“Are we ever going to be better than this?” We Are Your Friends

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Someday Hollywood will figure out what to do with Zac Efron. He’s had success  – obviously (High School Musical, Neighbors) – but he always seems to be nipping at the edges of super-stardom. A baby John Travolta or Tom Cruise, trapped in amber, all smoky pout, wounded charm, and barracuda ambition, but with nowhere terribly great to channel it. Heaven help us if he discovers Scientology.

Sadly, We Are Your Friends, his latest gambit to cement leading man status has been dead-on-arrival at the box office and is now pegged as a dismal and historic failure.

And that’s a shame because the movie ain’t half bad.

It’s a bit of a paint-by-numbers affair, cribbing from so many “lost in the valley” (literal and figurative) films depicting an aspiring hustler from the wrong side of the tracks trying to make good by lurking around the darker side-alleys of pop culture, nightlife, and fame – see: Saturday Night Fever, Boogie Nights, 8Mile, Swingers, Magic Mike, Step Up (hell, 75% of Channing Tatum‘s filmography-to-date, qualifies in fact).

In the case of We Are Your Friends, titled after the mid-aughts EDM hit by Justice vs. Simian, Efron and his collaborators, including director and co-screenwriter Max Joseph (Catfish), attempt to capitalize on the white-hot ascension of Southern California DJ-culture and said EDM (that would be “electronic dance music” to us fogies who used to call it, say, house or acid or techno or disco or … er … dance music).

With a healthy expectation for audience members to suspend our disbelief, former Disney star Efron plays a scruffy San Fernando Valley ne’er-do-well whose days (and nights) are spent in a drug-addled, thumping-bass haze as he and his pals bounce from club to couch to club again. The script is an under-baked affair, wisely relying on Efron’s charisma (which he has in spades) to fill in the (many) gaps where a bit of character-development might have saved the day.

Efron’s character Cole Carter (yeah, that name – trying a bit too hard for Cali cool guy chic, if you ask me) is an aspiring musician/producer/DJ with little direction and even fewer resources. In the kind of happenstance collision that only occurs in movies like this, Cole shares a cigarette with – and therefore befriends – world-class DJ (and jerk) James Reed (engagingly played by a glowering Wes Bentley, looking like Chris Evans’ sozzled, emaciated twin).

James gives Cole some superficial tutelage (the EDM Obi-Wan Kenobi version of “write what you know” … which is “grab some weird sounds on your iPhone that you hear around your house and put them in a song”). During a drunken night in Vegas, Cole steals James’ girlfriend Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski of Gone Girl and Robin Thicke‘s “Blurred Lines” video – oy.); James and Cole have an awkwardly staged fight in a bathroom stall; they stop speaking. Cole, consequently, loses a gig that would change his life; James and Cole make up; Cole finally takes his mentor’s advice and “hears the world”; they make up again. Cole performs said gig in front of an American Apparel warehouse (!), offering a hypnotically existential “let’s recap everything you just saw with some flashbacks, looped beats, and smoldering glances from Mr. Efron” denouement, and all is right with the world, when Cole and Sophie reunite over pie at a vegan cafe where she is now waitressing. Whew. Try that with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland!

Efron almost single-handedly keeps the proceedings from running off the rails into soap opera schmaltz. His beautiful loser gravitas gave Neighbors some much needed spice; and the same is true for We Are Your Friends. He is aided and abetted by an appealing group of misfits that trail around behind him. Shiloh Ferndandez, Alex Shaffer, and Jonny Weston play Cole’s bedraggled Valley Boys, as if Entourage were filmed in a Salvation Army somewhere.

After a third-act tragedy strikes this merry band of get-rich-quick schemers, the young thespians do some of their best work in the flick. It’s not their fault that we’ve seen this coming-of-age-in-postmodern-sprawl a million times now and that it was already tired the first time Steven Soderbergh visited this dusty cinematic strip mall. I just wish these actors had a more-focused script with which to work, one that spent time developing the interpersonal dynamic beyond the dreamer/hothead/nerd/gigolo cyphers the actors are given to play.

We Are Your Friends benefits from a game cast and a director (this is Max Joseph’s feature debut) who has a reasonably solid handle on pacing and visuals. (Joseph seems to be a Fight Club/David Fincher junkie as he has a lot of clever fun – nearly careening into self-indulgence – with rotoscoped animation, title cards, and subtitles.) Unfortunately, the script isn’t quite up-to-snuff, and a tighter job in editing would have likely helped as well.

At one point in the film, Cole’s buddy Squirrel (as played by Alex Shaffer) asks, “Are we ever going to be better than this?” – a query which becomes a clarion call for the misbegotten generation depicted in the film. And this same question might be asked of Efron’s sputtering movie career, full as it is of such unrealized promise. Time will tell.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

He’s a quick study. Nightcrawler (2014)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I love it when matinee idols are finally brave enough to let their real freak flags fly. Joaquin Phoenix, Nicholas Cage, Heath Ledger, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise.

And now Jake Gyllenhaal.

Don’t get me wrong, he’s always been pretty nutty, from Donnie Darko to last year’s Prisoners, but this fall’s Nightcrawler takes the cake. (The less said about Bubble Boy the better.) With his now emaciated frame and anime-esque bug-eyes, Gyllenhaal channels the feisty, manic desperation of someone who has bought too fully into Horatio Alger self-starting mythology.

As Louis Bloom, a wannabe cameraman selling to René Russo’s equally desperate television producer prurient footage he takes of mutilated bodies all over Los Angeles, Gyllenhaal not only pulls himself up by his bootstraps, he takes the boots off, throws them over his head, and sets them on fire.

At times, this darkly satirical tale reminded me of To Die For, Gus Van Sant’s 90s treatise on our preoccupation with fame and success at any price. However, Nightcrawler takes that film’s thesis and modernizes it to meet the relentless gluttony of our 24/7 news-cycles.

The film opens with Bloom stealing scraps of metal to resell, positioning him as a literal and figurative parasite on society. When Bloom comes across a grizzly traffic accident, he observes Bill Paxton, in fabulous character actor mode, filming said scene to resell to local media … another kind of societal parasite. And, as Bloom repeatedly notes throughout the flick, he’s a quick study.

Gyllenhaal’s google eyes light up as he ogles Paxton’s very expensive camera equipment and shiny news van, identifying a potential opportunity for himself. The movie tracks Bloom’s meteoric rise as he finds no end of salacious footage to capture, sometimes manipulating crime scenes to achieve the optimal money shot.

This is one of those movies, like There Will Be Blood or Dogville or Dancer in the Dark, that plumbs the depths of human misery so fully that I feel a little embarrassed to admit how much I love it. But, wow, I love this movie.

Russo, exuding world-weariness, is the perfect counterpoint to Gyllenhaal’s rampant ambition – she is a TV veteran who has seen it all, done it all, and is over it all. Their scenes together are dynamite, Gyllenhaal’s hyperactive puppy jumping around Russo’s exhausted big dog. My apologies to Russo for the analogy, but it is apt.

This film is an exquisite indictment of our preoccupation with “reality” television – the uglier the scene, the more the eyeballs watching it. We have become a society that is all about overnight box office, Nielsen ratings, virality. The film is more subtle than this review may indicate. But it is squirmy. It is funny. And it is devastating. I highly recommend it

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Don’t pass go. Don’t collect $200: Edge of Tomorrow

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

All You Need is Kill was the original title of Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt’s cheeky summer epic Edge of Tomorrow. Changing the film’s name to something akin to a 1950s NBC soap opera is the only misstep the movie makes.

I’ve heard folks describe this slyly smart sci-fi bon-bon as Groundhog Day meets the video game Halo, and there is truth to that. The movie does use a “Live. Die. Repeat.” narrative structure (Edge of Tomorrow‘s marketing slogan, in fact … which also would have made a better title), and it cannily turns video game tropes on their collective head: bloodless mayhem; squiggly, skittery, unrelatable enemies; trash-talking mercenaries; Starship Troopers-esque chunky, scruffy battle gear; and, most importantly, the ability to replay a scene over and over until you get it right and can move onto the next.

Here’s the thing: director Doug Liman (so good with popcorn fare that’s a witty cut above the rest – Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Swingers, The Bourne Identity, Jumper) is not glorifying violence but rather using genre elements (not unlike the aforementioned Starship Troopers does) with such crafty juxtaposition (including the endless, intentionally mind-numbing repetition) to emphasize the colossal absurdity, and ultimate futility, of warfare. More 50 First Dates meets Dr. Strangelove.

While the rest of the world seems to have abandoned their golden boy Cruise, I actually find him rather interesting these days. From his gonzo cameo in Tropic Thunder to his sozzled musical turn in Rock of Ages to his caustic antihero Jack Reacher, Cruise appears to have finally embraced his twitchy, sweaty inner-hooligan and jettisoned his alpha male leading man aspirations. He has given up on winky, grinny charm … and has become authentically charming in the process. He finally feels like one of us – welcome to the poor schlub club, Tommy – you always belonged here.

Cruise’s character Major William Cage is a PR wonk who has somehow talked his way into a cushy military job as Europe is overtaken by long-legged-y beasties that make ominous hissing noises like a Slinky descending stairs. The always perfect Brendan Gleeson plays a Euro-general who has seen it all and isn’t buying Cage’s line of BS, sending the yellow-bellied marketer directly to the front-lines … don’t pass go, don’t collect $200.

And this is where the movie takes off like a rocket ship. Bill Paxton, in yet another wry summer movie turn (see him equally genius in a very different role in Million Dollar Arm) is Cage’s commanding officer with a bad 70s ‘stache and an even (intentionally) worse 70s swagger. Cage ends up thrown on a beach-y war-zone (a la Normandy) alongside a crew of misfits. He gets sprayed with some icky purple alien blood, and gains the gift (or curse?) to repeat this day over and over and over.

Cruise’s performance is so unexpectedly nebbishy, sans any annoying Woody Allen eccentricities, that he has the audience in the palm of his hand instantly. We are right there with him in this comically nightmarish bad dream.

Eventually, Cage survives long enough to meet Joan of Arc-super warrior Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt playing splendidly against type – see Devil Wears Prada, The Five-Year Engagement). Vrataski once had the same affliction as Cage, doomed to repeat the same day in an endless loop until a blood transfusion took her power away. Consequently, she becomes his Obi-Wan Kenobi, Mr. Miyagi, and Ellen Ripley all in one. Blunt uses her crack timing, soulful eyes, proper British cynicism, and cut-glass cheekbones all to great effect, giving us an intimidatingly likable  a**-kicker who suffers no fools gladly.

By the time the third act starts to wrap up with its inevitable “save the world by blowing up the source of all alien incursions” denouement, your patience with the film’s conceits may be worn thin. I suspect that is by design. The audience’s mental posture mirrors Cage’s/Cruise’s at that particular cinematic crossroads, and the overlap of viewer and viewed is a gas. (At least it was for me.) And this film is one of the rare examples of an ambiguous non-ending ending that works like a charm. I won’t spoil it, but I think you’ll agree.

Kyle, Steve, Jim, Sean, Roy and John

Kyle, Steve, Jim, Sean, Roy and John

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P.S. Viewing this movie was the capstone to our pal Jim Lynch‘s Big Day of Fun.

Guardians of the Galaxy with interlopers Charlie, Steve, Jim

The Guardians of the Galaxy with interlopers Charlie, Steve, and Jim

In anticipation of Jim’s upcoming nuptials to Lyn Weber, we had an afternoon of silly (great!) activities:

 

 

 

Hudson Museum (with genuine Tucker car) and Sidetracks in Ypsilanti, SkyZone and GameStop in Canton, Putterz (with a Z!) in Ypsilanti, and Carlyle Grill and, yes, Edge of Tomorrow in Ann Arbor.

The day was less Hangover more Little Rascals.

Assorted thunderstorms and a leaky limo roof only enhanced the fun, never dampening (pun intended) the hijinks! Enjoy these photos …

Jim, Roy, and John

Jim, Roy, and John

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view.

Sean makes a friend at Putterz

Sean makes a friend at Putterz

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

Jim, Kyle, Sean, and  John at Sidetracks

Jim, Kyle, Roy, Sean, and John at Sidetracks

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

 

 

Countdown: Jack Reacher

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Just 16 days until the official launch of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton! The book is now (for however long THAT will last 😉 !) on Amazon’s list of top-selling “Guides and Reviews”!!

“Tom Cruise’s latest Jack Reacher is the cinematic equivalent of fast food, albeit slightly nicer fast food…like Subway.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

Runs and jumps and leaps and squints: Jack Reacher

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Tom Cruise’s latest Jack Reacher is the cinematic equivalent of fast food, albeit slightly nicer fast food…like Subway. It is pleasant, even rather enjoyable and with a touch of nutritional value…but imminently forgettable.

Apparently, this movie is an adaptation of a book series, with which I admit I have zero familiarity. It is clunkily episodic, like one of those goony Janet Evanovich novels…though blessedly without the audience having to suffer through Katherine Heigl this time. (See: One for the Money…no, wait, please DON’T see One for the Money…it was godawful). It also has a fun Sherlock Holmesian procedural-featuring-a-quirkily-flawed-antihero vibe.

Tom Cruise is actually a delight as the titular character. I have to admit since his Oprah couch-jumping episode I have enjoyed his subsequent movie output’s steady parade of unhinged, tightly wound, micro men. He has a niche, and he does it well.

(As an aside, I also started liking Britney Spears a lot more after her umbrella-wielding, head-shaving meltdown. Not sure what that says about me.)

The rest of the film doesn’t fare as well. It is entertaining throughout…but just don’t think about any of it too hard. The movie’s tone is ALL over the map, veering wildly from gritty thriller to methodical potboiler to camp action-fest. Robert Duvall pops up unnecessarily in the final act in his typical grizzled, cranky old wise man with a heart of gold role. Richard Jenkins is wasted as a dubiously motivated D.A., and Rosamund Pike is just surprisingly bad, in fact stultifyingly stiff, as Reacher’s defense attorney sidekick.

The plot is fairly conventional as Reacher runs and jumps and leaps and squints to find the real killer in a too-close-to-current-headlines sniper shooting. The motivation when finally revealed is like something from an episode of 70s-era Dallas, and Werner Herzog’s villain even worse, like J.R. Ewing if he was raised in Das Boot.

The film lurches toward some interesting commentary about how our military/industrial complex can churn out and abandon broken souls for whom violence and gunfire are the only language they know. But just as quickly as the film touches on an intriguing socioeconomic critique about America’s preoccupation with firearms, it flies into a well-paced, lovingly-edited chase scene, and the insightful moment is gone.

There was potential here for a fun yet intelligent popcorn flick, a la Skyfall. In fact, Tom Cruise seems like he was primed and ready to be in such a movie. It’s a shame that director Christopher McQuarrie, so good with The Usual Suspects and Valkyrie, showed up ready to direct a very special episode of CH*Ps.