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

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The Bling Ring


Life is a beach for the spoiled and the privileged.

Life is a beach for the spoiled and the privileged.

(2013) True Life Dramedy (A24) Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Emma Watson, Claire Julien, Taissa Farmiga, Georgia Rock, Leslie Mann, Carlos Miranda, Gavin Rossdale, Stacy Edwards, G. Mac Brown, Marc Coppola, Janet Song, Anne Fitzgerald, Lorenzo Hunt, Timothy Starks, Rich Ceraulo, Joe Nieves, Nelson Rockford, Doug DeBeech, Erin Daniels. Directed by Sofia Coppola

Woman Power

It’s hard for some to recognize what America has become. Celebrity-obsessed, fame-driven, materialistic and entitled. In many ways we’re a nation of spoiled brats.

None more spoiled than the Bling Ring, a group of bored, privileged sorts who yearn to be celebrities. Rebecca (Chang) is the ringleader, more or less. She meets new kid Marc (Broussard) and find themselves with much in common. One thing is a talent for larceny as at a party the pair steal things from unlocked cars of other partygoers.

When Marc mentions offhandedly that a wealthy acquaintance is about to leave town, Rebecca spots this as an opportunity to make a big score. While Marc is reluctant – this is a friend, or at least someone he knows after all – Rebecca overcomes his misgivings and the two steal a handbag, which Rebecca notices is the same one as her fashion idol, Lindsay Lohan, owns. The two steal a Porsche and use the cash they steal to go on a shopping spree that allows them to buy the luxuries that they couldn’t previously afford.

Soon, they’re hanging out at posh clubs where celebrities like Kirsten Dunst and Paris Hilton hang out. They discover that Hilton is going to be out of town and decide to find her address and check it out. With a key conveniently left under the doormat, they gain entry and find wall-to-wall swag, so much there’s no way she’ll notice any of it missing. Rebecca begins to show off some of the jewelry she’s stolen to her friends Nicki (Watson), Sam (Farmiga) and Chloe (Julien). Unsurprisingly, the others want in.

They continue to go on what they think of as shopping sprees in the homes of celebrities who they can confirm are out of town – among the victims are Audrina Partridge, Megan Fox and Orlando Bloom. Unfortunately, the kids may be bold but they’re not bright; they’re seen on security cameras and brag about their bling on social media. This leads the cops right to them.

Coppola, who grew up surrounded by famous directors (Francis Ford, her dad, and Marc, her brother) and actors (Nicolas Cage, her cousin and Talia Shire, her aunt), has the experience to put a personal edge on the film and the directing chops to make it interesting, but curiously as frenetically paced and glamour-conscious as the movie is, there’s an oddly flat quality to it. The lead actresses all seem like their eyes are glazed over, not quite drugged but almost like they’re staring into a different place than the rest of us see. It’s a bit disconcerting.

Watson, the best-known of the young actors playing the crooks also does the best job. Her Nicki is by turns bored, peer-pressured, demanding and self-delusional. Like all of the other characters, she’s truly unlikable and her value system is virtually non-existent. These girls (and boy) are all about self-gratification and achieving fame without earning it; it’s no wonder one of the real perpetrators ended up with a reality TV show; the mentality of becoming famous for being famous is irresistible to these girls.

While Nicki’s new age mom (Mann) is proof that shallow can be genetic (or at least environmental), it’s really hard to find anything that smacks of a redeeming quality for any of them. When the poop hits the fan they turn on each other like rats. They have no empathy for the people whose homes they are invading, only a lust for designer clothes, high-end watches and of course whatever the loose cash lying around can buy them. This is the true entitlement generation rather than the welfare recipients that Fox News misidentifies in that regard. These young people believe that fame is something that should be handed to them rather than earned. I think most famous people would assure them that fame is a double edged sword and maybe these kids have learned that by now.

Coppola displays the culture of celebrity, material possession and fame obsession that we have degenerated into quite dispassionately and without judgment or comment, although perhaps by displaying the ultimately empty pursuits and absent moral compasses may be in itself a kind of judgment. We are left to watch, horrified perhaps or maybe just plain disgusted as these kids show the worst qualities of our modern society; whatever remorse they might have had seems to be more in line with being caught rather than in having done something wrong.

Because the characters are so without redeeming qualities it is difficult to find anything to relate to here, except maybe by relating to the polar opposite of what these kids are, which is harder work. I wonder how many young kids will see something of themselves in the Bling Ring; I suspect that those who are most like them will not. Most of these sorts of people can (and often do) look at themselves in the mirror all day long, but fail to see the ugliness that’s reflected there.

WHY RENT THIS: Trainwreck; you just can’t look away. Scathing indictment of our shallow society.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Characters so unlikable that audience has nothing to identify with. Occasional bouts of “Look ma, I’m directing!”
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of bad language, plenty of drug and alcohol abuse (by teens) and some sexually suggestive conversation.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes set in Paris Hilton’s home were shot in her actual home.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette about the real Bling Ring, hosted by the author of the original Vanity Fair article that inspired the movie, as well as an interview with Paris Hilton, one of the victims of the crimes, and her decision to allow her home to be used in the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19.2M on an $8M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only). Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spring Breakers
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Results

Hank and Asha


The movie fails to explore Asha's alcohol issues, alas.

The movie fails to explore Asha’s alcohol issues, alas.

(2013) Romance (FilmRise) Mahira Kakkar, Andrew Pastides, Brian Sloan, Ken Butler, Brian Patrick Murphy, Robyn Kerr, Jean-Baptiste Moreau, Samuel Beckwith, Margot Duff, Jiri Dular, Vaiva Katinaityte, Anna Tydlitatova, Bianca Butti. Directed by James E. Duff

In the 21st century courtship is changing. Once upon a time everything was done face to face. Long distance romance involved writing letters which took days to arrive. Yes, the dark ages of the 1980s when computers were just becoming prevalent in society we resorted to phone calls and letters, as well as actual dates. These days, our communication methods have changed as our technology as changed. Video calls, e-mails and social media have replaced earlier means of communication and thus courtship as well. We get to know each other in different ways than we once did.

Hank (Pastides) is a young man from North Carolina who moved to New York to pursue a career in film making. He managed to make a documentary about ballroom dancing that is making the rounds at festivals around the world, but his main income comes from being a production assistant on a reality show in which spoiled rich kids change their identities for a day. Mainly he sits in a van waiting for his walkie talky to summon him to fetch coffee or chauffeur cast or crew.

Asha (Kakkar) is a woman of Indian background who is studying film in Prague. She caught Hank’s documentary at a film festival there and was much taken by it. She had hoped that he would be present for a Q&A afterwards and was disappointed that he was not, so she decided to ask him a few questions anyway via video mail. She is very pleased to find out he’s a handsome young man and not, as she puts it, a crusty old documentarian which is what she assumed he was.

Hank responds in kind, answering her questions and asking a few of his own. Soon they are corresponding regularly and giving each other video tours of their apartments, of Asha’s film school and Hank’s “office” (the van he drives). They become friends, looking forward to their messages and becoming concerned when there are gaps in the other’s replies. The friendship begins to deepen as they start to make plans to meet in Paris, a place Asha has always wanted to visit. However, like most relationships, making it to Paris requires that a big dose of reality has to be addressed first.

I found the structure of the movie somewhat innovative – basically the movie consists of the exchanged video messages. At no point do the two ever converse directly with each other via video chat, which seems to be something Asha is reluctant to do after Hank suggests it early on. We find out why later on, but that does add a degree of difficulty to the movie in that it becomes something of a found footage romance. Keeping it interesting can be a challenge but the filmmakers actually manage to do that, engaging in a commentary on modern romance via technology along the way.

Hank and Asha make an engaging couple. They mesh well together and are exceedingly cute, not only physically. Asha has a sweet smile and her expression as she samples world famous Czech beer is absolutely precious – beer is most definitely an acquired taste, even excellent beer. There haven’t been many instances I’m aware of where someone tasted beer for the first time and exclaimed “Wow! That’s really delicious!”

For his part, Pastides is a charismatic presence. His face is very expressive and at times he’s required to express frustration, confusion, hurt and goofy charm and often does so wordlessly. He has a sequence that’s essentially a take-off on the Tom Cruise dance from Risky Business that is lovely, although it does go on a bit too long.

The problem with the movie is that it’s essentially an hour and a half of, if you’ll forgive the use of an industry term, meet cute. Montages of them travelling around their respective cities set to jangly indie rock is a bit cliche and a bit of a cheat as well, even though these are sequences supposedly created by Hank and Asha themselves. I found that they stop the movie in their tracks and forced me to grouse about indie film cliches until the movie resumed its conversational tone.

Another thing I would have liked to have seen is the two characters reveal a bit more about themselves. Of course, that might be a point the filmmakers are trying to get across – that modern technology puts up different kinds of walls, allowing us to show only our surface selves and nothing of who we truly are. And that’s a perfectly valid point, to be sure. Yes, Hank talks about his relationship with his parents and Asha has a brief moment where she feels like she doesn’t belong because she’s the only Indian student in the school and so she’s completely out of place but those are fleeting insights and are not really followed up upon. We never truly see Hank and Asha with any depth and quite frankly, the surface aspects of both of them are so engaging that I would have liked to get to know them better. Alas, that is the curse of modern life I suppose.

REASONS TO GO: The couple is utterly adorable. Nice commentary on modern romance.
REASONS TO STAY: Descends into the realm of too cute occasionally..
FAMILY VALUES:  Some mild language and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hank and Asha debuted at Slamdance in the dramatic film competition.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Same Time Next Year
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Skin I Live In