Freaks of Nature (2015)
★★ / ★★★★
Sci-fi horror-comedy “Freaks of Nature,” based on the screenplay by Oren Uziel and directed by Robbie Pickering, offers a general approach of satirizing movies with zombies, vampires, or aliens where such creatures wreck havoc in a small town and the day must be saved by hormonal high school students, preferably outcasts within their own cliques. Although the premise is amusing for the most part—and it offers a few fresh ideas—the satire is never sharp enough to be specific or powerful enough to serve as a strong statement piece about the marginalized. These creatures are metaphors after all.
What it gets exactly right, however, is the special effects and makeup. The opening scene grabs the audiences by employing slow motion and freeze frames to showcase how a mob of blood-thirsty vampires, brain-hungry zombies, and desperate humans look. A lot of effort is put into giving us a range of looks, from the menacing to the ridiculous. The chaos and violence are immediately convincing and so we look forward to learning how the relatively peaceful Dillford, home of the riblets, have been reduced to pandemonium.
The script takes its time to establish the three protagonists: Dag (Nicholas Braun), a baseball player who is head over heels in love with a classmate (Vanessa Hudgens) who is not interested in him romantically, Petra (Mackenzie Davis), who looks forward to losing her virginity with a boyfriend (Ed Westwick) who happens to be a vampire, and Ned (Josh Fadem), an intellectual who clashes with his knucklehead family. The dialogue hits sitcom-like levels once in a while, but it helps that just about each scene is an attempt to move the plot forward. Many horror-comedies where teenagers are faced with supernatural or extraterrestrial situations tend to just sit there and let the visual effects do the work.
One gets the impression that at times the filmmakers try to cram too much during its ninety-minute running time. As a result, some scenes come across as rushed or underdeveloped, especially those that aim to highlight a teen’s relationship with his parents or how the protagonists learn to relate with one another. And because the relationships are often superficial, the jokes, especially ones that knock someone personally, are not as funny as they should be. Also, some of the jokes become quite repetitive. We get it: Dag has a history of not always being able to control his bodily functions.
“Freaks of Nature” is enjoyable and engaging for more than half of its running time because it actually offers a few neat ideas, but it is obviously limited by its form of media. Imagine this story told in a six-episode mini-series. Retain the exact tone and feel of this particular bonkers universe, but iron out the teenage angst of being an outsider and living in a small town where humans, vampires, and zombies have learned—more or less—to co-exist. If it had more time to grow and develop, it is likely that its charm would have been exponentially greater.
Get a Job (2016)
★★ / ★★★★
The comedy “Get a Job,” by director Dylan Kidd, has the potential to make a true and lasting statement about the millennial generation and the real struggles involved in finding a well-paying, stable job right out of university. It is a major disappointment then that the picture often goes in the direction of lame-brained comedy, sacrificing intelligent and precise commentary about what is wrong with the current job market for millennials as well as what is wrong about the subjects themselves—generally speaking, the unchecked attitudes and unrealistic expectations, for instance—while still delivering the requisite comic punches.
Miles Teller and Anna Kendrick, playing Will and Jillian, respectively, are a couple who landed good jobs before college graduation. The focal point is Will and during his first day at the LA Times, he is informed that there is no position for him after all due to recent job cuts within the company over the summer. With the rent due in a few days, he feels an extreme pressure to get a job—any job—during the transitory phase. Meanwhile, Will’s friends (Nicholas Braun, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Brandon T. Jackson) and girlfriend face their own battles with snagging and keeping a coveted position.
There are two great decisions in the film. The first invokes the question of why millennials, generally speaking, tend to have a sense of entitlement so powerful that they feel they deserve to get a career they’ve always dreamed about right after college. And when they don’t get what they want, why is it that there is usually an overall feeling of insurmountable or crippling failure that prevents said individuals from bouncing back and trying much harder to go after what they want. This is partly but only superficially answered in a subplot involving one of Will’s friends, Charlie the chemistry teacher.
The screenplay by Kyle Pennekamp and Scott Turpel ought to have given more time to allow Charlie’s story to grow and evolve especially because the character has direct access to youths. I found it disappointing that the children are not allowed to say or express anything that may be considered too risky although such claims may hold a grain truth. There are very smart children out there and they are written as too passive in this film. Instead, the material would rather rely on a running joke that Charlie smokes a lot of weed and yet he is a teacher—like it is supposed to be ironic.
The second involves Will’s father, Roger, having separated from a career he so valued, there is a moment in the film where he confesses to his son that sometimes he loved his job more than he loved anybody else—including his family. I appreciated that honesty because it points to what is wrong about the American culture of productivity and how the culture can shift our priorities. When Roger’s job is taken away, he is adrift and Bryan Cranston plays the character with tragic realism. The performer overcomes a limited script by highlighting humanism over comedy. He may not be in control of how the character is written but he has control of how the character is portrayed. I wanted to know more about Will’s father.
It is sad and outrageous that the rest of the film tries too hard to become a mainstream comedy where feel-good messages triumphs over difficult truths and realities. “Get a Job” could have really made an impact and appealed to its subject if it had been completely true to the subject at hand. That is, it is a tough life after college and the paper given to you during graduation may not actually mean anything. By avoiding to tell specific and difficult truths, the film, while tolerable, turns into mere afterthought.
Date and Switch (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
Matty (Hunter Cope) and Michael (Nicholas Braun), high school seniors and best friends since childhood, vow to lose their virginity on prom night. It is only then that they are allowed to feast on the “special” brownies they made the night they broke up with their respective girlfriends (Dakota Johnson, Sarah Hyland). But Matty has something to tell Mike. Much to the latter’s surprise, Matty turns out to be gay—even if he is slightly out of shape and loves to wear cargo shorts.
“Date and Switch,” written by Alan Yang and directed by Chris Nelson, is amusing and silly even though the actors do not resemble high school students and some of the situations feel as if they are taken right off a mediocre sitcom. I enjoyed it for two reasons. First, it is nice to see a coming out story where the character who turns out to be gay very rarely matches gay stereotypes. Second, the fulcrum of the movie is, surprisingly, not Matty but Michael, the friend who is well-meaning but ill-equipped to handle change.
Though the performers do a good job in general, there are times when it is near impossible to not notice their age. For example, when Braun and Cope walk down the hallways of the high school and the camera rests on random high school students’ faces and then back to the leads, the age difference is significant and distracting. We are taken out of the moment for a period of time and so when a dramatic scene occurs within the next ten to fifteen minutes, we are reminded that we are watching a performance. Thus, an otherwise well-written scene comes off false at times.
There are ironic touches where the screenplay is wise not to push too hard. For instance, in his attempt to support his friend for being gay, Michael is the one who ends up having more fun in gay bars and clubs. The situational comedy works on top of Matty and Michael’s appearance. I decided to watch the film without knowing much about it other than one friend coming out to another. I expected Michael to be the one who was gay. To further poke fun of this, there is a running joke—executed in a slow burn approach in order to really highlight the our feelings of being uncomfortable—involving Michael’s father (Nick Offerman) being convinced that his son is sexually attracted to other guys.
I found it refreshing that the movie does not result to Matty realizing eventually that he has romantic feelings for his best friend. Instead, the two of them have special someones even though there are moments when it gets… somewhat complicated. I wished, however, that Greg (Zach Cregger), Matty’s potential boyfriend, had gotten more screen time. Though we recognize the characteristics that make him a good match for Matty initially, what else is there to him? He utters a line or two about his past—one that involves anger issues as well as how certain people reacted when he came out of the closet—but he still does not feel like a whole person divorced from what Matty sees in him.
Another strength of “Date and Switch” is how comfortable it is to show male friendship even if it is rooted on silliness and dorky-ness. The screenplay refrains from pushing every joke to the point where it is only funny because the situation has gotten awkward. As a result, though not every attempt at humor works, it is never boring and it is consistently pleasant. When Michael and Matty hit rough patches, we want them to find a way to forgive—even though it might be difficult—and be friends again.
Red State (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
A dead teen was found in the dumpster at the back of the town’s most popular gay bar. It was reported that he was wrapped in plastic from head to toe and authorities believed that it was some form of ritualistic murder. Despite these happenings, Travis (Michael Angarano), Jarod (Kyle Gallner), and Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) accepted an online sex ad posted by an older lady (Melissa Leo) on Craigslist. As they headed to the trailer home’s bedroom, the trio lost consciousness. Their bodies were taken to a church by a group of religious zealots, led by Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), to be “punished” for their sins. “Red State,” written and directed by Kevin Smith, was brutal, intense, and sometimes devoid of reason. I think it was meant to incite frustration and anger with the religious extremists’ talk of hatred toward homosexuals, how that one group of people was responsible for the world going to hell. It wasn’t easy to watch, not because of the violence, but because for at least fifteen minutes, we were forced to sit in that church and listen to Abin Cooper summoning fire and brimstone, even implying that the tsunami that ravaged Thailand in 2004 was not only an act of God in order to set an example but it was actually deserved. I was in rage, in a red state, if you will, because in the back of my mind, I knew people like them existed somewhere. I admired the writer-director’s decision to allow the story’s exposition to take up almost half of the picture’s running time. It was necessary that we understood the evil within that church before we were introduced to Joseph Keenan (John Goodman), who was called to arrest the cult members for suspicion of illegally storing firearms, because we were asked to weigh between right and wrong. Sure, the adult cult members needed to be apprehended, preferably dead according to Keenan’s superiors, but there were also children and minors inside. Not all of them were innocent; they, the teens, knew that people were being taken and killed, but none of them had actually partaken in the physical act of taking and killing. However, it didn’t expunge the fact that they ignored their moral responsibility to report a crime. What didn’t work as strongly were the shootout scenes. They dragged for what seemed like an hour. I understood that governmental law and the word of God were literally at war but it eventually started to feel like an action film. Following Keenan as he searched for a kill shot was less exciting than what was happening inside the church. I preferred watching Goodman connecting with someone else, whether it be face-to-face or via cellphone. His pauses, stutters, and variation in voice implied great experience in law enforcement and I was so fascinated with what he was going to do next. His speech regarding a pair of bloodhounds toward the end was brilliantly executed and it summed up the crazy, somewhat otherworldly happenings up to that point. “Red State” defied the conventions of the horror genre. Instead of focusing on the gore to entertain, using violence as a tool, it made a statement about religion and politics: sometimes the two make no sense at all.