Movie Review ~ We Are Your Friends

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Caught between a forbidden romance and the expectations of his friends, aspiring DJ Cole Carter attempts to find the path in life that leads to fame and fortune.

Stars: Zac Efron, Wes Bentley, Emily Ratajkowski, Jonny Weston, Shiloh Ferhandez, Alex Shaffer, Jon Bernthal.

Director: Max Joseph

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: The few times I saw the preview for We Are Your Friends, my head hurt.  Lots of flashing lights, quick edits, pounding music, and Zac Efron feeling the beat in a tank top under the California sun gave me little hope that the finished product would amount to much.  Then early reports indicated that the film was like Flashdance meets Saturday Night Fever with a dash of Cocktail…and I was officially sold. While the film starts off pretty rough for the first half hour or so, there’s something ultimately winning about it.

Efron (That Awkward Moment) headlines the picture as Cole, a DJ with a heart of gold struggling to break into the big leagues.  Living with a buddy (Jonny Weston, an annoyance in the beginning before graduating to valued asset) and working as promoters of a local club with two other friends (Shiloh Fernandez, Evil Dead, and Alex Shaffer) they live for the Thursday nights that are their reward for a job well done.

But, as in all movies with similar themes, they all dream of something more and the chance to “get out” and make something of themselves.  While the others all have admirable aspirations, it’s Efron that gets the focus as he makes the move from clap trap backroom DJ to working posh pool parties and headlining a summer music festival with his music.

Now, I know absolutely nothing about the DJ culture but I do understand that it’s more than just working two turntables and knowing when to scratch and mix the tunes together.  And, to its credit, the film makes an attempt to explain how it all works, but it’s not enough to clue most audiences in on what exactly is happening when Efron intensely turns one knob up high while turning another one down low.  The only thing we know, from Efron’s brow sweat and dilated pupils, is that it’s important stuff and he’s very good at what he does.

Being mentored by a DJ that many feel has sold out (Wes Bentley, Interstellar) has repercussions for the young upstart.  He learns to follow his internal turntable to churn out better music, yes, but also falls in love with the DJ’s assistant/girlfriend (Emily Ratajkowski, Gone Girl, Entourage, with lips like life preservers) in the process.  At the same time, he’s supporting himself by working for a shady real estate investor (Jon Bernthal, The Wolf of Wall Street), whose methods put him into an even greater emotional spiral.

What’s nice to report about the film is that it’s probably Efron’s best performance to date.  Ignoring a flawed attempt at emoting near the end (must every Efron movie feature him with tears in his eyes?) Efron ably carries the picture to success and seems at ease with the complexities of the DJ scene.  Passages between Efron and Bentley are the best of the bunch, with both actors doing solid work and never coming off as merely pretending to understand what they’re talking about…but actually believing it.

Music obviously plays a big part in Max Joseph and Meghan Oppenheimer’s script and with Joseph directing, the film feels alive with rhythm from the first frame until the last.  Again, I couldn’t tell you a good beat from a bad one but there are enough music consultants and musicians listed in the credits that I’m confident the movie hits all the right notes.  Brett Pawlak’s cinematography may favor lingering on sweaty body parts a little too much (one sequence covers every inch of Ratajkowski’s flesh several times over) but generally it’s a nice mix of California sun and hypnotic club lights.

Owing a lot to the aforementioned Cocktail, the movie may find itself becoming a guilty pleasure down the line.  It’s relatively inoffensive and pleasant enough to not hold too many of its faults against it, buoyed by Efron’s considerable charisma and Bentley’s commanding performance.

The Silver Bullet ~ Return to Sender

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Synopsis: A nurse living in small town goes on a blind date with a man who is not the person he says he is.

Release Date:  TBD 2015

Thoughts: Do you hear that sound?  That’s the sound of Rosamund Pike, the Oscar-nominated star of Gone Girl, being pigeonholed…at least according to the trailer for Return to Sender.  Looking like a dramatic tale of revenge with a few tricks up its sleeve, I’m sure Pike (who you should also check out in Jack Reacher) will be up for the task but I wonder if the film wouldn’t be better served by an actress that hadn’t recently played a flawed anti-heroine (and played it damn well).  I’m willing to believe that Pike filmed this before Gone Girl landed her on Hollywood’s A-List and while I’m interested to see how much of a welcome diversion this will be, I just have a sinking feeling that it’s going to be compared unfavorably to Pike’s 2014 hit.  Time will tell.

The Silver Bullet ~ White Bird in a Blizzard

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Synopsis: In 1988, a teenage girl’s life is thrown into chaos when her mother disappears.

Release Date:  September 25, 2014

Thoughts: Star Shailene Woodley has been on a roll ever since making an impressive bid for stardom opposite George Clooney in The Descendants.  In 2014 alone she’s been an action star (in the otherwise forgettable Divergent), broke YA hearts (as a cancer teen in The Fault in Our Stars) and now takes on another dramatic role in Gregg Araki’s coming of age tale White Bird in a Blizzard.  With Araki’s history of putting the squeaky clean youth of Hollywood through his adult blender, expect Woodley to mine new ground and bare all (literally) as a teen affected by the disappearance of her unbalanced mother (Eva Green, Cracks) in the late 80s. 

Movie Review ~ The East

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An operative for an elite private intelligence firm finds her priorities changing dramatically after she is tasked with infiltrating an anarchist group known for executing covert attacks upon major corporations.

Stars: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Patricia Clarkson

Director: Zal Batmanglij

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 116 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: It might be easy to dismiss The East as another indie granola thriller with an activism agenda but it’s thanks to a nuanced script co-written by star Brit Marling (Arbitage, Sound of My Voice) and director Zal Batmanglij and some seriously layered performances that should put your movie compass due north toward this nicely constructed film.

Indie-darling Marling has had a boon of opportunity in the last few years turning up in several well reviewed flicks that may not have made much of a dent at the box office but upped her street cred in Hollywood causing many to take notice.  Resisting the urge to snap up roles in any number of summer blockbusters, Marling instead took a more creative route by rounding up her frequent collaborator Batmanglij and gathering a crackerjack cast for her urban potboiler.

As Sarah, an agent recruited by a mysterious intelligence firm to find a way to get inside a grassroots anarchist group targeting specific big money companies, Marling convincingly gets under the skin of her character. Without laying it all out for us she shows us the complexities of the work, what it takes to burrow in and gain trust, and the toll that double life takes on the psyche.  Starting off wanting the opportunity to succeed more than having much conviction for the job, Sarah eventually winds up in the wooded compound of the members of The East including Skarsgård (Disconnect) as charismatic leader Benji and Ellen Page (Juno) as cautious rebel Izzy.

It may not seem like it on a first viewing but Marling and Batmanglij have gone to great lengths to get all their ducks lined up in a row.  As the lines get blurred between what side is actually doing the most damage, Sarah sees a new challenge in adapting to the way of life the members of the group chose to live…eventually losing herself in the world she’s created.

The whole set-up isn’t anything truly original because we’ve seen these types of undercover movies dozens of times.  What makes The East so different is the way it chooses to present the material in scenes that feel fresh and don’t spell out what the motivations are of anyone involved.  Everyone seems to be hiding something and as soon as one secret is revealed a host of new questions emerge.  The movie has a nice rhythm, allowing the characters and the tension to grow as the story progresses – not everything works out like you think it will and several times I was pleasantly surprised as a new wrinkle was introduced.

If anything, the movie is recommended on the strength of one performance.  Patricia Clarkson.  The head of the security firm that assigns Sarah, Clarkson’s character is colored with one of the most crisply sinister edges in quite some time and that’s not something that is thanks only to the script.  I’ve been a fan of Clarkson for some time but her purring ice queen is truly something to behold.

Though The East may not pop to the top of your list during this busy summer movie season, do try and seek it out when it’s available for viewing at home in the fall.  There’s a real depth to the message and a skill in the delivery that’s rare to find nowadays.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ The East

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Synopsis: An operative for an elite private intelligence firm finds her priorities irrevocably changed after she is tasked with infiltrating an anarchist group known for executing covert attacks upon major corporations.

Release Date:  May 31, 2103

Thoughts:  Here’s an interesting one for you.  Writer/star Brit Marling has been slowly building a comfy career in indie Hollywood with high profile roles in lower profile films.  After a strong turn alongside Richard Gere in Arbitage, Marling re-teams with her Sound of My Voice director/collaborator Zal Batmanglij for this thriller focused on a woman that becomes immersed with a group out to expose eco problems within big corporations.  With an interesting support cast that includes Patricia Clarkson and  Alexander Skarsgård (Disconnect), Marling may have a breakthrough film on her hands.  Though the first preview made the film look a bit too pat, this second trailer indicates a taut little indie awaits us at the end of May.

Movie Review ~ Evil Dead (2013)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Five friends head to a remote cabin, where the discovery of a Book of the Dead leads them to unwittingly summon up demons living in the nearby woods. The evil presence possesses them until only one is left to fight for survival.

Stars: Jane Levy, Shiloh Fernandez, Lou Taylor Pucci, Jessica Lucas, Elizabeth Blackmore

Director: Fede Alvarez

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Sam Raimi’s 1981 horror classic The Evil Dead was a great example of doing a lot with very little.  With practical effects that completed the overall homemade “let’s make a movie” vibe, the film is a rough and tumble raucous romp filled with the right amount of comedy and horror.  When this ‘new vision’ of Raimi’s seminal piece was announced, it set the horror hounds on the project until Raimi (Oz The Great and Powerful, Indian Summer) and original star Bruce Campbell gave the production their valued blessing.

After seeing the ooey, gooey, and oh so bloody final product (which drops the “The” to be just Evil Dead) it’s not hard to see why Raimi and Campbell liked the film so much.  Though like the original it’s less concerned about a coherent plot, it delivers what scare junkies crave so much…blood….gallons and gallons and gallons and gallons of it.  I don’t think I’ve yet seen a horror film with quite so much of the red stuff used to such delirious effect. 

Not an outright remake but more of a re-imagining of the story, director Alvarez collaborated on the screenplay with Rodo Sayagues, later bringing in Oscar winner Diablo Cody (Juno) for some revisions.  The set-up is still the same: five friends drive deep into the woods to stay at a ramshackle cabin and meet up with hungry demons over the course of one very gory weekend.  In the 2013 version, it’s not a simple weekend getaway but a detox/intervention for Mia (Levy).  Her estranged brother David (Fernandez) and his girlfriend Natalie (Blakemore) are present as are friends Eric (Pucci) and Olivia (Lucas).  See if the first letters of their names spell anything interesting, why dontcha?

With probably ten times (at least) the budget of the original, Alvarez and company have designed a crack production design, complete with dilapidated cabin that has an ominous trapdoor to a very scary basement (it looks an awful lot like The Cabin in the Woods actually).  Wisely choosing to mostly stick with the practical effect model of the original, the special effects crew has their work cut out for them as the cast members are stabbed, shot, beaten, eaten, sliced, and diced over the 90 minute run-time. 

This is so not a film for children or the faint of heart – a member of my group gagged at one point at the shocking level of gore on display and I know that I had several moments twisting around in my seat from sinews being stretched and limbs being hacked.  The make-up design is first rate…as the film progresses and members of the quintet are possessed by evil their eyes glow, their skin cracks, and a lot of other unpleasant things befall their nubile bodies.  One unfortunate takes multiple lickings and keeps on ticking…resulting in some comical happenings the more they turn into swiss cheese.

With a film riding this heavy wave of gore, you need a cast that give themselves fully to the material and Alavarez has put together a group of young Hollwood-ites that squeal happily as they toss themselves through the razored ringer.  Levy is most impressive as the detox-ing Mia who gradually becomes a catalyst for all things demon related while Pucci takes a needle to the eye like a pro.

The barely there plot is really just a ploy to put our actors into harm’s way so try not to get too bogged down in the developments.  True, the acting isn’t bad considering the genre but if Cody was brought in to punch up the script I can only imagine what it was like before she arrived.  Alvarez is a slick filmmaker and he makes great use of lighting, a diverse orchestral score, and a constantly moving camera to keep you on the edge of your seat.  He also includes several subtle nods to the original film – I caught a few but missed some too.

Though the film has about four endings, it’s the final one that should give you every penny of your hard-earned dollar that you plunked down to see it.  I don’t want to give away any spoilers but it culminates with a moment that had the audience I saw it with cheering and applauding louder than I’ve heard in some time. 

If you’re a fan of old-school horror films where the emphasis is less on a deeply developed plot and more on just making you squirm in your seat you’ve found a film to rejoice over because it’s a rollicking ride for those that have the stomach for this kind of movie-going experience.  Make sure to stick around for well-designed end credit sequence and a nice stinger before the lights come up.