We Are Caught Up In Your Love Affair

It’s been a decent year for independent film, what with such gems (and likely Oscar contenders) as The Way, Way Back, Inside Llewyn Davis and Fruitvale Station on the roster, but today I’d like to focus on two others that have received far less publicity but surely deserve their moment in the spotlight.

You're Next movie posterFirst up is the best horror flick of 2013.  You’re Next hit theaters in August between the year’s two big budget horror films The Conjuring and Insidious Chapter 2, though I’m sure it grossed far less in the box office, which is a damned shame because it is a nearly perfect example of a film that may not reinvent its genre – the premise isn’t anything new or original – but excels so much in its execution that it stands out as a shining success among its peers.  In other words: Finally! an example of a horror flick done right!  It begins with some actual character development, not merely introducing the Davison family but really showing the dynamics between them at play.  They’re a wealthy family celebrating mom and dad’s anniversary in their large, rural home.  Within the first 15 or 20 minutes, we learn a great deal about them, but not more than we need in order for the stage to be set.  Once all the adult children arrive with their significant others, tension builds, fingers are pointed and right at the peak of a rather heated argument, a living nightmare begins with an arrow shot through the dining room window and into one of the dinner guests.  The inept family descends into confusion and futility as more arrows fly into the house, killing some, wounding others, but revealing them all as targets of the murderous intruders lurking outside.  It seems they won’t stop until they’re ALL dead.

There’s only one wildcard yet to be played and she is the girlfriend of one of the sons, an Aussie named Erin, superbly played by Sharni VinsonSharni Vinson.  While the others practically flail about, clueless to what’s happening or why and entirely unprepared to deal with it, Erin immediately responds with practical, useful and effective ideas of not only how to protect themselves and each other, but also to fight back.  You read that right: not only do we get a character who kicks ass (and well), but – bonus! – she’s female!  She is the stand-out here, acting not as a scared little girl trying to find her inner strength but as a strong and capable woman who reacts intelligently from the initial sign of danger, determined to survive and using every available tool around her.  And, boy, is she creative.  From here, the flick is perfectly executed with enough violence and suspense to truly scare its audience without ever overdoing it.  It is a slasher flick, which means there is a fair amount of blood, but it never feels excessive or gratuitous.  And there are several clever and well-placed props which are later used as weapons but they aren’t forced; they actually serve the story.

Bottom line: you won’t find anything groundbreaking or genre-defining in You’re Next but what you will see is a well-written, well-acted and damned well-executed hack ‘em up intruder movie.

The other is a little ditty called Drinking Buddies.  I’m hesitant to call it a romantic comedy because, while it does have the feel of the genre, it fails to follow its basic structure as well as avoids its numerous traps.  It centers around Luke (Jake Johnson, aka, my new crush) and Kate (Olivia Wilde giving her best performance to date), two buddies who work together at a brewery.  The two drinking-buddieshave intense chemistry and as the story progresses we see they’re basically two versions of the same person.  Luke is in a long-term relationship with the lovely Jill (the always charming Anna Kendrick) and Kate is less seriously involved with Chris (Ron Livingston), who, admittedly, seems an odd fit for her.  The four take a camping trip and the two couples’ dynamics come more into focus while the dynamics between Luke & Kate and Jill & Chris further develop as well.  This isn’t the story of two mismatched couples trading spouses, however, but more an exploration of a scenario: how an attraction that is further enhanced by alcohol can disrupt an otherwise healthy and stable relationship.  Throughout nearly the whole of the film, Luke faces the choice between a woman he loves and another he knows he could love and Jake Johnson plays the role with such genuine feeling, the audience can’t help but feel his dilemma with him.  In another actor’s hands, Luke could easily have become an unlikable character.  But Johnson has the perfect blend of easy charm and real heart, making the audience sympathize with his situation instead of judging it.

I read online that there was no real script for Drinking Buddies, merely an outline, when they started shooting.  Which means that almost all of the dialogue is improv.  I can’t imagine making or acting in a movie without a script but somehow, it served Drinking Buddies well.  Because it forced each actor to behave as though the situation was real.  What that gives us is a genuine and truly authentic look at a scenario that very well could be real.  Combine that with the charm and charisma of the actors and their lively chemistry with one another and what you’ve got is one enjoyable, often funny and entirely relatable film.

~Nikki

Tuesday Is The New Thursday

It used to be that Thursday night was my favorite TV night.  The only night I bothered to watch any television program as it aired rather than record it and watch a day or two later when I could fast-forward through commercials.  Thursday at 8pm, I was on my couch, my TV tuned in to NBC.  It began with Community, moved on to 30 Rock, then Parks & Rec and ended with The Office.  Hell of a line-up, am I right?

Brooklyn 99Then NBC started screwing with Community’s schedule, splitting each season in two, airing its episodes seemingly randomly with little or no promotion.  Then 30 Rock reached its close, soon followed by The Office.  Now, Parks & Rec is the only one of those shows still on air (I have no idea what happened to Community.  It was never officially canceled nor, as far as I can tell, is there any plan to put it back on air.  Wtf, NBC?) and while I do faithfully watch and love it, Thursday has become just another one-show night.

Not to worry, though, my dears, because as one door closes, another one opens.  Case in point: Tuesday night programming on FOX.  I have come to look forward to Tuesdays as I once did Thursdays and it’s all thanks to FOX’s current line-up.  At 8:30pm, Brooklyn Nine-Nine kicks off the night (I watched one miserable episode of Dads and will never put myself through that again), New Girl follows and The Mindy Project wraps it up.  That’s right: Tuesday is the new Thursday.

I know some folks think Andy Samberg is just a bit too much.  Too loud, too silly, too over-the-top.  If you fall into that category, allow me to set your mind at ease.  Brooklyn Nine-Nine is very much an ensemble show.  While Samberg is the star, his presence does not dominate every episode.  More than that, his trademark ridiculousness is fairly toned down here.  And he and the ever stoic Andre Braugher play off each other to utter perfection.  Every single episode elicits a few hearty laughs, some from Samberg’s goofy antics and many from others in this excellent cast, and they’re only getting better as the season progresses.

I admit I came late to New Girl, having just started watching this past summer, but once I began watching, I couldn’t stop until I was New Girlentirely caught up.  Zooey Deschanel has slowly won me over and now I am entirely hooked.  Like all great sitcoms, the cast as a whole is the real star here and every key player shines.  I’ve developed a full-on crush on Jake Johnson and Max Greenfield is one of the funniest comedic actors on TV right now.  Lamorne Morris can make even the most absurd plot line work for him and now, Damon Wayans, Jr. has come back to reprise his role as Coach, a character who’s been missed since the pilot, his one and only episode before this season.  His chemistry with the rest of them is so easy and charming, it’s like he never left.  Seasons 1 & 2 are currently streaming on Netflix, which means you have no excuse not to watch.

Finally, The Mindy Project may arguably be the weakest of the three but it has been getting The Mindy Projectincreasingly better since it first aired last year.  Mindy Kaling is hilarious and charismatic and Chris Messina in the male lead plays the sensible and pragmatic curmudgeon to her moody, pop culture-obsessed girly girl.  Ike Barinholtz, while occasionally creepy, often gets a laugh as the sweet but dopey nurse Morgan and Xosha Roquemore has been a great addition.  I wish Betsy would disappear (sorry Zoe Jarman – it’s the character, not you) but otherwise, the cast has pretty much found its groove.  Kaling and Messina have a fun “will they, won’t they” thing going on and thanks to Kaling’s many Hollywood connections, both seasons have been rife with awesome cameos.  (Mark Duplass needs to be permanently added to the cast; his hippie midwife rival character is too good and should be fully utilized.)

I don’t know what else you’ve got going on every Tuesday night, but I’m sure it can wait.  Forget reality TV and network dramas – thanks to FOX, the sitcom is making a comeback.

:) Nikki

Let’s Do This…

AMC released the full-length trailer for The Walking Dead season 4 at Comic-Con and whatever you may think of the show as a whole, there’s no denying the awesomeness of their trailers.

Sounds like they may be channeling 28 Days Later with that radio broadcast, which might actually serve the show well.  I have long considered 28 Days Later to be the best zombie flick ever made.  (Some argue that it isn’t a true zombie flick because the zombies became zombies by infection rather than reanimation after death.  Whatever.  Splitting hairs as far as I’m concerned.)

Plus, it appears that Daryl gets loads of screen time and anyone who watches knows that more Daryl = happiness. :)

~N.

I Just Can’t Control My Beats

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Confession: I have watched Pitch Perfect at least five times now and all within the past couple of weeks.  It’s like I just can’t stop.  I saved it on my DVR and have been watching it in pieces ever since my first full viewing more than two weeks ago.  It’s gotten to where I fast-forward through the non-singing parts, repeatedly watching the song performances, especially the final two.  I never watched Glee, not for any particular reason, so I am unable to make the obvious comparison there.  But I do generally like musicals and Pitch Perfect manages to combine some really excellent musical numbers with a plot as aloof and relatable as that of Bring It On.  Just as any non-cheerleader could enjoy the shenanigans of Bring It On, you need not be an a capella enthusiast to enjoy Pitch Perfect.  It’s a sweet, feel-good flick with likeable characters and some really fun music.

The Sing-Off got me into a capella (well, not counting those years in junior high when I adored Boyz II Men) and generally primed audiences across America for this movie.  It centers around Beca, played with irresistible charm by Anna Kendrick, a college freshman who has no actual desire to attend college but is giving it a shot to appease her father.  She wants to move to LA to start paying her dues in the music industry, hoping to make a career out of DJ-ing.  With much coaxing by her dad and a senior named Chloe (the adorable Brittany Snow), she reluctantly auditions for the Bardon Bellas, an all-female a capella group on campus who have an intense rivalry with the all-male group, the Treblemakers.  Beca earns a spot with the Bellas and slowly brings new life to their stale routine.

While Kendrick is undoubtedly the star of this flick, it is very much an ensemble movie.  Senior and leader of the Bellas, Aubrey Posen (Anna Camp), Chloe and Beca probably get the most lines but supporting characters Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson stealing the majority of her scenes), anna-kendrick-rebel-wilson-hana-mae-lee-pitch-perfectCynthia Rose (Ester Dean) and Lilly (Hana Mae Lee) hit every mark… and note.  (Sorry – couldn’t resist.)  The boys make the most of their screen time as well, especially Beca’s love interest, Jesse (Skylar Astin), his nerdy roommate Benji (Ben Platt), and two of the Treblemakers, Bumper and Donald, played by Adam DeVine (of the hilarious series Workaholics) and Utkarsh Ambudkar, respectively.  There’s competition, friendship, romance and loads of music but there is also an abundance of humor.  Pitch Perfect never takes itself too seriously.  In fact, it gets rather silly at times.  The vast majority of jokes land and there’s even a big throwback to a certain ’80s icon of pop culture that warms the cockles of my heart.

Of course, as I’ve already hinted, the music itself is what drives it home.  The lulls between songs are relatively short and each performance not only plays a relevant role in the central plot but adds a guilty pleasure level of enjoyment, leading viewers like me to watch repeatedly, never tiring of the actors’ unprocessed and natural voices or the fun, practiced choreography.  There are even a few cameos the likes of Elizabeth Banks, John Michael Higgins and Donald Faison.  That’s right – Turk makes an appearance and anything that lets me watch Turk sing and dance is okay by me.

There isn’t anything terribly original or unpredictable about Pitch Perfect but every minute is amusing, there are loads of laughs and at least 30 solid minutes of fun musical performances.  Need more?  30 Rock writer Kay Cannon wrote it.  I knew that would hook you.  ;)

~Nikki

Oh Set Me Up With The Spirit In The Sky

TITEmovieposterAll right, all you haters, I’m saying this first to get it out of the way: I like Seth Rogen.  I like Seth Rogen and James Franco and Jonah Hill and Jay Baruchel and all those other Judd Apatow boys.  I liked them in Freaks and Geeks.  I liked them in Undeclared and I’ve liked them in every movie they’ve spawned from Knocked-Up to I Love You, Man.  Honestly, I wish that I knew these guys in real life and could hang out with them on the regular.  So, before you read this review, just know that I am already their fan.

This Is The End is a story about the end – as in, the end of civilization as we know it, the end of the earth as it stands now.  It’s the story of what may happen to Seth Rogen and his boy Jay Baruchel should the apocalypse occur while they happen to be attending a house-warming party at James Franco’s new Hollywood mansion.  These guys (and so many others) play themselves.  Well… exaggerated, semi-ridiculous versions of themselves.  Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill and Danny McBride round out this sausage-heavy sextet who fill nearly every scene.  There are cameos galore, dick and ejaculation jokes out the wazoo and a fifty foot tall Satan sporting one seriously intimidating boner.  That’s right – in this apocalyptic flick, the apocalypse is REAL.  No zombies, no flesh-eating plague, no nuclear war.  Just the earth opening up to swallow all the sinners, fire and brimstone kind of apocalypse that the Bible has promised us.  Or at least, as writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg imagine it.

And it is raucously funny.  It isn’t deep or complex by any possible definition.  There is no greater religious or social meaning, no intricate plot to be found.  The story is nothing more than what these guys imagine might happen to them should the apocalypse suddenly, finally, come.  What ensues is an hour and 45 minutes of shenanigans.  The good news, I laughed for a solid 90 minutes of that 105 min. span.  Say what you will about these fellas, they are funny.  Yes, their jokes are absurd and juvenile and I freely admit that dick jokes can and most certainly do get old.  But they can also hit the mark and in this flick, with this cast, they do, over and over again.  Of course, they aren’t all dick and cum jokes, but a great many of them are and they are, somehow, consistently funny.  Honestly, I kept waiting to get tired of them, to start yawning instead of laughing but it just didn’t happen.  These guys take some of the most inane and predictable material and deliver it in a way that makes people laugh.  A lot.

And there’s something about watching actors play themselves in a self-deprecating, mocking way that just amuses the hell out of me.  When I first saw the trailer for this, I wondered if it would feel self-indulgent.  Like, ‘hey look how much money we’ve got now, we can make any ol’ stupid, shallow movie we want!’  But that never came through, not one bit.  Rather than stroke their own egos, they poke fun at themselves and instead of feeling like a voyeur on the lives of the rich and famous, you just feel like you’re in on the fun.

The cast is great, exactly what we’ve come to expect from this crew.  Rogen and Baruchel play the leads and their chemistry as old friends whoThis-Is-The-End-all-six may have slightly out-grown each other works perfectly.  McBride is every bit the selfish, insensitive jerk I imagine him to be in the film’s most villainous role (other than that of Satan, of course) and even Franco is capable of making fun of himself by playing on the rumors that he’s awfully full of himself and unhealthily attached to his boy, Seth.  Jonah Hill is actually more likeable here, playing himself, than in his earlier roles as the self-absorbed douche bag and each and every cameo will leave you smiling.  (Some more than others – ahem, Channing Tatum.)  The stand-out in this gang is Craig Robinson, who is simply delightful.  He has perfect comedic timing and can do everything from deadpan (The Office) to absurdly silly (Zack and Miri Make A Porno) and he’s hilarious at it all.  For real, Robinson belongs in ALL the comedies.

If you hate this crew and have never liked any of their work, I’d say this likely won’t change your mind.  But even if your feelings toward them are luke warm, I’d bet you’ll enjoy this.  It won’t win any awards or earn a place in cinematic history, but it certainly is one fun gigglefest of a flick.

~Nikki

I Am The Police

endofwatchmovieposterThe found footage style of film-making has largely been a mistake.  Few films that employ it do it well and more often than not, it hinders the narrative and annoys the audience.  Its shaky and unstable camera-work are a nuisance and the trite, contrived reasons given for its being filmed in the first place almost never work.  Rarely, though, we do see it used appropriately.  And the cool thing is, if used sparingly and done well, it really does accomplish what it’s supposed to – it makes it feel real.

Such is the case with End Of Watch, the 2012 police drama starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as Brian Taylor and Miguel Zavala, respectively, two LAPD rookies who stumble into something too big to handle.  End Of Watch is mostly told via Taylor’s camera.  In addition to being a cop, Taylor is also a pre-law student and films his experiences while out on patrol as part of a project for one of his gen-ed classes.  It’s mostly told through Taylor’s camera (or cameras; in addition to his handheld, he pins one to his chest and one to his partner’s) but also intermittently through more conventional shots.  Writer/director David Ayer doesn’t limit himself to the found footage alone.  Ayer freely uses whichever best serves the narrative, interjecting broad views of the city into Taylor’s filmed sequences without explanation.  Or shots of one of the cops alone after work that are meant to look like the images of a handheld camera but there’s no logical answer to who’s holding it.  Ayer doesn’t bog himself down with these explanations because they aren’t relevant to his story.  He uses the found footage where applicable and provides his own shots when needed.  And the result it a gripping story so well-told, you forget you’re watching a movie.

The film’s pace adds to the realism as does the natural banter between Gyllenhaal and Pena.  Ayer doesn’t rush this story nor does he fill it with death-defying stunts or overly developed bad guys.  I know it sounds weird that I’m advocating an under-developed villain here but for a flick like this, it’s necessary.  This movie is entirely Taylor and Zavala’s story, the lives of these two cops, and in the real world, we don’t know every bit of background about the “bad guys.”  Honestly, cops sometimes get a rap sheet on the guy they’re chasing, if there is one, or maybe they’ve heard some rumors around the neighborhood about them, but they don’t have the guy’s life story with all its fucked-up details.  They know a few things – he has a gun, he’s in a gang, she’s on crack, they want to kill me.  This is what a cop typically knows when facing a criminal and nothing more.  Ayer gives us a few shots of the bad guys in action but very few, just as much as we need and not a minute more.  Because he doesn’t want us to be away from our main characters for too long.  We see this through their eyes.  The effect it creates is that we are Taylor and Zavala, we ride along on patrol, we watch as they find ways to entertain themselves (a cop’s life can be quite boring, at times), as they struggle to stay awake on an overnight shift, as they walk into the house of a missing elderly woman and know immediately that there’s a dead body inside, as they run into a burning house to rescue the small children trapped in their bedrooms, as they face dangers most of us cannot fathom.  We live it through them.

Ayer effectively orchestrates this realism but he also knows enough to get out of the way of his characters.  He epitomizes the idea that a story is best shown, not told.  Taylor and Zavala aren’t perfect nor do they always make the best choices.  Like every cop I know, they occasionally End of Watchoverflow with testosterone, with that invincible feeling that accompanies authority.  But they are human and they react to stress and danger like any flesh and blood person would.  And the bond between these two partners is expertly showcased in those quiet moments that follow a harrowing encounter.  Kudos to Ayer for not holding back.  It’s rare to see masculine tenderness like this onscreen.  After a traumatic and dangerous encounter during which, together, they pull three children from a burning house, Taylor is so shaken, he refuses to allow the fire fighters even to touch him.  But his partner, also shaken and hurt, cannot be pushed away.  He grabs onto his friend and literally cradles and rocks him until Taylor calms down, creating a moment so real, you almost feel intrusive for watching.

I can’t justify why End of Watch didn’t get more hype from the media.  I remember seeing the trailer, thinking it looked good but then didn’t hear much about it.  Now it’s available to rent or instantly stream on Netflix and it is well worth your time.  For all its realism, it still is a tense police drama, rife with action and violence, but with much more heart than we’re used to seeing from this genre.

~Nikki