Every Rose Has Its Thorns

Paradise Hills

by Cat McAlpine

We open on an extravagant wedding scene that could be mistaken for the 1920s were it not for the quick cut to a hover car. Welcome to the future!

A whimsical sequence features Uma (Emma Roberts, “American Horror Story,” “Scream Queens”) singing a promise of fealty to her new husband. This is the first of Paradise Hill’s three small singing performances, all of which you’ll wish had been either cut or dubbed.

The newly wed groom coos to his wife, “It’s as if that girl never existed.”

Wow, that sure sounds like a hint. We soon meet the girl he means in a time jump to “Two Months Earlier.” At this point I have decided not to hold the hover car against Paradise Hills, but there is only so much you can forgive in 95 minutes.

Uma (Roberts) awakens in a behavioral facility for young women, where girls are sent by their families to be convinced to be thinner, more socially acceptable, or well mannered. The mysterious circumstances of her arrival and the elaborate setting point to something much more nefarious under the surface.

Director Alice Waddington, in her feature debut, is best known as a fashion creative and photographer and it shows. The film itself has a dreamy aesthetic that interweaves holograms and LEDs with manicured gardens and all-white corseted ensembles.

The complexity of this film ends with its costumes and set. The line delivery is awkward and stilted despite a promising cast. The setting and dialog allude to a kind of Oscar Wilde repartee, where members of proper society throw witty jabs while holding tiny tea cups. But the script is tragically lacking and the stage is set only for the weak writing to fall flat.

More than an hour is spent navigating a dreamy, floral landscape before anything interesting really surfaces. Writing team Brian DeLeeuw, Nacho Vigalondo, and Waddington can’t decide which threads to pull. There’s another love interest, the tragic death of a family member, the crushing pressures of fame, and the strength and importance of female friendships all to be explored.

Paradise Hills could have been an interesting delve into the ways that the solidarity of sisterhood allow us to rise above our circumstances and pasts. Instead it’s a weak nod to an old idea: “You don’t need to change to be accepted.”  

Your teen daughter might enjoy this movie, but you should challenge her with something better.

Identity Crisis

The Blackcoat’s Daughter

by Hope Madden

Winter break approaches at a Catholic New England boarding school. Snow piles up outside, the buildings empty, yet Kat (Kiernan Shipka) and Rose (Lucy Boynton) remain. One has tricked her parents for an extra day with her townie boyfriend. One remains under more mysterious circumstances.

Things in writer/director Oz Perkins’s The Blackcoat’s Daughter quietly unravel from there – although quiet is not precisely the word for it. There is a stillness to the chilly, empty halls. But thanks to the filmmaker’s brother Elvis, whose disquieting score fills these empty spaces with buzzing, whispering white noise, a sinister atmosphere is born.

Like Perkins’s Netflix-produced follow up I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House, Blackcoat’s Daughter breathes atmosphere and tension. Perkins repays your patience and your attention. You can expect few jump scares, but this is not exactly a slow-burn of a film, either.

It behaves almost in the way a picture book does. In a good picture book, the words tell only half the story. The illustrations don’t simply mirror the text, they tell their own story as well. If there is one particular and specific talent Blackcoat’s Daughter exposes in its director, it is his ability with a visual storyline.

Perkins is also a master at generating tension, a kind built on unsure footing. The filmmaker routinely touches on your expectations, quietly toying with them. He introduces characters and situations rife with horror possibilities, but equally plausible as images of safety: priests in a boarding school, cars on an icy road, James Remar in a motel room.

Remar’s mug can be associated with so many villainous characters that his presence in this film as a concerned father figure is perfect. There is one masterpiece of a scene between Remar and Emma Roberts – one that dances with to so many different rhythms of danger – and it perfectly encapsulates this filmmaker’s power over an audience.

When the slow and deliberate dread turns to outright carnage – when Perkins punctuates his forbidding atmosphere with hard action – he loses his footing just a bit. But Blackcoat’s Daughter is a thoughtful little horror show, its final act a fascinating rethinking of old horror tropes.

Pay attention when you watch this one. There are loads of sinister little clues to find.

Verdict-3-5-Stars





Play on Player

Nerve

by Hope Madden

Unfriended meets Pokemon Go in the online thrill ride Nerve.

Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman like to reflect the evolution of society’s culture of technology. Their breakout 2010 “documentary” Catfish questioned the safety in online anonymity. Over their next few films these themes grew and merged with statements on privacy vs voyeurism, exhibitionism and thrill seeking in a digitally saturated world.

With Nerve, the filmmakers have wrapped these ideas around the universal truth that kids are stupid and framed it with your standard fare high school drama, achieving surprisingly entertaining results.

Within the film’s universe, Nerve is an online game of truth or dare, “minus the truth.” Participants choose to be players or watchers. Watchers choose dares, players complete them, gaining cash rewards and collecting watchers. The player with the most of both wins – or do they?

Emma Roberts is Vee, a high school senior who observes more than she participates. Definitely not a player. But when brash bestie and Nerve celebrity-wannabe Syd’s (Emily Meads) miscalculation leads to Vee’s public humiliation, she leaps outside her comfort zone and joins the game.

Kiss a boy (Dave Franco). Ride into Manhattan with him. Try on a swanky dress. Everything seems innocent – even dreamy – until it doesn’t.

Jessica Sharzer’s script, based on Jeanne Ryan’s 2012 novel, is sharp enough to keep you interested regardless of the holes in the plot, which devolves into utter ridiculousness by Act 3. Still, in a forgettable B-movie kind of way, it’s a fun ride.

It also boasts a savviness that’s too of-the-moment to remain relevant by the end of the summer, but right this second it’s both cheeky and insightful. The finger-wagging and lessons learned fit perfectly with the familiar teen angst of the genre in this glitzy cautionary tale.

Verdict-3-0-Stars





Welcome to Adulthood! Yes, It Does Suck

Adult World

by Hope Madden

“Fame is your generation’s Black Plague.” So says Rat Billings (John Cusack), world-wearied poet and reluctant mentor to naïve college grad and would-be poet, Amy (Emma Roberts).

Rat has lots of good lines – he is a poet, after all – about the strange era of newly formed adults who grew up working toward fame for fame’s sake. “Generation Mundane” he calls them.

Unbeknownst to Amy, she herself fits that description, and that irony is at the heart of the bright indie comedy Adult World. The chemistry at the heart of the film belongs to Roberts and Cusack.

When Roberts’s Amy leaves the nest 90K in college debt with no marketable skill (her degree is in poetry, after all), she takes a job at an old style porn shop. There, a unique and fascinating world revolves around her, but she’s too busy “feeling, deeply feeling” to notice. Which is, of course, the problem with her artistry – she’s trying to write when she has refused to live, so what could she have to write about?

We watch as Amy refuses to participate in life, insulated from the world by her misguided, socially-instilled belief in her own specialness. Thankfully, director Scott Coffey’s film – scripted with refreshing self-deprecation by Andy Cochran – is rarely too overt with its theme. Sometimes, sure, and you would never call the film exactly subtle. But it has some real freshness to offer instead.

While the cast on the whole is quite solid, Roberts really hits high gear in scenes with Cusack. When these characters are together we get to see each at his or her most potent. Films rarely offer such undiluted presences. Neither actor is afraid to embrace what is unlikeable about their own character, and their scenes together are a kind of joyous celebration of flaws. A giddy artistic energy flows between the two performers that is a blast to watch.

Not every pairing goes as well. Amy’s onscreen love interest is played by Roberts’s offscreen love (and American Horror Story co-star) Evan Peters. Though their romance is sweet, its course is also predictable.

Worse still, the great Cloris Leachman is underused, and Armando Riesco’s drag queen is tacked onto the story sloppily and without real meaning.

Still, much of this story rings true, and the approach taken to poke fun at Generation Mundane is clever and well-intentioned. More than anything, though, it’s great to see Cusack running on all cylinders and matched so well.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 





Skip the Guitar Parts

 

by George Wolf

 

Maybe the thing I appreciate most about We’re the Millers is the acoustic guitar.

The music provides an unmistakeable cue that it’s time to quit joking about family ties and get real about real feelings that are real. Just know these moments won’t last too long, and then it’s back to some pretty damn funny business.

Jason Sudeikis (SNL/Horrible Bosses/engaged to Olvia Wilde/life is good) plays David, a small time pot dealer in debt to a big time pot dealer (Ed Helms, possibly confusing those who still think he and Sudeikis are the same person). To stay alive, David just has to cross the border and bring back ” a smidge, maybe smidge and a half” of weed from Mexico.

He figures a vacationing family would attract less attention down Mexico way, so he recruits a local stripper (Jennifer Aniston) to pose as his wife. After rounding out the faux family with a nerdy neighbor (Will Poulter) as their son, and a young runaway (Emma Roberts) as their daughter, its time to pack up the RV and hit the road!

The four-man writing team at work here sports a decent résumé, featuring screenplays for Hot Tub Time Machine, She’s Outta My League and Wedding Crashers. If those don’t exactly go straight to your funny bone, or more pointedly, if you frown upon the raunchy, stay far away from We’re the Millers.

Otherwise, the film gets better as it moves along. The contrivance needed for some of the gags is usually wiggled out of pretty deftly, as director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball) shows a nice feel for the pacing needed to sell this premise.

Aniston, as she did in Horrible Bosses, proves extremely likable digging into a character’s dark comedic edges. True, playing a stripper offers yet another chance to serve up the cheesecake, but as well as she’s aging, it’s hard to blame her.

She and Sudeikis display a nice chemistry, especially when they’re bein’ bad, and they get solid support from Kathyrn Hahn (“AN-y-th-in” from Anchorman) and Nick Offerman (TVs Parks and Recreation) as fellow RV travelers with surprises for everyone.

There are also a couple “breaking the fourth wall” moments, and some great outtakes as the credits roll. Pandering? Sure, but funny.

The main problem is simple inconsistency. The successful skewering of family cliches is interrupted by awkward reminders that families really are good! Nice is nice and all, but when you hang with We’re the Millers, naughty is where the fun is.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars