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.

The Visit

VisitDirector: M. Night Shyamalan

Screenwriter: M. Night Shyamalan

Cast: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, and Kathryn Hahn

After 2002’s Signs, a director named M. Night Shyamalan went into a tailspin the likes of which have not been seen since, well, the star of Signs, Mel Gibson.  Of course, Shyamalan’s tailspin was creative in nature, while Gibson’s was…well the opposite.  Six films have borne the Shyamalan name since 2002, each literally worse than the previous.  Fast forward to 2015.  Fox airs a little “event” series on Thursday nights called Wayward Pines adapted, produced, and occasionally directed by Shyamalan that aired over the summer and ended up being a modest hit.  Now with The Visit, Shyamalan strikes while the iron’s hot, delivering his best film in 13 years and combined with Wayward Pines, successfully reminding us of what a talent he really is.

The Visit represents both a return to form as well as a departure for the eccentric director.  First, after multiple flops in the science fiction genre, Shyamalan returns to what put him on the map – scares.  However, no doubt inspired by his producing partners Blumhouse Productions – the company that produced Paranormal Activity– this is Shyamalan’s first “found footage” style film.  Like mockumentary television comedies, I think the sun is quickly setting on the “found footage horror film,” but Shyamalan manages to pull it off here with a personally financed lightning fast production that took 25 crew members 30 days to shoot.

The Visit follows Becca (Olivia DeJonge) as she determines to film a documentary about her and her brother Tyler’s (Ed Oxenbould) first encounter with their estranged grandparents whom they’ve never met.  Now adolescents, Becca and Tyler have finally decided to start a dialogue with their mother, Paula (Kathryn Hahn) that revealed a mysterious falling out had occurred between Paula and her parents.  Consequently, Becca forces her mother to arrange a visit so that she and Tyler can finally meet their grandparents, with a covert agenda that Paula can take a much deserved cruise with her serious boyfriend, Robert (Benjamin Kanes).

Becca and Tyler get their wish and with video camera in hand, they arrive by train somewhere in rural Pennsylvania, greeted by grandparents John (Peter McRobbie), and Dorris (Deanna Dunagan).  Becca and Tyler are driven to their grandparents’ isolated farmhouse where they expect to spend a week getting to know each other and making family memories.  On the surface, all seems to be on the up and up, except for two rules John and Dorris have for the kids: 1.  Don’t go in the basement and 2.  Don’t leave your room after 9:30 PM.  These two rules act as the catalyst for the film’s simple yet unrelenting tension.  What’s outside the bedroom door?  What’s that sound?  What’s in the basement?  You’ll have to see the film to find out.

The Visit capitalizes on simple, primal fear.  It is a potboiler that while effective, still does not quite measure up when compared to Shyamalan’s early work.  However, the film is a major step in the right direction for the auteur who like his Sixth Sense protagonist, was in danger of permanently fading from the public eye (and don’t give me that spoiler alert garbage, it was 1999!).  As a critic, The Visit does little to affect my annual lament about the lack of inspired, diverse, original content in the horror genre.  Still, it does offer some good scares and a reasonably effective twist.  Also Oxenbould is fantastic as the younger brother, Tyler.  The infusion of humor that Tyler’s character brings to the film is perhaps its greatest achievement.  While most horror films tend to feel like clones of others, The Visit does attempt to cross genres not unlike the Evil Dead sequels or Gremlins.  Shyamalan still has something left to prove, but now at least we’re much more interested in watching him try.  B

The Visit is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 34 minutes.    

The Conjuring

ImageOne of the best things you can say about a horror movie is simply this: it’s scary.  In January, I wrote a short discussion on the horror genre masked as a review of Mama.  I have chosen to foolishly assume that my small blog post has single handedly reminded filmmakers and studios of the potential effect creative horror films can have.  The Conjuring is scary.

Strangely enough, the man who revitalized the exploitative “torture-porn” style of horror with his 2004 film Saw is now looking to do the very same thing to the classic horror style that films like Saw all but demolished.  James Wan helms the efficaciously eerie film, The Conjuring which tells the true story of two paranormal investigators who agree to help a family whose house may be infested with a demonic presence in 1970s New England.

From the Exorcist inspired main titles, The Conjuring is off and running.  We are introduced to paranormal investigators Ed and Loraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) as they hear out potential clients explaining a feared demonic infestation by way of inhabitation of a very disturbing looking doll.  We discover that Ed is a demonologist who while not ordained is still accepted among the Catholic church and his wife Lorainne is a clairvoyant, both with many successful cases behind them.  After this introduction, we are informed that the true story that follows details the most horrifying case that the Warrens have ever encountered.  The film’s structure then fragments into a dual narrative where we simultaneously follow the Warrens as well as the frightening events that lead a family to seek them out.

This dual narrative is an excellent choice for Wan to keep the scares coming as well as inform the audience to what is happening while not losing track of either the Warrens or the Perron family’s decent from infestation to oppression and ultimately to possession.  The story of a family bothered by something extra-terrestrial is not as fresh of an idea as it once was, but Wan’s simple techniques like a quick focus  or a back and forth camera pan offer terrifying results.  Additionally, the Parron family is quite large composed of Roger (Ron Livingston), Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and their five daughters.  This allows the danger to feel more real and their options to seem more limited while the terror is more expansive.  Furthermore, the appearance of a bouncing ball, a creaking door, or a quick clap provides some of the best scares in recent horror history without feeling cheap or cut-rate.  Not since the first Paranormal Activity have ghostly scares been so effective, but unlike Paranormal Activity, the scares in The Conjuring do not necessarily come with the forewarning of a timestamp on a video camera.

Reviewing a good horror film is an art in itself as quite a bit must remain unsaid, but enough must be said to entice the reader to see it.  James Wan has created a horror film that appeals to a nostalgic retro vibe that calls back to the monumentally creepy films of the 70s like The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and Don’t Look Now.  I first saw The Exorcist at age 17 on home video on a sunny afternoon and it still scared the ever-loving shit out of me.  I can say that The Conjuring provided me with the closest experience to that in a long time.  I’m sure it will be quite a while before I decide to watch The Conjuring alone at night.  A-       

The Conjuring is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 52 minutes.