandler (Affleck) is someone like that. He works as a handyman/janitor in several apartment buildings in Quincy, Massachusetts, taken for granted and overlooked – and quite happy in that circumstance. He’s good at what he does, but when he gets guff from the tenants he tends to give it right back. He hangs out in bars, ignoring the come-ons of attractive women and then getting into meaningless bar fights, exploding over the slightest provocation.

His routine is disrupted with the news that his big brother Joe (Chandler) has died suddenly. Joe has had heart problems for years so it isn’t completely unexpected but it is still a devastating blow. Both brothers are divorced but Joe does have a son Patrick (Hedges) that lives with him since it turns out that his mom (Mol) is a raging alcoholic. Lee for whatever reason has been unable to forgive her for this. Lee goes back to Manchester-by-the-sea, a North Shore town where he grew up but he has left for good reason.

To Lee’s dismay, it turns out that Joe in his will named Lee as Patrick’s guardian. It also turns out that Joe has left enough money that will assist Lee in paying for things that Patrick will need. Lee has no intention of taking care of Patrick in Manchester – he wants Patrick to finish out the school year and then live with him in Quincy until he goes to college but Patrick balks. His whole life is there in Manchester – two girlfriends and a truly bad garage band – but he doesn’t want to start over, particularly with his Uncle who is taciturn, grim-faced and possessed of an explosive temper that gets him into trouble.

Lee’s ex-wife Randi (Williams) is seeing someone else but seems eager to re-connect with Lee, which Lee seems absolutely against. There are those in town who seem to have some sort of issue with Lee as well; most seem to shy away from him, as if he’s a bomb with a hair trigger. Bit by bit, we discover why Lee has these walls up…but can anything bring them down?

Most Hollywood movies dealing with a broken man (and Lee Chandler is most assuredly broken) who is forced unwillingly to become responsible for a child (although Patrick is 16 years old) usually end up with the broken man being fixed by the experience. Manchester by the Sea is a refreshing change from that trope as Lee is changed, but not fixed. The pain he is in is still there when the movie ends, and it is clear that pain will always be with him – and understandably so. What he has to live with is not something that people can just fix and forget.

Affleck, who in many ways has always been in the shadows of his brother Ben, has emerged with this performance. Oh sure, we always knew he could act – Gone Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and several other examples are proof of that. Here though he is an odds on favorite to win the Best Actor Oscar and is a lock to get at least a nomination. This is the kind of performance that sears the soul of the viewer and stays there; it is a performance one can view again and again and still find something fresh and new about it. It is the step one takes from being a good actor to being a great one, and it is worth celebrating – we can always use great actors and Casey Affleck has become one.

Much of the movie is concerned with grief and how different people experience it. One point that Lonergan makes is that no matter how together someone seems on the surface, eventually that pain must manifest itself in some way or another, either through tears or walls or both. There are several scenes – a late film encounter between Lee and his ex, the moment when Patrick finally breaks down, the aftermath of a tragedy – that are as important as any you’ll see in a movie this year, or any other for that matter.

This is a movie firmly entrenched in working class values. Hollywood has a tendency to either mythologize those values, or condescend towards them. Lonergan does neither; he simply presents them as he sees them and allows the audience to draw their own conclusions. He doesn’t shy away from allowing people to think either; there are a lot of concepts here worthy of post-movie discussion and while it can be a hard movie to sit through, it is rewarding because of that reason. The subject matter is heavy and Lonergan refuses to take short cuts or dumb things down.

I know a lot of people mistrust Hollywood as a bastion of liberal elitism and there’s some justification for that. Those people who feel that way should see this movie. It is a celebration of life in the midst of pain and death. It doesn’t shy away from the realities of life but it doesn’t wallow in them either. It finds the quiet bravery of just getting up in the morning without making a fuss about it. In short, this is one of the best movies of 2016 and one which you should make every effort to see.

REASONS TO GO: A show-stopping performance by Casey Affleck is one of the best of the year. Grief is looked at in an honest and realistic way. The attitude is completely working class in a good way. This film doesn’t dumb itself down for its audience.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is a little bit on the slow side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of foul language, some sexual situations and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The project was originally intended for Matt Damon to direct and star in, but conflicts with The Martian forced him to withdraw.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 96/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Angels Crest
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Vacancy

Best and Most Beautiful Things


Michelle Smith takes a dip into deep waters.

Michelle Smith takes a dip into deep waters.

(2016) Documentary (First Run) Michelle Smith, Julie Smith, Mike Smith, Jeff Migliozzi, Michael Roche, Jaimi Lard, Carolyn Assa, Lois Spencer, Marilyn Rea Beyer, Noell Dorsey, Bill Appel, Carmen Harris, Michael Smith, Rachel Wetschensky, Christina Alexandra Varos, Kori Feener, Seth Horowitz, Keiran Watson Bonnice, Marina Bedny, Jan Seymour-Ford, Cara Pelletier, Pamela Ryan. Directed by Garrett Zevgetis

Florida Film Festival 2016

What is normal? We all think we have kind of a take on it but the truth is normal is whatever you decide it is. “Normal” is a word that has a nearly infinite range and hides a variety of sins – unless, of course, you think that sinning is normal. And who said that it’s a sin anyway?

Michelle Smith lives in Bangor, Maine and she was given a pretty stacked deck against her. She is legally blind; she can see but only essentially when she’s nose-to-nose with the subject, and she also has Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning variety of autism. Her mind can lock on a subject and fixate on it to almost the exclusion of all else. It can also make her a bit of a handful from time to time, over and above most teens.

Although she’s presently in her 20s, the documentary covers a period from her senior year at the Perkins School for the Blind, a high school in Watertown, MA until shortly after graduation. Michelle is a bright and outgoing sort who has like most Asperger’s sufferers difficulties with social interactions. She also knows that unemployment amongst the blind is right around 75%. With school and its structured environment coming to a close, she yearns to be independent, free to develop as an individual and as a woman. That’s hard to do when you live with your mom.

Her mom, Julie, is divorced from Michelle’s dad, Mike. The two seem cordial enough to one another but on-camera there’s a fair amount of bitterness and the divorce is described as “contentious.” There is also a tragedy in the family’s past that no doubt put additional strain on the marriage. Julie and Mike are both supportive – Julie also has a boyfriend who is a bit stricter than Mike was – but both are worried about their daughter who sometimes can’t see the big picture.

An offer for an internship with someone who worked on the Rugrats show in Los Angeles sends Michelle spinning to the moon; it would be perfect if it worked out. Maybe she could become a famous voice actress! The expectations are dialed up to eleven which happens to all of us in such situations, particularly when we lack the life experiences to take a narrow-eyed view of such things. We tend to take for granted that we can make things work no matter what the opportunity; that’s not always the case for the disabled. It’s heartbreaking to watch her dream fall apart, even though she handles it strikingly well on-camera.

Michelle is a bit of a nerd; she’s into anime and Darla and collects dolls. She flies her flag proudly as she displays her dolls in her room in a certain order. It almost seems like a logical progression when she gets into the BDSM scene (which stands for Bondage/Discipline/Sadism/Masochism for those unfamiliar with the term) and finds a boyfriend who is also part of that kink. They adopt a dominant/submissive relationship as well as a Daddy/Little Girl relationship may come off a bit odd since they are both so young but it is a thing. Like most young dominants the boyfriend comes off as a bit self-aggrandizing but they seem genuinely fond of each other and Michelle is delighted when she receives a flogger as a Christmas gift. However, her new sexual activities lead to some awkward moments for her parents as well as the audience.

Zevgetis makes an effort to give us an idea of what Michelle sees by focusing the camera in an almost super near-sighted setting from time to time; he does it a little too often for my taste as I was actually nauseous after the third time he went to that setting. However, the snowflakes falling down from the sky at the camera were admittedly a pretty cool shot.

One question that should confront the viewer of any documentary is “Why was this documentary necessary?” It’s a very good question; documentaries are flourishing these days and while there are many that are informative and/or provocative, sometimes the answer is “It isn’t.” I’m not 100% certain that Michelle Smith has a life that is required viewing, but she’s compelling a subject enough that you may be captivated (as when she proclaims at her graduation “The world will be my burrito!”) and perhaps even find some insight into your own life.  Good documentaries will do that. I’m just not sure that every life will benefit from a glimpse at Michelle Smith’s life to help define their own normal. Yours might; results will vary, but whatever the outcome, it surely isn’t a bad thing to see life through another person’s eyes.

REASONS TO GO: Michelle Smith is a fascinating personality. This isn’t just a look at one girl but a look at what surrounds her.
REASONS TO STAY: The audience becomes more voyeurs than observers. Some of the camera work, intending to show how Michelle sees the world, is unwelcome.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Perkins School of the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts which Michelle attended also counts Helen Keller among their alumni.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/2/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Aspie Seeks Love
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Inferno (2016)

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

What’s in the Darkness (Hei chu you shen me)


Qu Jing is just looking for some clues.

Qu Jing is just looking for some clues.

(2016) Drama (HH Pictures) Su Xiaotong, Guo Xiao, Liu Dan, Lu Qiwei, Zhou Kui, Jiang Xueming, Li Shiru, Wu Juejin, Ren Long, Liu Jieyi, Gu Qilin, Li Mei, Jia Zhigang, Deng Gang, Wang Zhengping, Jiu Qi, Han Yuye, Tian Feng, Luo Wei, Shi Ying, Yan Jia, Ma Chenxiang, Yu Zhengnan, Huang Xiaoya, Wu Yue, Du Gangqiang, Liu Kaiming, Huang Yan, Xia Hongxia. Directed by Yichun Wang

NYAFF

Growing up is a dangerous, frightening thing. It’s a struggle, dealing with all the hormones coursing through your body, trying to understand the world around you as best you can without much help from your parents and other adult figures in your life, although they often mean well; they just don’t get what you’re going through and in any case, they never have anything good to say about you – it’s all just complain, complain, complain and nothing you do is ever right. Lucky for you, they don’t have time for anyone but themselves and frankly, you want to keep it that way.

Qu Jing (Xiaotong) feels exactly that way. She’s a pre-pubescent girl in a Chinese mainland technical high school in the Hubei province in 1991. In the late spring, the nude body of a woman is found in the local lake. She’d been raped and murdered, and a crude cross carved into her thigh. Qu Jing’s dad, Qu Zhicheng (Xiao) is a police officer, one who happens to have been trained in forensic medicine. He’s the butt of jokes to his peers and a source for exasperation to his commanding officer, Chief Cao (Shiru). He prefers to use deductive reasoning and follow clues while his fellows prefer choosing suspects pretty much at random and beating confessions out of them. It keeps the rate of conviction impressively high.

When a second victim is found, pressure is put on the cops to solve the case and they haul in a suspect (Gang) and get him to confess to the crime. Qu Zhicheng is skeptical about the accuracy of their investigation; the discovery of another victim, killed while the suspect is in police custody, proves him right.

Qu Jing is having problems of her own. Her mother (Dan) is a shrill shrew, unhappy in her marriage and her life and taking out all her issues on her family. Zhang Xue (Qiwei) is Jing’s best friend but Xue’s not the nicest person ever; she is condescending to the point of arrogance, knowing that her beauty and sexuality will take her far – far out of town, which is what she wants to be (as far as the more tropical Hanmei resorts if she has her way). Xue is sexually active and has attracted the attention of Zhao Fei (Xueming), a local tough guy and petty criminal.

Qu Jing is beginning to have hormonal shifts that are causing her to think about sex. She asks questions like ‘”Does giving birth hurt?” and reads clinical manuals, trying to find out everything she can. She goes to romance movies and watches the love scenes with great interest. When Xue disappears after being thrown out of class for falling asleep, the murders begin to come frighteningly close to home.

I originally listed this as a suspense film but changed my mind; it’s not a mystery. It’s more of a drama. This isn’t a police procedural. The crimes here hang on the periphery, coloring the proceedings but never dominating them. Yichun wrote this as largely autobiographical. Part of that is why this is set in the era that it is, and the era this takes place in is critical to why this movie exists.

China was on the verge of changing its economic structure from pure communism to a blend of communism and capitalism which it employs today. While the rural areas, such as the one this was set in, still carried over many of the same restrictive policies that existed for the past decades, change was in the air.

The performances here are interesting. Xiaotong is a real find; 17 years old when she made this, she shows a great deal of emotional depth, from playful to petulant, sullen to joyful.  She epitomizes the confusion and pain of growing up, particularly in a household where she’s largely reminded at how much it cost the family to even bring her in to this world. She was the second child in an era when families that had more than one child suffered heavy economic penalties for it; her older brother, away at university, doesn’t appear other than as a reference in the film.

Guo Xiao also does an outstanding job as the somewhat nebbish police officer, adrift in a sea of incompetent goons. He lashes out at his daughter, henpecked by his wife and laughed at by his fellow officers. Deep down however he loves his daughter as only a devoted father can. He shows it in between bouts of screaming at her for her transgressions, real or imagined.

The dynamic here is a lot different than what we’re used to from Western films. The police are not only as fallible as all get out, they’re also clods who do little constructive to protect or serve. Fathers and mothers aren’t supportive and wise; they have their own hang-ups and issues and don’t necessarily have their children’s best interests at heart at all times.

The society they live in is repressive and prudish but something darker lurks beneath the surface at all time. All around Qu Jing and Xu there are men leering lecherously; an old man in a senior home makes a pass at young Qu Jing in a particularly loathsome manner. The message here seems to be that while some things can be repressed on a societal level, that doesn’t mean those urges aren’t still there.

The senior home sequence and others like it might be off-putting for some who may be a little queasy at the sexualizing of prepubescent and pubescent girls, who are often made to wear make-up for choir performances and school functions.

This doesn’t have the kind of pace you’d find in a typical mystery. There are no gun battles, no car chases, no fistfights. The ending is abrupt and disconcerting. We don’t get much detail on what the police are doing to solve the crime (other than picking up the wrong people and forcing them to confess). We get a sense that after the film ends, things aren’t going to change much.

When all is said and done, this is more of a slice of life type of film; this particular slice happens to have a serial killer in it. It’s like getting a slice of mincemeat pie and biting into a clove. It’s just the luck of the draw. However, this is a tasty slice of pie from someone you can tell is going to only get better at baking pies. I can’t wait to see what comes next from Yichun’s oven.

REASONS TO GO: Unsettling atmosphere keeps viewers from getting too comfortable. Interesting portrait of a period in China less familiar to the West.
REASONS TO STAY: Sexualizing of young girls is a bit off-putting. Too slow-paced for most American audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexual content, some foul language and a disturbing image or two.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Qu Jing is the same age as director Yichun would have been in 1991.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Diary of a Serial Killer
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Buddymoon