Nerve

nerveDirectors: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman

Screenwriter: Jessica Sharzer

Cast: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade, Miles Heizer, Samira Wiley, and Kimiko Glenn

The first thing Nerve wants you to think is, “This could so happen today.” The second thing Nerve wants you to think is, “Wait a minute…isn’t this happening today?” With the advent of mainstreamed augmented reality video games like Pokémon Go, Nerve strikes, well a nerve!

The film opens with Vee (Emma Roberts) demonstrating to the audience the immersive digital universe that engulfs the teenager. We adopt her perspective as she navigates her computer. We see her surf the Internet, post to her social networks, and carry on a FaceTime conversation with her friend Sydney (Emily Meade) all while trying to draft an email to an Arts School in California that has recently accepted her as a student. The conversation with Sydney introduces the online game called Nerve that encompasses the rest of the film. Sydney invites Vee to be a “Watcher” for her in a virtual game of truth or dare where “Players” all compete to gain Watchers who dictate dares that Players must complete. Players who successfully complete Watchers’ dares, gain money and fame all in a quest to come out on top for a huge pot of cash at the end. Nerve also plays by Fight Club rules in that this game exists in the shadows. All Players and Watchers are sworn not to reveal the game and its goings on to authorities.

Vee’s proclivity for being a wallflower and never taking risks makes her a perfect selection as a Watcher for Sydney, an outgoing and uninhibited foil to Vee. However, after an embarrassing incident at a diner, Vee decides to act rashly and become a Player to prove she’s not so passive. When she accepts a dare to “Kiss a Stranger” she selects a young man named Ian (Dave Franco) who unbeknownst to her is also playing Nerve. When the Watchers see Vee and Ian, they like what they see and start daring them to complete tasks together as a team. Vee is drawn to Ian but also to the attention and excitement, causing her to accept teaming up with Ian.

Of course, nothing is ever what it’s cracked up to be. Vee’s friend Tommy (Miles Heizer) warns Vee that Nerve is dangerous, but she throws caution to the wind as her Watchers begin to add up. What follows is an entertaining and at times fascinating little narrative about fame, technology, and youth culture. Roberts and Franco are actually quite good in the lead roles. They may be closer to 30 than 18, but they play these roles very well. The supporting cast including Heizer, Meade, and Orange is the New Back alums Samira Wiley and Kimiko Glenn are also great. The casting of Juliette Lewis as Vee’ s mother seems like an afterthought, but it’s good to see her take some time off from her band and show up in a movie again!

Directors and best friends, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman make Nerve more vibrant and visually stunning than one would expect from traditional YA fare. The color scheme is laced with neon and feels energetic and vivacious.  Joost is maybe most famous for his installments in the Paranormal Activity franchise as well as the viral sensation Catfish and its subsequent television series.  I do not hesitate to say that Nerve is Joost’s best work by far.

On the other hand, I’ve never been more disappointed in an ending for a movie. Not because it was bad. It was fine. But if the ending was as principled and interesting as everything that came before it, we’d have a much better film.    Oddly, this is another element Nerve shares with Fight Club. Prepare yourself, I’m going to go on a little diatribe about the parallels between Nerve and David Fincher. In my opinion, Fight Club’s ending was so nonsensical, ridiculous, and over-the-top that it negatively impacted everything David Fincher had set up and built before it. Fincher’s film that preceded Fight Club was a film called The Game, coincidentally about an underground immersive game played by unassuming people in the real world. It too was a tense, exciting movie that completely fell apart at the end. Nerve fits right in with the David Fincher model. It is tense, it builds, it is creative, it has some great style, and then BOOM, it gets ridiculous.  Fincher would go on to botch the ending of Panic Room after Fight Club only to finally get an ending right with Zodiac in 2007.  That’s 20 years of bad endings. Joost is a newby, but if you’ve seen Paranormal Activity 3, Paranormal Activity 4, and the film Catfish, you’d see where I’m going with this. David Fincher is awesome; I love his films, but those few bad endings really leave a gash in his filmography for me. I’m not sure if Joost is the next Fincher, but he clearly is influenced by him and should maybe take note that he didn’t burst on the scene with a film like Se7en, so we’re unlikely to wait 20 years for him to make a solid film.

First two-thirds: A-
Last third: C-

Overall grade: B-

Nerve is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes.

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Neighbors

ImageRobert Frost once wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors.” The new Seth Rogan film, Neighbors pokes numerous holes in that philosophical statement and illustrates why Frost’s New Hampshire home was very, very well isolated.

This is not the first comedy film to go by the title Neighbors. In 1981, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi followed up the success of The Blues Brothers with a dark misfire about a suburban man (Belushi) whose life is flipped upside down by his obnoxious neighbor (Aykroyd). The film was a production nightmare and was also the last teaming-up of Belushi and Aykroyd before Belushi’s death. It was also a missed opportunity from a simple and potentially brilliant film idea.

Now, Rogan and co-writer Evan Goldberg seem to have righted a wrong by bringing their signature raunchy wit to their latest production.

Rogan plays Mac Radner, a new father, who with his wife Kelly (Rose Byrne), is trying to adjust to a new responsible life now that the carefree days are behind him. Caring for a newborn proves to have its challenges but none measure up to the challenges of having a fraternity move in to the house next door. Not wanting to be the square neighbors who have to tell the kids to, “Keep it down!” Mac and Kelly decide to play it cool at first and let these frat brothers know that they are still hip and young. They approach fraternity president Teddy (Zac Efron) and awkwardly suggest he and his buddies keep the noise down. Within days, however the frat parties are out of control forcing Mac to call the police and report a noise violation. It may as well have been the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand because it’s an all out war from that point forward.

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Robert Frost’s home in Derry, NH.

Teddy and his band of brothers (including such familiar faces as Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Jerrod Carmichael) pool all of their intellect and creativity and aim it not at academics but at the Radners. Carefully placed air bags, hysterically themed parties, and shenanigans aplenty increase the Radner’s misery and decrease the Radner’s home value, making it impossible for them to move.

But don’t count those Radners out yet. Mac and Kelly, along with their divorced friends Jimmy (Ike Barinholtz) and Paula (Carla Gallo), do not go down without a fight.

Neighbors has the edge, pacing, and cringe-worthy raunch we’ve come to expect from the best of Rogan’s efforts. The jokes are funny, but we may be starting to see Rogan start drawing from the bottom of the well. Much has been made of Rogan transitioning from playing characters who are more juvenile to those who are more mature and adult. This “maturity” seemingly comes along with some retreads or re-purposing of jokes that he has used before. One example would be the interesting biological party trick Dave Franco’s character Pete is able to “produce.” This is identical to the interesting “gift” Jason Mewes’s character Lester is able to “achieve” in Zack and Miri Make a Porno. This is more of an observation than a criticism, but it will be interesting to watch how Rogan “comes of age” as a major player in the world of comedy. What certainly does work for this film is how well suited the rest of the cast is for supporting Rogan and Goldberg’s script. Rose Byrne holds nothing back in her performance as Kelly and with this film as well as her uptight and hilarious turn in Bridesmaids she has become a surprisingly comic actress for one originally so suited to drama. Efron is perfect as Teddy and plays the character with endearing charm compelling the audience to both revere and revile him. Much of the film’s heart is a result of the tumultuous relationship scenes between Efron and Franco. Lastly, the baby (played by twins Elise and Zoey Vargas) is flippin’ adorable!

Neighbors is a top-notch comedy and capitalizes on a simple but brilliant concept. B+

Neighbors is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes. Stay midway through the credits for more scenes of that flippin’ adorable baby!

Now You See Me

 ImageIn 2006’s The Prestige, Michael Caine plays a magician mentor who says, “Making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back.”  In Now You See Me, Caine plays a very different character who in one scene learns this lesson in a very painful way.  Now You See Me is like The Prestige-Lite, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good. 

According to Now You See Me, successful illusions are the result of misdirection and timing. In a summer teeming with sequels, it is refreshing to see an occasional original idea hit the theaters, and it is this misdirection and successful timing that perhaps enhances the appeal of this film.  In one of the year’s most enjoyable opening scenes, four unique illusionists (Jessie Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, and Dave Franco) are drawn together by a mysterious individual who provides them with the blueprints to a spectacular act that only they are capable of performing as a team.  The team, now known as the Four Horsemen, begins performing a series of illusions that involve various heists including the robbery of a major Paris bank.  Ironically, the spoils of these robberies go not to the victors but to the audience of the show!  This Robin Hood-esque form of vigilantism draws the attention of FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) who is given the exceptionally difficult task of proving exactly how the Four Horsemen are guilty of these robberies. 

Casting is by far one of the film’s major attributes.  Eisenberg’s awkward, self-deprecating persona is put aside for one with much stronger bravado; watching him play J. Daniel Atlas is sort of like watching him play Mark Zuckerberg on personality steroids, in other words – kind of great.  Woody Harrelson does a great job as mentalist Merritt McKinney, which he plays kind of like Sherlock Holmes…on personality steroids – so also kind of great.  Dave Franco and Isla Fisher are very effective, but far less central to the film’s development.  Ruffalo and his partner Alma (Mélanie Laurent) are great at revealing the frustration of chasing down the clever illusionists, and Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine expertly provide further dimension to the story by exploring the darker side of “magic’s” purpose.         

Now You See Me has a lot of fun with its premise.  Director, Louis Leterrier packs the film with style and tricks of the trade that keep the story moving and rather captivating.  Leterrier, mostly known for action films like The Incredible Hulk and the first two Transporter films, takes a crack at an ensemble piece where he must balance story with numerous characters – all the while keeping the audience in the dark about the exact motivations of these characters.  He is mostly successful at this, but the film requires a rather high level of suspension of disbelief and some serious overlooking of plot-holes.  It also has a bit of an unevenness to it as Leterrier cannot quite lose his proclivity for action and crowbars a 15 minute car chase smack in the middle of the film.  The scene is brilliantly shot and very exciting, but it also involves virtually none of the film’s main characters and thus, feels a bit superfluous.

Now You See Me is a lot of fun and fortunately, it does not run out of steam at the end.  Too often films like this are all set-up and no delivery, but the ending of Now You See Me is satisfying and very appropriate.  Hopefully, Now You See Me will find an audience and remind movie studios that once in a while an original idea is worth their consideration before they green-light Fast and Furious 12: Where Did I Put My Keys? B+

Now You See Me is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 56 minutes. If you like magic and you like movies and you’ve been looking for a way to make that miserable experience of seeing The Incredible Burt Wonderstone disappear, this is the movie for you!