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 ~ Revenge

The Facts:

Synopsis: Never take your mistress on an annual guys’ getaway, especially one devoted to hunting.

Stars: Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz, Kevin Janssens, Vincent Colombe, Guillaume Bouchède, Avant Strangel

Director: Coralie Fargeat

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  It’s often a stereotype that horror films are made solely for men, but it’s hard to deny that a great number of them are definitely constructed from a male perspective.  Though the concept of the “Final Girl” has been cemented as one of the classic rules of a horror film, just as many nubile women meet gruesome ends before the last female standing finally defeats whatever has been hunting down her friends.  Women are often treated as set pieces even when they are the heroines of their own stories.  It’s sad, but true.

In 1978 a landmark movie originally titled Day of the Woman arrived to little fanfare.  The story of a woman raped and left for dead who returns to wreak vengeance on her perpetrators was a micro-budgeted stomach-churner that was eventually re-titled I Spit on Your Grave.  With a title like that, it caught more attention and quickly became a late-night cult classic that spawned many imitators, all with a similar (bad) taste level.  Remade in 2010 and getting three more sequels, its infamy lives on.  I’ve seen the original and the remake and…that was enough for me thank you very much.

When I first heard about the French movie Revenge, it was hard not to think about I Spit on Your Grave because they share similar plot elements.  A woman is brutalized and returns with full force to repay the men that think they’re smarter than her.  I resisted the film for a time because I know how extreme European (especially French) filmmaking can be but once I read the movie was written/directed by a female I was intrigued to see how a story like this would play out as viewed through the female gaze.  How would a female approach the violence?  How would she treat her victim?  Would this be any different than the skeezy schlock that had come before it?

Boy, am I glad I gave this one a go because, as difficult as it is to watch at times, Revenge is a sizzling jolt that starts out slowly and builds to a crazed crescendo.  It’s a movie in full control of its narrative and intentionality, always raising the stakes for its victimized star and often putting obstacles that have nothing to do with her tormentors in her way.  Writer/director Coralie Fargeat doesn’t create a reborn Rambo that suddenly develops skills to assist her in her revenge, but lets the woman discover her own strength naturally surprising herself and the audience in the process.  Feeling like it’s happening in real time, we are right there with the protagonist each painful step of the way as she comes back from the dead, brusied and bloodied, and with a necessary score to settle.

Arriving for a long weekend of hunting at his extravagant retreat in the middle of a desert (we never know where this location is but the movie was filmed in Morocco), Richard (Kevin Janssens) has brought along his mistress Jen (Matilda Lutz, Rings) for some extra fun before his friends arrive.  They don’t get much alone time, though, because Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède) show up soon after and it’s just the boys and Jen partying into the night.  Jen is a flirty but friendly, obviously only having eyes for Richard but still being welcoming to the attentions of his friends.  Though she thinks she’s in control of the situation, as observers of the situation we can see how it’s getting out of control. The next morning is when things take a terrifying turn for Jen and when she stands up for herself she’s betrayed by Richard…and that’s all I’ll say about the last half of the film because you have to experience it yourself.

Turning in a truly revelatory performance, Lutz goes from tart-ed up Lolita at the beginning of the film to blood-soaked avenging angel at the end.  The woman we see 90 minutes into the film looks like a completely different person than the one that we started out with. It’s a credit to Lutz that she believably transforms the character so fully from a trusting bombshell to an activated creature unwilling to be tossed aside like garbage.  She begins her journey back just wanting to stay alive but, when it’s clear the men won’t/can’t let her live, she decides to beat them at their own game and learns the tricks as she goes.  It’s a fantastic performance.  Janssens is also slyly good as her lover without much allegiance to anything/anyone and it’s fitting Fargeat asks him to be so exposed in the film’s most memorable sequence.

Fargeat stages the first act of Revenge with such a luxe vibe with glamour shots of Jen, Richard, and their swanky surroundings.  Seeing beautiful people in a beautiful setting is easy to relax into.  It’s when his less refined friends arrive the cinematography starts to get less shiny and more gritty, leading up to the latter half of the movie set in the stark blaze of exposed sun standing in high contrast to the opening.  That’s nothing compared to the bonkers finale Fargeat has worked up…and it’s a marvel that she pulls it off so well.  This isn’t an easy watch, to be sure, and those with issues on rape and violence toward women are advised to be cautious on exposing yourself to this film.  The main violation does occur mostly off-screen but just the fact that it happens is enough to warrant consideration for those who might be affected by seeing this action.  As a film, though, I recommend it highly as an example of taking a subgenre of horror infamous in the way it handles women and giving it a fresh (and exceptionally well-made) perspective.