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

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

If You’re Tired Of The Same Old Story, Oh, Baby, Turn Some Pages

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Here’s something that’s been weighing on my mind: it shocks me that Cabin In The Woods doesn’t have a much stronger following and I genuinely cannot come up with a reason for its lack of one.  I saw it twice in theaters and have watched it 3 times since it’s been an instant watch on Netflix.  I LOVED it during the first viewing and have found that even after a few more, it totally holds up.  The thing about it is that it’s fun and at times hilarious, while at others, really scary.  It’s a must-see for fans of the horror genre, like myself, while others who could take or leave horror will also enjoy it.

Longtime lovers of scary movies like me can appreciate all of the clever shout-outs to horror flicks of old.  In fact, Cabin In The Woods is kind of a tribute to the whole horror genre.  Writers Josh Whedon and Drew Goddard take every cliche and stereotype we’ve come to associate with scary movies and puts them all together AND supply a fun and interesting explanation for them.  They very smartly and creatively find a way to BOTH strictly follow the formula and make something completely original.  They somehow manage to make a horror flick that is every bit a generic horror flick, that is like every other horror flick ever made, while, simultaneously, taking that seemingly generic premise and using it to disassemble and reconfigure the formula we’ve seen in horror flicks since the spawn of the genre.  This film is so much more than a zombie movie or a slasher flick or even a supernatural story.  It is everything all at once.  And IT WORKS.  It even has some social relevance while still managing to never take itself too seriously.  In all honesty, I think it’s kind of perfect.

The acting is mostly good (I say mostly because there is one actor whose performance is slightly sub par – but hers is the ONLY one), good enough, in fact, to give these stereotypical characters surprising depth.  Like every other aspect of this film, they are two things at once: the cliched caricatures we’re used to seeing in scary movies and very much, well, not.  And in addition to the scary stuff, which is often pretty scary, there’s an abundance of excellent humor that lightens it up.  For this reason alone, it is definitely a crossover film: it appeals to fans of the horror genre and those who usually shy away from it.  There’s eye candy for all (I could make a sandwich with Chris Hemsworth and Jesse Williams) and even one completely awesome cameo by a woman who has become an icon in the sci-fi world.  Like I said, perfect.

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There’s also a big, big, big, big surprise ending that, for me, sets it apart from damn near every other film (horror or otherwise) I’ve seen.  It takes a lot of balls to end a movie in such a way and for that, kudos to Whedon and Goddard.  I’ve read that before the first screening, Whedon told the audience something like, “Enjoy it and then keep it to yourself.”  Because it’s very much like Fight Club in this way; the first, second and third rules about Cabin In The Woods are: You don’t talk about Cabin In The Woods.  To be less vague and disclose any more detail than I already have is to rob you of the sheer joy you’ll feel when you realize that this film is irrevocably and unapologetically going balls-to-the-wall, batshit bonkers.  This moment first shows itself in a scene in the second act that I call “The Purge” which is quite possibly the coolest fucking scene in any scary movie, EVER.  As well as frightening and funny and thrilling and wildly fun in a shit-yourself giddy kind of way all at the same time.  Which is in itself a rarity in any film and even more rare, is that I could use that same sentence to describe the movie itself.

If you’re a fan of horror flicks, you have to watch this.  If you’re not, you still should watch it because whether you care about all the details that pay homage to the genre or not, Cabin In The Woods is one wicked fun ride.

~Nikki

Hey Little Sister, What Have You Done

Your Sister's SisterI’ve always told my husband that among the many ways to be unfaithful, sleeping with my sister is the absolute unforgivable betrayal.  It’s hard to say why, exactly, because all cheating is wrong.  And while I like to think I am an open-minded person capable of forgiveness and grace, I feel entirely confidant that a tryst with my very own sister could not be overcome.  Not by me.  Which is why the premise of the indie flick Your Sister’s Sister initially put me off.  After catching it on HBO one random evening, however, it proved to me that nearly any idea, if executed properly, can make for a delightful movie.

Your Sister’s Sister tells a simple enough story (with one kind of big, unforeseen twist) but the charming performances and chemistry between the actors along with some mighty fine writing and pretty scenery make it exceptional.  In its opening scenes, we see Jack (Mark Duplass) and Iris at a memorial for Jack’s brother, who we learn later was once Iris’s boyfriend.  Jack and Iris have since formed a tight friendship, so when it becomes apparent that Jack isn’t handling the loss of his brother well, Iris convinces him to take a holiday at the cabin her family owns to clear his head and properly grieve.  He arrives at the cabin late at night to find Iris’s sister, Hannah, who’s staying there temporarily to heal from a bad break-up from her long-time girlfriend.  Even though Hannah is a lesbian, she and Jack sleep together after emptying a bottle of wine and sharing their tales of woe.  Iris shows up unexpectedly the next morning, after which Jack asks Hannah to keep their encounter a secret for fear it would make things awkward between he and Iris, a request Hannah readily agrees to.  Until, of course, Iris confides in her that she is in love with Jack.

Like I said, a fairly predictable plot.  Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt as Iris and Hannah have genuine sisterly chemistry, so much so that you barely bother asking yourself why one has an English accent and the other an American one.  It doesn’t matter; they are entirely believable as sisters.  And each has charismatic chemistry with Duplass, who plays his role with such warmth and sincerity, he never falls into the obvious trap of the creepy perv who wants to sleep his way through a family.  Having sex with a man who has also had sex with my sister is such a vile idea to me that I was surprised at my willingness to look past this and root for Jack and Iris to end up together.  It’s truly a testament to the superb performances as well as the fine direction.  Writer/director Lynn Shelton knows how to pace a story.  She takes just enough time with the unfolding of events that it neither feels rushed nor unnecessarily slow.  Instead, it feels natural and organic.  What happens between these three people and their reactions to it are wholly believable.

I did wonder how all three of them were financially able to spend such a lengthy amount of time at a remote cabin and not lose their jobs or get evicted from their homes but this is such a minor discrepancy, I feel silly for even bringing it up.  They never bother to explain it because it isn’t relevant to the plot.  I admit it sounds unrealistic but who knows, maybe they have the kinds of jobs you can do from home.  Or maybe they’re between jobs.  Maybe they had a bunch of vacation time saved up.  It just doesn’t matter.  The flick is so irresistibly charming, it’s more than easy to look past it.

Your Sister’s Sister is not on EW’s “50 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen” list, but it should be.

~Nikki