★★ / ★★★★
A better version of “Nerve,” based on a novel by Jeanne Ryan and written for the screen by Jessica Sharzer, has been released two years prior. It is called “13 Sins” or “13: Game of Death,” a remake of a Thai horror-comedy “13 Beloved.” Compared to the 2014 picture, this film pales by comparison. Although its production design is more colorful and inviting, the suspense and thrills are light, neither ridiculous enough on a consistent basis that we laugh at the outrageousness of it all nor is it darkly comic enough that we that we can’t help but stare at the images for the violence, gore, and exploitation. The film is likely to appeal to those used to the quality of MTV movies, superficially curious but fails to deliver fully on a dramatic and compelling level.
The setup is standard and painfully formulaic. The nice high school girl with aspirations of moving away for art school after senior year is played by Emma Roberts. Vee, short for Venus, is seen by her friends (Emily Meade, Miles Heizer, Kimiko Glenn) as someone who always plays it safe—not boring… but one who is not that exciting either. To prove her friends wrong, she decides to play an online game called “Nerve” in which a participant is given a choice to become a “watcher” or a “player.” Vee chooses the latter and with each successful dare, increasingly dangerous over time and each task requiring be self-recorded via phone, money is deposited directly to her bank account.
One of the problems is a lack of range in terms of the dares. After an amusing scene that takes place in a high-end boutique, notice that the assignments are almost always physically dangerous. As a result, the viewers are limited to a one-dimensional experience where we simply wait how Vee might end up at a hospital. It might have been more interesting if some of the dares were rooted in mental struggles once in a while. For instance, why not get Vee to do or put her hands—or her whole body— on or in something so disgusting that it would disturb anybody watching it? This is why “13 Sins” shines over this would-be thriller; “Nerve” is not willing to experiment enough.
While the scenes are executed with enough verve and edited proficiently, these only go so far because the screenplay neglects to paint the characters as real people with real lives and therefore would suffer real consequences depending on their actions—or inaction. For instance, although acceptable that Vee chooses to play a game in order to prove to her friends that she can be exciting, perhaps she needed to prove something to herself as well. But the writers do not touch upon this. Either they are too afraid or they do not know how to inject substance into their work and make the package convincing—a shame because Roberts is quite watchable as a young woman who does not realize until it’s too late that the game is more than just a game—it is a gamble for her life.
A supporting character, played by Dave Franco, is given some backstory but the more one thinks about it, the less his motivation makes sense on a practical level. Furthermore, there is an undercooked, sort-of romantic connection between them—most unconvincing and not at all interesting. I wished one of Vee’s friends, Tommy, who has a crush on our heroine is given more screen time given his know-how in terms of how to defeat the game.
He’s interesting because he actually exudes technical intelligence and a warm kindness, too. I found it amusing that somewhere along the way I came to the conclusion Tommy might be a good fit for Vee because the two of them share a certain aura of conventionality. I grew exasperated during the film’s forced final act and caught myself considering that maybe there is a light romantic comedy to be made between Vee and Tommy’s friendship.
★★ / ★★★★
Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) have just moved into their new home and are ecstatic to raise their newborn baby girl in it. Just about everything is going right, aside from occasional concerns that they might have lost their youth and sense of fun, until a fraternity moves in right next door. Mac and Kelly are horrified, but they decide to “play it cool.” After all, they were young and in college once. So, they approach the president of the frat, Teddy (Zac Efron), and make sure all of them start off on the right foot. They do… temporarily. Then the loud partying begins.
You know you’re getting old when you start rooting for the parents more than the college students who just want to have some fun. “Neighbors,” written by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien, offers more than handful funny individual lines and exchanges, but it is far from a comedy that will stand the test of time, the kind that dares to set a standard. It is passable as light entertainment—nothing more—and there is nothing wrong with that if that is what one was looking for.
I enjoyed the performances as a whole especially Rogen and Byrne who play characters that consider themselves as “hip” mentally but their bodies say otherwise. They are convincing as parents who raise a child together, making a lot of mistakes along the way, and craving for some peace and quiet at the end of the day. Because it is relatively easy to buy into their characters, more due to the actors’ charm than a well-written characterization, Mac and Kelly’s efforts to shut down the fraternity becomes a good source of entertainment. There are few lines they are willing to cross to beat the beer-drinking, pot-smoking college students.
Efron and Dave Franco, the latter playing Pete as the frat’s vice president, also share good chemistry. And like Rogen and Byrne’s characters, these two are also thinly written although the effort is clearly there. I liked that the writers make Teddy and Pete nice guys in general. Sure, in reality, there are frat guys who are plain jerks, but from my personal experience, the guys that I met in college who happen to be in a frat are more like Teddy and Pete. You can approach, talk to, and joke around with them without them having to make you feel bad for not being in their circle of bros.
The greatest limitation of the film, directed by Nicholas Stoller, is its relatively stagnant screenplay. It fails to move beyond two neighbors attempting to get the upper hand. Is the point to show that Mac and Kelly, despite having a house and kid, do have some key similarities with their fun-loving neighbors? It would appear so. But such a message is obvious. Discerning viewers will easily recognize this less than halfway through and the rest becomes repetitive.
A dramatic shift in the latter half might have elevated the material. The two leaders of the fraternity should have been key to create a dramatic pull. First, Pete looking forward to starting his career outside of college. Second, Teddy’s fears that he might have peaked. During the Career Fair scene, a man who works for AT&T tells Teddy that they are not interested in considering to hire someone who is dumb. Efron may not be the most versatile actor—yet—but why not explore those fears a bit more?
The answer is, like in most mainstream comedies, to keep the laughs going. It is less of a risk to try to be funny consistently even if it does not feel right for the material than to switch it up suddenly and really surprise the audience, to give them something they did not expect coming into the picture. Such is the definition of average: no more, no less.
Warm Bodies (2013)
★ / ★★★★
“Otto; or Up with Dead People,” written and directed by Bruce LaBruce, explores a male zombie slowly coming to life, experiencing feelings and thoughts of what makes someone human. It is smart enough to remain vague until the closing credits. Either Otto is literally dead and is lucky enough to have achieved a second life or he is a figurative zombie all along, eventually jolted into choosing to live more actively by not simply allowing life to happen to him. Though it has its limitations, it shows a depth of potential. I was optimistic that a movie with a similar premise would come along and get more things right.
“Warm Bodies” is not the movie that I am waiting for. Since it lacks a willingness to fully establish and stay within the boundaries of its universe’s rules, everything within the scope of the petri dish comes off silly and, even for a fantasy, unbelievable. If anything can happen at anytime and anywhere like a zombie magically turning human, humans might as well turn into zombies magically–without getting bitten, being infected by zombie blood, or inhaling pathogens in the air. It is not enjoyable because instead of being enveloped in the story, our minds–or at least mine because I like to think about what I am seeing–are too busy asking questions and connecting the dots.
Perhaps there is a reason why zombies do not speak. Not for once did I believe that R (Nicholas Hoult) really is a zombie. Instead, I saw an actor plastered with makeup who is trying really hard to play an undead. It is not Hoult’s fault; he is capable of controlling the emotions on his face–especially his eyes–and body. The problem is the script. It allows him to speak too much while disregarding rules it sets up for itself along the way. Isn’t the nervous narration in his head enough?
R is less like a zombie and more like Tarzan. In earlier scenes, he speaks in one or two words. For example, instead of saying, “I want water because I’m thirsty,” it is likely that he will say, “Water. Thirsty.” As the film goes on, he is able to utter full phrases like “I told you it’s not safe.” The problem is, after we hear him communicate in complete sentences, he reverts to speaking in single words in one scene and then full phrases the next. Sometimes he speaks slowly, other times quickly. The lack of consistency with his language is as irritating and maddening as hearing nails scraping on a chalkboard.
I will not even get into R, who is supposed to be dead, breathing heavily after performing a strenuous activity. In direct contrast with scenes in which he is required to run a good distance, he does not breathe afterwards at all.
The romance between R and Julie (Teresa Palmer), which is the fulcrum of the story, is painful to watch. While the idea of someone who is dead and hungry for fresh brains and someone who is alive falling in love is akin to a shark approaching a person splashing about and the two of them becoming best friends, I was ready to buy into what they have. However, pop songs are often employed to speed things up. When it comes to establishing a romance, taking shortcuts is almost never a good idea.
The screenplay by Jonathan Levine, who also directed the film, exhibits no patience and seems to have no knowledge on how to build a believable friendship, let alone a relationship of a romantic nature. If both R and Julie were living in a world with no zombies, just two souls connecting, I still would not believe what they eventually end up having. They are bland while apart, especially Julie, and deadly dull when together.
The best portion of “Warm Bodies,” based on a novel by Isaac Marion, involves the flashbacks that R experiences after eating the brain of Julie’s boyfriend (Dave Franco). Though it fails from a technical standpoint–if what R is seeing is a memory, he (and we) should be seeing the images through the eyes of the dead boyfriend and not as a third person observer–there is an interesting story, a personal one, embedded in those memories. However, when taken together, it is only about two to three minutes in duration. Finally, Julie’s friend, Nora (Analeigh Tipton), does not get enough lines or screen time. Tipton plays Nora as funny, interesting, and full of life–the very qualities that the movie desperately lacks.
21 Jump Street (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
After graduating from a police academy, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), current best buds but former high school nerd and jock, respectively, thought their career would be as exciting as a fast-paced action movie. A bucket of cold water to the face, their first assignment turned out to be patrolling a public park, tedious and unchallenging until a possible drug bust that could give them a promotion. When the duo finally apprehended one of the drug-dealing bikers, Jenko had forgotten to read the perp’s Miranda rights. Due to their incompetence and immaturity, as a form of punishment, Schmidt and Jenko were assigned by their captain to infiltrate drug dealers in a high school and find their supplier. “21 Jump Street,” based on the screenplay by Michael Bacall, made me laugh, although not consistently, so there was no denying that the comedy was there. However, when the jokes were not the centerpiece and the film focused on the investigation involving the drug that killed one of the students (Johnny Simmons), there was a dearth of ingenuity in Schmidt and Jenko’s procedures. It seemed as though they only happened to stumble upon pieces of information which may or may not relate to their assignment. I got the sense that the writer, never the characters, was the one putting the pieces together. This was disappointing because we were eventually supposed to believe that Jenko and Schmidt were ready for real police work. I was far from convinced. If I was watching a comedy show, I would be ecstatic to be entertained by them. They were sarcastic in just the right moments but it was obvious that they were good-natured guys. But if I was a person who actually needed help or was a victim of a crime, I would be very worried that the job, delivering justice and the like, wouldn’t be performed expediently. Furthermore, Jenko and Schmidt’s relationship did not have an interesting arc. I liked that the writing was cursory in glancing through their sort-of rivalry when they were in high school. It wasn’t necessary that we got to see how much of an outcast Schmidt was nor did we have to see Jenko being the cool hunk. What I expected, however, was getting a real sense of the ugly details of their past once they returned to high school. I waited for good reasons why Schmidt and Jenko acted the way they did once they were, in a way, transported to their past. Instead, it relied too much on Schmidt wanting so desperately to be cool, pretty much becoming a lapdog of Eric (Dave Franco), the kid they were supposed to watch in suspicion that he was directly related to the source of the drug in question, and Jenko hanging out with the nerdy Chemistry guys. What the film lacked was not only a genuine connection between its protagonists but how that connection was challenged and transformed so that they could become better friends and, perhaps more importantly, reliable partners out in the field when things got really tough. The chase scenes in “21 Jump Street,” directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, were enjoyable, at their best when they poked fun of other action flicks. While Hill and Tatum seemed game to banter and get into all sorts of physical humor, without the relatable pieces to support the punchlines, the picture was only mildly and inconsistently entertaining.
Fright Night (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Charley (Anton Yelchin) used to be a dweeb. His former best friend was Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a complete nerd whose hobbies consisted of dressing up and role playing. Charley’s recent surge to popularity earned him a girlfriend, Amy (Imogen Poots), and much cooler but insensitive guy friends (Dave Franco, Reid Ewing). Ed had a growing suspicion: that Charley’s new neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell), was vampire and he was responsible for their classmates’ sudden disappearances. Charley didn’t take Ed seriously. He thought Ed’s suspicion was a sad cry for them to be friends again. That is, up until Ed failed to show up to class the next day. “Fright Night,” written by Marti Noxon and Tom Holland, was a fast-paced vampire film, set in the suburbs of Las Vegas, equipped with modern twists to keep us interested. The characters were likable even though they weren’t always smart. We knew Charley was a well-meaning young adult because he considered and questioned if he was doing the right thing. The checkpoint that went off in his head was his best quality, but it was also what Jerry tried to exploit. The predator must exploit its prey’s weaknesses. There were predictable elements in the picture. For instance, we expected the characters who chose to run upstairs to hide from the blood-thirsty vampire to never make it out of the house alive. And they didn’t. Maybe they didn’t deserve to. After all, with all the references thrown in the air, the teens must’ve seen a vampire movie or two prior to being vamp food. However, the writing was self-aware of the conventions and it wasn’t afraid to throw allusions to the original film, vampire movies, and literature. Though the expected happened, I felt as though it was more concerned with giving the audiences a good time. I loved its somewhat elliptical storytelling. The rising action was often interrupted by a mini-climax. The drawn-out set-up of investigating, hiding, being hunted, and escaping worked quite effectively. By giving us small but fulfilling rewards, it kept us wondering what would happen next. Still, the story could have used more character development. Charley’s mom (Toni Collette) felt like a cardboard cutout of an unaware parent. She knew her son had unique interests but to not question him seriously when their neighbor seemed to have a genuine complaint in terms of privacy being breached felt too convenient. Charley’s mom seemed like a tough woman but she wasn’t given room to grow. What the film needed less was of the self-described vampire expert/magician named Peter Vincent (David Tennant). Obviously, he was necessary for comic relief. I laughed at his ridiculousness, but what I had a difficult time accepting was the fact that he could survive a vampire attack multiple times. His backstory was sloppily handled. I commend “Fright Night,” directed by Craig Gillespie, for taking the original as an inspiration and telling a different kind of story. Its flaws didn’t matter as much because it had fun. It sure is more interesting than a shot-for-shot remake of the original which most likely would have forced us to ask why they even bothered.
Charlie St. Cloud (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Charlie St. Cloud (Zac Efron) had a passion for sailing and was a great role model for his younger brother named Sam (Charlie Tahan). On the night of Charlie’s graduation, their mom (Kim Basinger) took an extra shift at work so Charlie was assigned to babysit. Wanting to say goodbye to his friends before they head off to the army (one of which was played by Dave Franco), Charlie and Sam got into a car accident on the way to the party. Charlie was revived by a paramedic (Ray Liotta) but Sam passed away right after impact. I highly enjoyed the first half of the picture. Watching the two brothers was moving for me because I’ve always wanted a brother who was around eight years younger than I am so I could guide him to be the best person he can be and not make the same mistakes as I did. Efron did a good job playing a character who was so deep in grief to the point where he gave up his scholarship to Stanford and instead worked in a cemetery for five years since the tragic incident. Since the brothers made a pact to meet every day to practice baseball, Charlie couldn’t find it in himself to break that promise. I thought it was Efron’s best adult performance up to this point. Unfortunately, the film pulled a twist somewhere in the middle that threw logic out the window. I am aware that it wasn’t completely the filmmakers’ fault because it was based on Ben Sherwood’s novel called “The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud,” but I think changes from the original story should have come into play. After the twist was revealed, I thought the whole situation was just creepy and could have been a mediocre episode of “The X-Files” at best. Another issue I had with the movie was the fact that it showed Charlie and the ghost of Sam separately in some scenes. I thought that was a big mistake made by the filmmakers because the ghost was supposed to be a metaphor for Charlie’s grief and the fact that he blamed himself for the car crash. Every meeting was supposed to be an exercise of mirroring Charlie’s grief onto himself. To show the two apart suggested that the ghost actually existed. “Charlie St. Cloud,” directed by Burr Steers, sometimes verged on melodrama but I liked the performances in general. However, I wish Basinger had more scenes as the mother and Liotta as a dying ex-paramedic. Their experience in acting and strong cinematic presence could have benefited the picture in terms of tying together some loose ends. For instance, why did the mother move away and left her obviously troubled son to work at a place where his younger brother was buried? The best dramas are all about details. I couldn’t help but feel as though this movie took a more convenient path.
After Sex (2007)
★★ / ★★★★
“After Sex,” written and directed by Eric Amadio, took a sneak peek at what several couples talked about right after having sex. The couples were diverse in terms of sexual orientation, race and outlook on life which was a good thing because audiences could undoubtedly relate to at least one character. Out of the eight couples, three worked for me. Perhaps the best was with Zoe Saldana as a lesbian and Mila Kunis as a proud heterosexual who was unafraid to experiment. Maybe it was their strong acting (compared to the rest of the cast) but there was something very real about the chemistry between them. The differences in their characters was not what defined their scenes but the subtle similarities and curiosities they had about each other. In return, their scene was sexy, smart and very relatable. The second scene I liked featured Dave Franco and Natalie Marston as friends who decided to lose their virginity to each other. It was arguably the cutest vignette; they may not have anything particularly deep to say to each other because they haven’t yet experienced life but it worked because it embodied real innocence which the other storylines lacked. Lastly, I thought the funniest one was a discussion between Timm Sharp and James DeBello about gay relationships and there having to be a “bitch” and a “butch” in order for it to work. Their rapid-fire exchange was not only very funny but it also felt real. I could imagine myself talking like the way they did to my closest friends. Out of the eight, Sharp and DeBello’s scene was the one I had the most fun with and I even caught myself laughing out loud. Unfortunately, the other five did not quite reach their full potential. While I thought the bit about the college frat boy’s (Noel Fisher) first experience with another man (Tanc Sade) was at times touching, in the end it was preachy and it did not make me think beyond the obvious. The worst was probably the two older folks talking about fisting and the “good old times.” Not only was it very awkward but it did not make much sense. It was unfortunate because the director could have used them as an argument in terms of how it was like to be in a relationship with someone for years and years and still remain friends/in love because the other storylines were more about younger people barely knowing each other. “After Sex” was a mixed bag but it had some good moments that felt natural. While the title might suggest skin and, well, sex, it was really more about one’s definition of a relationship and identity–which is a good quality because it did not settle with the obvious. In its own way, “After Sex” was quite tasteful and not as awkward as it could have been. (But that does not mean you should watch it with your parents.)