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.

Movie Review ~ We’re the Millers

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A veteran pot dealer creates a fake family as part of his plan to move a huge shipment of weed into the U.S. from Mexico.

Stars: Jennifer Aniston, Jason Sudeikis, Emma Roberts, Nick Offerman, Kathryn Hahn, Will Poulter, Ed Helms

Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Though the preview for We’re the Millers had some decent laughs in it, I was still sitting squarely on the fence when it came time to take in this cross country comedy.  If it was merely going to be a series of open road foibles then why couldn’t I just stay home and watch National Lampoon’s Vacation for the umpteenth time?  Then a strong desire to see a gleefully R-rated film overtook me and I found myself laughing more than I thought I would at a movie that’s better than it should be.

Making a strong showing in his years on Saturday Night Live, Jason Sudekis (The Campaign) hasn’t quite cracked the Hollywood code up to this point so I was surprised to see how confidentially he carried this film.  As a run-of-the-mill small time drug dealer, Sudekis has a believable charm that helps him navigate a very thin first act that finds him running afoul of a dorky drug kingpin (Ed Helms, The Hangover Part III) and being forced into smuggling drugs from Mexico back to Denver.  To do that, he enlists the help of a stripper (Jennifer Aniston, Wanderlust), a nebbish teen (Will Poulter), and a scrappy homeless girl (Emma Roberts).  As the Millers they make it easy into Mexico but, as is expected, find there’s a rough road ahead on the way back.

Look, this set-up isn’t going to blow your mind and if you can’t see where it’s all headed then you need to have your eyes examined.  What makes the film work on some mystical level is that it has its head in the right place and its heart following close behind.  Director Rawson Marshall Thurber’s last notable cinematic effort was nearly a decade ago with 2004’s odious Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and this film is leaps and bounds better.  Dodgeball was a stinker because it didn’t know what to do with its crude and crass trump cards (it didn’t help that it was appallingly homophobic) but We’re the Millers seems to have the deck stacked in its favor.

So yes, the movie earns its R rating with f-bombs a plenty, tons of sexual innuendo and a bit of graphic nudity that actually gets the laughs so many films miss out on but it’s also enjoyably funny in a harmless way.  That’s thanks to chemistry between Sudekis and Aniston – chemistry that’s been sorely missing in other Aniston-led films.  Credit must also go to supporting performers like Kathryn Hahn (The Dictator) that at times threaten to steal the movie out from under our stars.  Hahn works her way through the script by Bob Fisher, Steve Faber, Sean Anders, and John Morris and makes some trivial material hysterically funny (make sure to stay through the end credits for more of Hahn’s genius).  Hot on her heels is Nick Offerman as her square husband that gradually reveals a kinky side.  Poulter and Roberts too fit in nicely with the more established comedic stars.

Sure, if you think too hard about it you’re going to find the film has its shortcomings (like how Aniston is a stripper in a club where conveniently no one gets naked) but they are small road blocks on an otherwise well-made and agreeable journey.  It’s not a movie I’d pay full price for but it’s worth the matinee rates or at least a rental down the road.

The Silver Bullet ~ We’re the Millers

were_the_millers

Synopsis: A veteran pot dealer creates a fake family as part of his plan to move a huge shipment of weed into the U.S. from Mexico.

Release Date:  August 9, 2013

Thoughts: Attempting to shed her Friends image yet again, Jennifer Aniston (Wanderlust) dives headfirst into this black comedy as a stripper that gets involved with a pot dealer, agreeing to pose as his wife along with two other phoney balonies that are to be their children.  Director Rawson Marshall Thurber has a great name but a spotty track record when it comes to successful movies so this could go either way.  Bonus points go for a trailer that has some nice laughs and a cast that I’m interested to see go all the way with this type of material.