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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Hello, My Name is Doris


Sally Field has double vision.

Sally Field has double vision.

(2015) Comedy (Roadside Attractions) Sally Field, Max Greenfield, Beth Behrs, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Stephen Root, Elizabeth Reaser, Isabella Acres, Kyle Mooney, Natasha Lyonne, Kumail Nanjiani, Caroline Aaron, Tyne Daly, Peter Gallagher, Rebecca Wisocky, Amy Okuda, Don Stark, Nnamdi Asomugha, Anna Akana, Rich Sommer, Emilie Germain. Directed by Michael Showalter

There are a lot of reasons that people fall in love. Sometimes it’s a chemistry thing. Sometimes it’s a sexual thing. Sometimes it’s a shared interests thing. And sometimes, it’s a desperation thing.

Doris Miller (Field) has just buried her mother, whom she has spent much of her adult life taking care of. Doris is a bit eccentric; she dresses like a bag lady being played by the love child of Michelle Pfeiffer and Cher and kind of walks her own path. Her brother (Root) and sister-in-law (McLendon-Covey) urge her to sell the house, which they have ulterior motives for, but she’s not inclined to do so. Doris has lived here all her life and sees no reason to find a new place to live, even though her commute from Staten Island to midtown Manhattan is grueling.

At the firm where she works in the accounting department, she gets on an elevator soon after the funeral with the handsome new art director, John Fremont (Greenfield) – not the general who left his mark on California maps. And wouldn’t you know it, she develops a huge crush on the much younger man.

Doris hasn’t exactly had a whole lot of romantic experience, most of her free time revolving around the care of her mother. So she approaches her best friend Roz (Daly) who steers her to her 13-year-old granddaughter (Acres) who helps Doris set up a fake Facebook account so she can keep tabs on her new beau. Of course, she ends up creating havoc in his life, especially when she gets jealous of his new girlfriend Brooklyn (Behrs). But that isn’t all that’s changing; some of John’s hipster friends are discovering that the quirky Doris is the new kind of cool. She even poses for an album cover; but are her new friends driving Doris away from her old friends? And are her new friends more bent on hanging out with the new flavor of the week rather than genuinely interested in her?

There are a few not-so-subtle undertones here, mainly in how we look at the aged. Field is no spring chicken but she carries herself with a great deal of charm and comes off as so likable that even when she’s engaging in creepy stalker behavior you still end up liking her. But in a lot of ways, her character is kind of a cliché eccentric old woman who is so out there that she fits in with the hip millennial crowd. I found that it was a little bit condescending in that Doris has to dress like a mannequin found in a Mad Max movie and literally throw herself at a younger man to get him to be interested in her. There are plenty of young men who are into older women out there; why does an actress the caliber of Sally Field have to debase herself in order to have a relationship between a younger man and an older woman seem viable?

There are plenty of cliches of the indie variety from the New York location (albeit a lot of it takes place outside of hipster heaven Manhattan and hipster other heaven Brooklyn) to the soundtrack to the pretentions of the mainly artistic people portrayed here. There are a few things that kind of break the mold – the dialogue, for example, is clever but not overly so to the point that it doesn’t sound like real people talking, a very major indie sin.

The film also has something positive that’s a mite rare these days – a delightful ending. Yes, the movie actually ends in a way that is both satisfying and organic. I wish a lot more movies gave the kind of thought to their ending the filmmakers here obviously did with theirs. You think for a moment the movie is going one way and then – it doesn’t. Kudos to the writers for that.

There is definitely a good deal of entertainment value here. Field clearly still is at the top of her game and I hope that with some good roles starting to appear for women in her age range that we’ll see more of her on the big screen in the coming years. I only wish the movie hadn’t treated the romance between the older woman and the younger man as something ridiculous; certainly they wouldn’t have if the relationship had been between a 60-something guy and a 20-something woman. As a society, we seem to be okay with one and not with the other. There’s a good documentary in the exploration of that double standard somewhere.

REASONS TO GO: Field is still intensely likable. A very satisfying ending.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit condescending and cliché. I think the May-December romance should have not been a source of ridicule.
FAMILY VALUES: There is enough profanity to merit an R rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lyonne and Greenfield both appear in the sitcom New Girl.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harold and Maude
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Chasing Mavericks

Last I Heard


Michael Rappaport finally figures out that Mira Sorvino is Paul's daughter.

Michael Rappaport finally figures out that Mira Sorvino is Paul’s daughter.

(2013) Dramedy (Cine Relevante) Paul Sorvino, Michael Rappaport, Renee Props, Andrea Kelly, Lev Gorn, Steven Bauer, Chazz Palminteri, Paul Ben-Victor, Hassan Johnson, Johnny Williams, Andrea Navedo, Roberta Wallach, D. Kevin Kelly, William de Paolo, Michael Sorvino, Logan Crifasi-Zenie, John Damroth, Andrea Verdura, Mario Ruffo, Olivia Panepinto. Directed by David Rodriguez

Florida Film Festival 2014

There’s no doubt that the Mafia isn’t what it used to be. Once the most powerful criminal organization on earth, it has become a shadow of itself, most of its most feared figures in jail, dead or worse, grown old.

Joseph “Mr. Joe” Scoleri (Sorvino) is in that lamented latter category. Released after a 20 year stint in the pen, he has a bum ticker, no money and is forbidden contact with anyone involved with crime – in short, just about everyone he knows. He lives with his daughter Rita (Props) who scarcely knows her dad, given that he essentially spent nearly her entire life in prison.

The world has changed a great deal since Joe went away and not just in the size of cell phones. The neighborhood has changed as well. There was respect there once but now Joe is just another old man tottering along the sidewalk to wherever it is that old men go.

But for his next door neighbor Bobby DiBianco (Rappaport), Joe is still an object of hero worship. Guys like him kept the neighborhood safe enough so a woman could walk untroubled to the corner store for a carton of milk in the middle of the night. Guys like him kept drugs and gangs out. Guys like him took care of guys like Bobby.

Now, Bobby is going to take care of Joe as best he can – run errands for him, take him to the doctor, that kind of thing. That kind of closeness attracts attention – from Dominic Salerno Jr. (Gorn), the last guy standing with any connection to the Mob and who sees Joe as someone who can legitimize him, and from the FBI who wonder if Joe is using Bobby as some kind of front. Bobby explains to them that in THIS neighborhood in Staten Island, people take care of each other. That’s the way it’s always been and as long as he’s around, that’s the way it will always be.

The truth is that Bobby is just a deli owner who’s never gotten into trouble and when Joe asks him to get in touch with one of Joe’s old mob friends, he balks. Joe sees this as disloyalty and a rift is driven between the two of them. Joe’s old school ways also create an issue with his daughter who is as 21st century as they get. Considering how bad Joe’s heart is, his time is running out – can he square things with those he cares about most before his ticker stops ticking?

Most mob pictures fall into two categories – the heavy dramas a la Scorsese and Coppola, and the lighter comedies like Analyze That and Mickey Blue Eyes.  This one falls somewhere in between. Director Rodriguez has described it as a “post-Mafia picture” – which can be interpreted as what happens when one retires from the Mafia or what happens after the Mafia becomes less relevant. Both apply here.

There are some issues here. The dialogue is really repetitive and points are hammered home over and over again until you want to go medieval on the screenwriters and scream as you beat them into a bloody mess “We get it, we get it!!!!” Just a cursory editing of the script might have lopped a good 20-30 minutes off the running time. That’s time that could have been used in further developing the Rita character who could have used a little more screen time.

Sorvino though gives a powerful enough performance that at least in my case I was willing to overlook the script flaws. Rodriguez wisely allows Sorvino’s craggy features to tell much of the unsaid story and the character’s confusion and frustration come through loud and clear without him having to yell – although he occasionally does that too.

Rappaport excels at playing the nice guy next door so this is right in his wheelhouse. Rappaport’s genuine likability plays off nicely of Sorvino’s curmudgeon. Many of the best scenes in the movie involve the interaction between the two.

The way the movie ends is not entirely unexpected given what comes before, but what comes before is largely fresh and new. This is a viewpoint we haven’ t seen previously; the closest that we’ve come is The Sopranos. While this isn’t the slam dunk it might have been had the writing been a little more precise, it still is worth checking out just for the premise and Sorvino alone.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances and chemistry from Sorvino and Rappaport. Different take on the Mafiosi than we normally see in the movies.

REASONS TO STAY: Often repetitive. Dialogue is stilted. The ending is kind of predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language and some disturbing violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although both are veterans of many Mafia-themed films, this marks the first on-screen appearance together for Sorvino and Palminteri.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Analyze This

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The Son of No One


Acting 101 is now in session with Professor Pacino.

Acting 101 is now in session with Professor Pacino.

(2011) Thriller (Anchor Bay) Channing Tatum, Al Pacino, Tracy Morgan, Katie Holmes, Ray Liotta, Juliette Binoche, James Ransone, Jake Cherry, Ursula Parker, Brian Gilbert, Peter Tambakis, Simone Jones, Lemon Anderson, Ralph Rodriguez, Roger Guenveur Smith, Sean Cregan, Karen Christie-Ward, Pat Klernan, Gisella Marengo. Directed by Dito Montiel

New York City is a place of dreams. It is also a place of nightmares, of unrelenting grime and corruption. At least, that is how the movies have portrayed it – on the one hand the center of the universe, a place where romance magically happens. On the other, a hopeless cesspool of brutality, corrupt cops and junkies.

Jonathan White (Tatum) grew up in the projects of Long Island City. Like his departed dad, he has chosen to be a cop and lives with his wife Kerry (Holmes) and his epileptic daughter Charlie (Parker) on Staten Island, where he plies his trade.

He is less than thrilled to be re-assigned to his old neighborhood. Soon after he arrives, anonymous letters are being sent to Loren Bridges (Binoche), the crusading editor of a storefront newspaper resurrecting a decades-old pair of murders and alleging that the police have covered up that the crimes were committed by a cop. This is particularly distressing to Jonathan since it was he that was responsible for those killings, although he wasn’t a cop at the time. In fact, he was just a kid (Cherry) who was defending his own life from a pair of violent junkies. His best friend Vinnie (Gilbert) witnessed the crimes and Jonathan thinks that he is likely the source of those letters. Vinnie has grown up (Morgan) into a mentally unstable man who can’t escape his own demons, many of them conjured up when the very same junkies molested him as a child.

These letters are making Captain Mathers (Liotta) who happens to be Jonathan’s boss more than a little nervous. In post-9/11 New York the cops need all the good will they can get and this is the kind of scandal that might set the public against the force. Mathers – who knows about the cover-up since he and Detective Stanford (Pacino) who was the partner of Jonathan’s late father helped cover up the evidence and made the case go away – wants Jonathan to kill Vinnie and Jonathan is considering it.

Things start to get much tenser for Jonathan when the reporter is murdered after meeting with Jonathan. Jonathan’s psychotic partner Prudenti (Ransone) lets Jonathan know that if he doesn’t take care of the situation, Jonathan will be framed for the murder of the reporter as well as the original murders years ago. With his situation deteriorating and Jonathan beginning to fall apart, the likelihood of an explosive confrontation becomes more and more likely.

Montiel directed the autobiographical A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints which was actually a very good film. He has shown great promise, particularly in regards to his obvious love-hate relationship with New York. One might say that these are honest warts-and-all depictions but while it is clear he bears a deep affection for the Big Apple, he seems to have a feeling of revulsion towards its less glamorous side.

He has assembled an amazing cast but unfortunately they don’t really rise above the material which you might expect. Pacino almost phones it in and you get the sense that he was interested more in the paycheck than the performance. Binoche, one of the world’s most marvelous actresses, is an odd casting choice. She gamely soldiers on as you might expect she would but one gets the sense she really doesn’t know what to do with the part. Morgan on the other hand is best known as a comic actor; he is surprisingly adept at this dramatic role and has some of the best moments in the film.

Tatum, who has finally shown some signs that he is more than just a pretty face (like Montiel, he is an ex-model) although this was filmed during the period when his acting style might best be summed up as wooden. We don’t get a sense of Jonathan’s wracking guilt or his inner turmoil although the commentary track by Montiel alludes to it. Sadly, he doesn’t show much more tension than a high school honors student approaching a mid-term algebra quiz.

There is a good deal of ugliness here although there are some moments that are surprisingly powerful (the final scene between Jonathan and Vinnie for example) they are outnumbered by those which don’t make sense. For example, the murders were clearly a matter of self-defense committed by a minor. Jonathan committed no crime; there was therefore no need to cover anything up. If anything, the only crime that was committed was the act of covering up.

Montiel is a terrific director and writer but this is certainly a misstep. I’d recommend his previous two films ahead of this. I hope this is just a one-time setback and not an indication that his creative well has run dry.

WHY RENT THIS: A chance to watch a fine cast slumming.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit confusing. Lacks logical sense.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of violence and bad language and some brief sexuality of the disturbing kind.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Robert De Niro was originally cast as Detective Stanford but he had to drop out of the production and Pacino was cast instead.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $30,680 on a $15M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Copland

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Don Jon

Big Fan


Big Fan

Patton Oswalt is a New York Giants fan and lives with his mom. 'Nuff said.

(First Independent) Patton Oswalt, Kevin Corrigan, Michael Rappaport, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Serafina Fiore, Gino Cafarelli, Jonathan Hamm, Matt Servitto. Directed by Robert Siegel

Sports fandom is a double edged sword. It can bring us enjoyment, great memories and a sense of belonging to something bigger. It can also grow into obsession and overwhelm everything else in our lives.

Paul Aufiero (Oswalt) is a New York Giants fan. That might be an understatement; it might be more accurate to say that he lives for the New York Giants. His life revolves around them. He works as a parking garage attendant and lives in a closet-sized room in his mom’s Staten Island apartment. That might not be so bad if he were just starting out, but pudgy Paul is 35 with no ambition for family or career. All he really cares about is his beloved Giants.

Every night after he gets off work, he calls into the Sports Dogg radio show as Paul from Staten Island, where he has some small degree of celebrity. Usually his rants involve a reaction to what his nemesis, Philadelphia Phil has already said. Paul carefully writes down on a legal pad exactly what he’s going to say, then reads it into the phone, pacing his room like a caged animal. His rants usually wake up his light-sleeping mom (Kurtz) who beats on the wall and yells at her son to shut up, it’s 2am. He yells back, a kind of Fred and Wilma Flintstone with a New York Italian edge.

One night, he and his buddy – his only friend really – Sal (Corrigan) spy their hero, Quantrell Bishop (Hamm), a five-time Pro Bowl cornerback, at a Staten Island gas station. Impulsively they follow him to a dodgy Brooklyn neighborhood where it appears Bishop might be buying drugs, then to a downtown Manhattan strip club. The buddies follow him in, pay for their ten dollar Budweisers and work up enough nerve to meet their hero.

He’s pleasant enough at first, but when they let slip that they followed him all the way from Staten Island, he gets the impression they’re trying to shake him down. Enraged, he beats Paul within an inch of his life. Paul wakes up three days later after emergency surgery. Bishop has been suspended, the Giants are losing and the police, particularly in the person of Detective Velarde (Servitto), are anxious to bring charges against the football player and bring the incident to a close.

This brings Paul to a turning point; the Giants’ season literally rests in his hands and he simply can’t let them down. He tells the incredulous detective that he can’t remember the incident; the cop responds “Can’t? Or won’t?” Of course, it’s won’t; Paul remembers the incident clearly enough, and it haunts him like Marley’s ghost.

When Philadelphia Phil finds out that the beating victim is none other than Paul of Staten Island, Paul’s world crumbles. His hatred for his nemesis reaches a boiling point; how far is Paul willing to go to prove his loyalty to his team?

Writer/director Siegel is best known for writing The Wrestler which brought Mickey Rourke’s career back to life. This is a different kind of sports film, taken from the perspective we’re mostly used to facing on our own – that of the fan. Of course, few of us are as rabid as Paul is, but there is still the same outside-looking-in kind of feel to the movie that most of us are used to.

Oswalt is best known as a stand-up comedian (and to film fans as the voice of Remy in Ratatouille) but he does just fine in this straight dramatic role. His Paul has a life that most of us would think of as unfulfilling, but he likes it just fine. He’s completely satisfied to be without romance, ambition or curiosity. His relationship is with his football club; it’s the only thing that matters to him, the only thing that makes sense. His family doesn’t understand; really, I don’t expect most viewers will understand either. Only those who have the kind of passion Paul possesses will truly get his character.

The movie revolves around Paul to a very large extent; the other characters are on the periphery of your vision. That Oswalt can carry the movie is crucial; if he falters, the movie fails. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen. The only real glitch is I found the ending to be a bit perfunctory and even a little surreal. Then again, I might not be the kind of guy this movie is meant for, even though I consider myself a pretty rabid fan of the San Jose Sharks NHL club. While I don’t see me getting in the grill of a fan of an opposing club the way Paul does, it’s a good thing that there are fans like Paul around; makes the world seem a bit more normal, a bit more familiar. That’s all that I need to recommend this, quite frankly.

WHY RENT THIS: A decent insight into the soul of the superfan. Oswalt does a pretty solid job carrying the movie in a dramatic role.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending was a bit anti-climactic. Some of the actions of Paul border on the surreal.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of foul language here, a little bit of sexuality and some fairly adult themes. I think it best that the kids skip Big Fan.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The host of the radio call-in show that Paul regularly calls is Scott Ferrall, who really does host a sports call-in show on Sirius satellite radio.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a downloadable Quantrell Bishop poster. Woohoo!

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Law Abiding Citizen