NERVE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Thematic Material involving Dangerous and Risky Behavior, some Sexual Content, Language, Drug Content, Drinking and Nudity – all involving Teens

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Directed by: Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman

Written by: Jessica Sharzer

(based on the novel NERVE by Jeanne Ryan)

Starring: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Machine Gun Kelly, Juliette Lewis, Emily Meade, Miles Heizer, Kimiko Glenn & Samira Wiley

Based on the young adult novel of the same name by Jeanne Ryan, NERVE is a movie that sounds ridiculous and then seems increasingly realistic when you browse through YouTube videos made by teenagers. We live in a world where teens willingly corrode their lungs with cinnamon, pour vodka into their eyes, wrap themselves in duct tape, dump ice-cold water on themselves, and climb to dangerous heights all for the sake of online popularity. Is an online game where teens win cash by completing perilous dares really so hard to fathom? NERVE isn’t original. Films like EAGLE EYE, WOULD YOU RATHERCHEAP THRILLS, 13: GAME OF DEATH and many others have tackled the same sort of danger-for-money premise. This film is just doing the same shtick with teenagers and wound up being a middle-of-the-road experience for me, but I can easily see it playing well for its target demographic.

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Vee (Emma Roberts) is a timid high school senior. She’s introverted and prefers to sit quietly (e.g. obsessing over her crush) as opposed to getting up the guts to be more assertive (e.g. asking him out). When her obnoxious adrenaline-junkie best friend Sydney (Emily Meade) starts becoming a popular presence in an online game called “Nerve,” Vee decides to uncharacteristically take the plunge into this dangerous dares-for-cash game. Though it’s sketchy as hell, Vee soon finds herself flourishing in the dangerous online competition and making tons of cash. She also begins to fall for newfound Nerve partner Ian (Dave Franco). Soon, the dares become more perilous and it’s revealed that you can’t just walk away from Nerve. Vee finds herself in a dangerous world of anonymous individuals who just want to see teenagers complete high-stakes dares…even if it winds up killing them.

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Let me address the elephant in the room. No, I’m not the target demographic for NERVE. This film was clearly made with a teenage audience in mind and it banked at the box office due to plenty of high school students who paid to see this film. Even though the movie isn’t original and didn’t fully work for me, there are admirable qualities that save NERVE from being just another cheap teenage cash-in. First of all, the performances are pretty good. Emma Roberts is well-cast as the nerdy shy girl and comes off as a convincing high school senior. Vee’s story arc is believable as she embraces her wild side and manages to keep shreds of her integrity intact. Dave Franco is also solid as her ballsy partner and (unfortunately) cheesy love interest. Emily Meade is appropriately bitchy as the popular girl, while Juliette Lewis is a welcome presence as Vee’s mother. Also, rapper Machine Gun Kelly’s performance is a noticeable step up from his agonizing stint in last year’s VIRAL (which was among the worst films I sat through in 2016).

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NERVE is entertaining and fun for about two-thirds of its running time. For all of the clichés and silliness, I enjoyed watching dumb teens put in potentially life-threatening situations. The script’s humor worked as some of the earlier challenges are comedic and the suspense grew as the dares became riskier. There were two sequences that had me on the edge of my seat and there’s definitely something to be said for those quality moments. Even the sappy romantic angle feeds into the story’s darker side that slowly rears its ugly head. However, this movie’s final third is where things stopped being fun and began to bore me with been-there-done-that techno-thriller/hacking plot points.

NERVE, Emma Roberts, 2016. ph: Niko Tavernise / © Summit Entertainment / courtesy Everett

Still, even in the final scenes that are clichéd beyond clichés, NERVE delivers a message that I feel is incredibly relevant and important in our modern internet-laden times. Anonymity doesn’t necessarily grant someone the freedom to commit actions without consequences. NERVE taps into the idea that morals seemingly go out the window when we sit behind the screen of a computer. In this way, the film is almost like a feature-length BLACK MIRROR episode and there’s something to be commended about that. The cinematography is also slick and although the pop soundtrack occasionally diverts the viewer’s attention away from the plot at hand, the film’s lively execution keeps things visually stimulating.

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NERVE may be a mixed bag for me, an adult who has sat through many movies with a similar premise, but I imagine that this film will rock the world of its target demographic. This thriller is fun for two-thirds of the running time and then gets into more serious, albeit very familiar territory. If you’ve seen plenty of techno-thrillers, you’ll likely find yourself bored with the story’s final act and constantly be rolling your eyes. I do appreciate this film’s message that seems frighteningly relevant with the invention of Periscope (a streaming app that came out midway through this film’s production) and hundreds of “challenge” videos that you find every day on YouTube. Overall, NERVE didn’t fully work for me, but I think this teenage-oriented thriller will entertain teenagers in spades.

Grade: C+

FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Gore, Language and Nudity

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Directed by: Robert Rodriguez

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino, Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, Ernest Liu, Salma Hayek, Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo, Tom Savini & Fred Williamson

FROM DUSK TILL DAWN is damn near impossible to classify into one genre. Robert Rodriguez delivers action-packed moments with adrenaline-pumping vigor that call back to the finer scenes of his Mexico trilogy. Quentin Tarantino’s snazzy dialogue supplies a ton of laughs and memorable lines that find myself quoting on a weekly basis. This crime-thriller’s first half is tense as a hostage situation becomes a bit of an oddball bonding experience. This horror-comedy’s second half delivers gore-soaked mayhem and the ugliest vampires you’ve ever seen. FROM DUSK TILL DAWN may not be the best vampire film ever made, but it’s definitely my favorite vampire movie!

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Seth (George Clooney) and Richie Gecko (Quentin Tarantino) are fugitive brothers heading for Mexico. In an effort to avoid the cops, the screwed-up siblings take an RV-driving family hostage. Ex-pastor Jacob Fuller (Harvey Keitel), his daughter Katherine (Juliette Lewis) and son Scott (Ernest Liu) reluctantly cooperate with the Gecko brothers and wait for a morning rendezvous at secluded strip club “The Titty Twister.” What appears to be a tense hostage situation winds down with alcohol and then transforms into a gory fight for survival as the Titty Twister staff reveal themselves to be hungry vampires who feed on bikers and truckers. With hundreds of bloodthirsty monsters craving a snack, the Gecko brothers, the Fuller family and a few other survivors barricade themselves inside the strip club and try to live through the night!

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FROM DUSK TILL DAWN is a great party movie. The first half plays like a tense crime-thriller and the second half is a crazy horror-comedy, but the sense of fun remains constant through the entire running time. The film unloads its full bloody potential as soon as the vampire strippers pop up midway through, but that doesn’t lessen the first half by any stretch of the imagination. If nothing else, DUSK’s first half devotes time to developing the colorful characters before they are thrown into a fanged fray. This makes certain deaths more satisfying or sad, because we’ve come to either despise or love these people for the scumbags/badasses they are.

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George Clooney is clearly having a blast in his first major Hollywood role as the charismatic, dangerous Seth Gecko. Clooney’s presence helps sell big goofy fun mixed with 100% cool confidence. Acting alongside him is a creepy Quentin Tarantino in a very disturbing role, which is further amplified by the fact that he also wrote the screenplay and was totally cool with acting like a perverted lunatic…as long as he got to touch some feet. Tarantino gets both laughs and cringes in equal measure as unhinged psycho sibling Richie. Harvey Keitel is great as a ex-pastor who finds his faith tested in a way he never imagined and Juliette Lewis makes the most of her role as his rebellious daughter. Meanwhile, Ernest Liu doesn’t really do much as Keitel’s inexplicably Chinese son (never explained, but I assume he’s adopted).

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The supporting characters don’t show up until the crew step through the Titty Twister doors. Tom Savini is more than memorable as the aptly named Sex Machine, equipped with an unforgettable weapon. Former football player/martial artist/Blaxploitation star Fred Williamson is absolutely badass as Frost, a Vietnam vet who’s more than prepared to take on a few vampires. Speaking of which, the vamps themselves feature some recognizable faces. Danny Trejo does his usual thing as a scowling bartender. Selma Hayek is sexy as hell as show-stopping stripper Santanico Pandemonium. Cheech Marin shows up in three different roles (one of which is a vampire bouncer who’s not above some cheesy puns).

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The script is not without a few inconsistencies (Keitel’s priest’s so-so struggle with faith and varying amounts of screen time in the vampire transformations), but the sense of gory entertainment and high energy pretty much make up for the narrative problems. The practical effects are outstanding, while most of the CGI (mainly bats and melting bodies) is intentionally cheesy and kept to a minimum. The kills range in creativity, with truly inventive weapons being used and cool vampire demises. Hearts are ripped out, tables are used as improvised stakes, holy water comes into play, etc. DUSK’s vampires are among the ugliest that I’ve seen, resembling snakes, rats, and bats.

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FROM DUSK TILL DAWN may not be the smartest vampire story (LET THE RIGHT ONE IN probably takes that title) or the most technically well-made bloodsucker flick, but it remains my favorite vampire movie for its sarcastic sense of humor, colorful characters, insane gory fun, and sheer entertainment. When I see this film airing on TV, I always find myself watching it to the end like an unwritten personal rule. It’s a bloody blast from start to finish and cannot be clearly lumped thrown into one genre. Look at that director/writer team! Look at that premise! Look at the cast! Look at those effects! What’s not to love?

Grade: A-

ROMEO IS BLEEDING (1994)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Language and Sexuality

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Directed by: Peter Medak

Written by: Hilary Henkin

Starring: Gary Oldman, Lena Olin, Annabella Sciorra, Juliette Lewis, Roy Scheider, Michael Wincott, Will Patton, James Cromwell & Ron Perlman

The 90’s was a strange time for cinema. Though many of my friends cite the 70’s or the 80’s as their favorite decade in film, I personally favor the 90’s. Bold new talents were arriving and great old talents were putting out some of their best work. The filmmaking scene was expanding into exciting new areas as independent films made huge waves. With all of the great movies coming out of this oddball decade, many forgotten and overlooked gems were buried. ROMEO IS BLEEDING premiered at a couple of film festivals before being trashed by most critics and flopping hard at the box office. That’s really a shame as this super dark modern noir deserves more fans than it has. Peter Medak didn’t go on to do anything of note after ROMEO IS BLEEDING, but could have very well ended up as a tour-de-force like Tarantino or the Coen brothers. This is film is that good!

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Jack Grimaldi is a New York cop who’s recently discovered the monetary benefits of playing both sides of the law. He serves as a police officer by day and mob informant by night. Aside from his corrupt double-life, Jack is also cheating on his wife with a younger mistress. His newest illegal assignment is to kill a psychopathic Russian assassin, Mona, who will briefly be in his custody. Jack fails to complete his task due to a sexual attraction to Mona. As a consequence for not going through with the deed, Jack finds his life thrown into turmoil. Both his wife and mistress are now in danger from an intimidating mob boss, all while Mona keeps reappearing in his life with unclear intentions. Jack’s been thrown into a deadly mess of blood, money, and sex. If he walks away alive, he won’t be walking away clean.

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As far as film noirs go, ROMEO IS BLEEDING is among the most vicious and grimy that I’ve seen. The New York locations shine under solid cinematography, especially the nighttime scenes. A constant feeling of ever-approaching dread keeps escalating with each passing minute. The screenplay is a tightly constructed web of deceit and violence that keeps the viewer on their toes. I gasped multiple times while watching this film, especially as things spiral out-of-control in the second half. The soundtrack is both a blessing and a curse. It’s very pleasing throughout most of the movie and seems to fit certain scenes like a glove. However, there are a couple of points where it borders on distracting as it’s trying a bit too hard to emulate past film noir music. My only complaint with this film lies in those few moments of so-so music. Otherwise, it’s a pretty damned awesome thriller tailor-made for those who like their crime films to be dark, complicated and twisted!

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Of course, a great screenplay wouldn’t do much if the performers weren’t pulling their weight. A pre-LEON Gary Oldman plays Jack as a morally reprehensible being. He starts off as a pathetic character who is easily manipulated. It’s hard to feel much sympathy for him and though he’s pretty much a scumbag through and through, he’s very interesting to watch (especially when you see that he does care about the safety of those around him). His unhinged narration throughout gives us an insight into why he makes some of the stupid decisions that he does, even gains a bit of pity as he deeply regrets committing his crimes. Juliette Lewis and Annabella Sciorra star as Jack’s love interests and are fairly well-developed through little nuances they put into their performances (especially Juliette Lewis lecturing Jack upon discovering that he’s a married man). Roy Scheider plays the mob boss as calm, collect, and very dangerous. Finally, there’s the show’s real scene-stealer in Lena Olin’s Mona. This character is an absolute psychopathic monster and Olin is a beast in the part. She’s downright terrifying and one of my new favorite femme fatales.

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ROMEO IS BLEEDING won’t be please everyone. It might be too dark, grim and violent for some. Those looking for an intense modern noir will not be disappointed though. From the stellar performances from Gary Oldman and Lena Olin to the insane screenplay that goes into macabre corners that you wouldn’t imagine possible, this is one the best underrated gems that I’ve found in reviewing for this website thus far. ROMEO IS BLEEDING is a film that I plan on revisiting many times in the future and is definitely worth checking out!

Grade: A

HELLION (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 39 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language

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Directed by: Kat Candler

Written by: Kat Candler

Starring: Josh Wiggins, Aaron Paul, Juliette Lewis & Deke Garner

Coming of age films are a dime-a-dozen lately, but they seldom get as upsetting and frustrating as HELLION. I say this in the best way possible, because that’s exactly the kind of story HELLION is. It follows a troubled youth and asks questions that have no easy answers. We see both sides of the coin and are left to our own devices to answer what we might do in any position in the film. It’s a compelling piece of independent cinema that’s a hugely promising sophomore effort for Kat Chandler.

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Jacob is a thirteen-year-old who loves heavy metal and Motocross racing. Unfortunately, he’s not in the most ideal of environments. His mother is gone, Hollis (his father) might as well be gone, and he’s pretty much left on his own to take care of his younger brother Wes. After social services comes knocking and takes Wes away to his aunt’s home. Jacob and Hollis must get their act together to get Wes back. Hollis is trying to sober up and prove to the courts that he’s a capable parental figure for his child. Jacob is trying to do whatever he can to bring Wes home and becomes obsessed with winning a Motocross race for him. As life goes, it’s possible that not everything will go as planned or that everything will eventually be okay.

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HELLION is a blend of the coming-of-age formula and harsh family drama. There isn’t so much a concrete plotline as it is a group of a characters in a tough patch of life. All four of the protagonists are fleshed out and given enough detail for the viewer to feel a bit of sympathy for each of them. This is part of the reason why the moral issues brought up in HELLION are so difficult to find a simple answer on. Visiting message boards after watching this movie, I saw posts that argued the film from three distinct angles. It should also be noted that the writing has a stark realism around it too. The delinquent teenage boys are troubled kids who swear so much you’d think they were raised on Quentin Tarantino films and are prone to violence when agitated. None of these characterizations would matter if the performances weren’t up to snuff. Aaron Paul is great as the emotionally troubled father with a lot of baggage. In this role, he’s given territory he really hasn’t gone into before. Juliette Lewis is not nearly on the screen as much as the rest of the cast, but comes off as a compelling character in her own tough situation. The real stars are the child actors, especially newcomer Josh Wiggins, who are amazing in their roles.

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In the final 30 minutes, HELLION goes in directions that I didn’t see coming and was made all the better for it. Glancing back at some of these scenes though, they feel a tad rushed. Some real potential might have been milked more from a key situation, but is over almost as soon as it began. The film also takes a while to gets its footing in the first third. Shaky camera work can be a little much as well. Even with these questionable stylistic and pacing choices aside, HELLION is a great and emotionally gripping piece of work. One of the elements that is briefly glimpsed, but had the biggest impact on me is the emotional distance Wes towards Jacob. As a guy with three brothers of his own, this plot point (also rushed through fairly quickly) devastated me.

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HELLION achieves its goal of getting the viewer frustrated, emotionally engaged, and throwing questions at them that have no easy answers. It’s a movie that’s bound to spark some interesting conversations and debates between friends watching it together. I’m a little surprised there isn’t a tad bit of controversy around where the film goes, but I mean this in an absolutely positive way. The acting is stellar and the story is interesting. There are a couple of pacing decisions that weigh it down ever so slightly. The shaky cam can also be annoying, but it doesn’t have a huge presence either. HELLION has me excited to see what Kat Candler does next. Highly recommended!

Grade: B+

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