Movie Review ~ Daniel Isn’t Real


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A troubled college freshman, Luke, suffers a violent family trauma and resurrects his childhood imaginary friend Daniel to help him cope.

Stars: Patrick Schwarzenegger, Miles Robbins, Sasha Lane, Hannah Marks, Mary Stuart Masterson, Chukwudi Iwuji

Director: Adam Egypt Mortimer

Rated: NR

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: There were times when I envied people who talked about their imaginary friend when they were growing up.  Having that special person they could converse with and share secrets sounded kind of fun…a little wacky, but fun.  I wanted to know what these “friends” looked like, were they human, did they age along with you, did they go everywhere with you?  What about when you wanted a moment to yourself?  As an only child, I wondered why I didn’t automatically get one of these because I didn’t have the built-in playmate that a sibling often brings but, sadly, I was left to my own creative ways to pass the time.  Probably for the best…I got into enough trouble on my own.  Mom and Dad, sorry again for all of my shenanigans.

In movies, imaginary friends have been featured in romps like 1996’s trite Bogus and, most famously, in 1991’s Drop Dead Fred which was filmed in my hometown (Minneapolis, MN) and showcased one of the last onscreen appearances of everyone’s dreamgirl of the ‘80s, Phoebe Cates.  Drop Dead Fred was a mischievous imp that got our leading lady into all sorts of trouble but ultimately had her best interest at heart.  He may have royally wrecked her life at the outset but it was all for the best.  In the new psychological thriller Daniel Isn’t Real, a make-believe mate wreaks similar havoc that turns far more sinister the more his true motives are revealed.

Based on a 2009 novel by Brian DeLeeuw, the film has an audacious opening that introduces us to young Luke, showing how he comes to meet up with Daniel at the scene of a violent crime.  (It’s a bit of a shock, especially considering some of the recent headline-making incidents, but it’s a highly effective way to kickstart the movie).  Becoming fast friends in spite of their unique circumstance of meeting, Daniel provides an outlet for Luke to escape the troubles at home where his mother (Mary Stuart Masterson, Fried Green Tomatoes) battles a growing mental illness.  After nearly killing his mother under Daniel’s seemingly benign influence, Luke is finally convinced to lock his friend away in a stately dollhouse where he remains trapped for the next decade.

Now a college freshman struggling with his own issues, Luke (Miles Robbins, Halloween, son of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon) returns to his family home for a visit to find his mother in a downward spiral of schizophrenia.  Under pressure with school, his family, and life in general he turns back to the one time in his life when he felt special, with Daniel.  Unlocking the dollhouse releases Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse), who has aged into a brooding trickster more than willing to help his old friend sort out some of his current problems.  With Daniel’s assistance, Luke aces a quiz he was unprepared for, gets the confidence to talk to a girl he’s been eyeing (Hannah Marks) and even meets another girl (Sasha Lane, Hellboy) that might provide the kind of challenging love and support Daniel could never offer.  This, obviously, won’t do.  The longer Daniel is in Luke’s life the less it feels like he’s his friend and more like he’s haunting him.  As Luke eventually realizes what Daniel really is and what’s he’s up to, it becomes a fight for survival because how can you run from someone that’s a part of you?

There’s some good stuff going on in this adaptation from DeLeeuw (Paradise Hills) and director Adam Egypt Mortimer, especially in the opening half when Daniel is more of an enigma.  These early scenes when Luke is struggling with the realities of life and discussing his problems with his psychiatrist (Chukwudi Iwuji) have a nice snap to them.  Even the introduction of the adult Daniel has its interesting moments, with Schwarzenegger’s acting being just on the right side of hokey to pull off the vapid poser this creation is presenting himself to be.  I also liked any excuse to see Masterson onscreen, she was such a popular presence in the ‘80s that it’s nice to see her transition into the mom phase of her career with this complex type of motherly character.

What doesn’t seem to work for me is a dreary final forty minutes, mostly because it rests on the shoulder of Robbins and Schwarzenegger and, sorry to say it, these progeny of Hollywood royalty aren’t exactly captivating thespians.  Robbins is so non-threatening that he’d be a great person to bring home as a prom date but doesn’t convince when he’s asked to preen and sneer when he’s possessed by Daniel’s persona at one point near the finale.  Same goes for Schwarzenegger who, aside from those out of the gate scenes that work, becomes one-note (a low one) fairly fast.   Together, they’re a fairly dullsome twosome and as their escapades turn more violent, the less interesting the movie becomes because DeLeeuw and Mortimer have telegraphed from the start just how far Daniel is willing to take things.

Still, there’s something to Daniel Isn’t Real that kept it on my mind long after it was over.  This feeling of not being able to get away from a destructive inner demon that nags at you is relatable and I appreciated when DeLeeuw and Mortimer explored those internal struggles.  I mean, it’s sometimes a bit literal but there are moments when the suggestion is more effective than the presentation and that’s what sets this one apart.  There are some elements of The Cell that enter the picture near the end, visuals included, and while the budget can’t quite support those aspirations I appreciated the attempt at keeping our eyes fixed onto something unique.  I wonder what this would have been like with stronger leads, though.  If we don’t care about the character going through this turmoil, what’s the point?

31 Days to Scare ~ Paradise Hills

The Facts:

Synopsis: A mysterious boarding school perfectly reforms wayward girls to fit their surroundings’ exact desires.

Stars: Emma Roberts, Eiza Gonzalez, Awkwafina, Danielle Macdonald, Milla Jovovich, Jeremy Irvine

Director: Alice Waddington

Rated: NR

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: When Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives was first published, in 1972 it came at a time when the women’s liberation movement was starting to gain greater momentum on a national level and the book served as a good reminder that conformity could be downright dangerous.  Adapted as a chilling movie in 1975, the term “Stepford Wife” became a term used to describe a woman who appeared submissive to her spouse – not the nicest of terms.  A 2004 remake tried hard to update the social satire for a different generation in the new millennium but studio tinkering and behind-the-scenes turmoil turned the film into a sour mess.

There’s a whiff of Stepford hanging over the new release Paradise Hills but don’t go looking for extreme similarities between the two because this is better than just another reimagining of that original text.  Written by Nacho Vigalondo and Brian DeLeeuw working from a story by director Alice Waddington, it takes some ideas from Levin but largely cuts its own path in creating a creative narrative.  Waddington, a Spanish artist making her feature directing debut, contributes a highly visual film that doesn’t compensate flair for plot.  It’s artsty-fartsy but still takes time to connect the dots.

Kicking things off with a glam wedding designed to the hilt, Waddington takes some inspiration from Tarsem (The Cell) in her camera movements and attention to details in the foreground and background.  It’s nuptials day for Uma (Emma Roberts, We’re the Millers) and while she smiles, greets her guests and sings a song for her new husband, something doesn’t seem quite right.  Later that evening we’ll find out why but not before flashing back several months to Uma arriving at Paradise, an isolated island she’s been sent to for refusing to marry the man her parents set her up with.  Independent and single-minded, she loves another (Jeremy Irvine, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) and wants to live free from the constraints of her family and societal norms.

Ruled by the Duchess (Milla Jovovich, Zoolander 2), Paradise is a tranquil finishing (more like re-finishing) school wealthy families can send their daughters to if they are in need of a little attitude adjustment.  Maybe they need to lose weight like Chloe (Danielle Macdonald, The East), perhaps they struggle with anxiety disorder like Yu (Awkwafina, The Farewell) or, in the case of famous pop singer Amarna (Eiza Gonzalez, Welcome to Marwen), they could just need a break from mainstream culture.  At first, the courses administered are designed to change their outward appearance but things take a darker turn when the inward feelings are targeted.

As the girls get closer they begin to see the island and its presiding Duchess have a devious plan for them all, one that’s been hidden in the depths of the labyrinthine estate they live in.  When girls start disappearing and the Duchess begins to demonstrate some rather strange behavior that seems to have a direct impact on the island’s flora, Uma leads her new friends in a plan to escape before their nightmare stay in Paradise becomes permanent.  Unable to stay awake through the night to explore what is being kept from them, Uma and Amarna team up to find a way to outwit the authority figures and get to the bottom of what seems to be coming for them.

While not as outright a horror film as I could see it tiptoeing around at times wanting to be, enough of the action is steeped in mystery that you can’t help but feel its occasional electric charge when it uncovers another clue.  The solution is fairly obvious but the answer isn’t as simple as you’d expect.  The performances are strong throughout, with Roberts continuing to hone her skills and improving with each role she takes on.  I especially liked Jovovich playing a quasi-fairy tale queen with a sinister edge.  If this had been made ten years ago, I could easily have seen Jovovich in the Roberts role.  Though hampered by some limitations in budget and issues with follow-through of the intriguing ideas it introduces, it succeeds more than I anticipated it would.