Movie Review: “We Are Your Friends”

Starring
Zac Efron, Emily Ratajkowski, Wes Bentley, Jonny Weston, Shiloh Fernandez, Alex Shaffer, Jon Bernthal
Director
Max Joseph

For the first third of the movie, “We Are Your Friends” suffers from the exact same problem as its protagonist: it’s trying to combine too many disparate ideas, and is a disjointed mess. When it (thankfully) jettisons the “Entourage” angle of the story, along with the Denis Leary-narrated Ford F 150-style graphics (yep, every word spoken appears on screen, multiple characters do it, and it never works), the movie finally finds its, ahem, rhythm. It turns out, “We Are Your Friends” is “Magic Mike” with turntables, right down to the party scenes oozing with so much potential disease transmission that I wanted a shot of penicillin afterwards, and I’m allergic to penicillin.

Cole (Zac Efron) is an aspiring DJ, playing early sets in the club that his friends promote in exchange for cash, free drinks and, if they play their cards right, women. One night, he opens for popular DJ James Reed (Wes Bentley), and the two wind up partying together. James sees Cole’s potential, and pushes him to come up with a track that will make his name, offering him excellent advice (and free studio time) on how he can find his voice. Cole is grateful for all of this, but it does not stop him from developing feelings for James’ much younger, live-in romantic assistant Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), even though he knows it could jeopardize his best shot at getting to the next level. Cole is also starting to realize how unambitious his friends are, but struggles with cutting the ties.

Emily Ratajkowski has been a model since she was 14 years old, so she’s presumably seen and heard it all, but even she had to have paused for a second or two when director and co-screenwriter Max Joseph may or may not have said to her, “I’m going to shoot a couple of slow-mo bits of you dancing, and the camera is going to be focused on nothing but your rack. You’re cool with that, right?” Clearly, she was cool with that, as the scenes are here (said rack received similar attention in “Gone Girl”), but it has to be disheartening as an actress when you’re trying to build a body of work, and the director spends a substantial amount of time not focusing on your face.

One of the things “We Are Your Friends” gets right is that most kids going out into the world, especially ones that have to fend for themselves right out of high school (the audience only meets one of the boys’ parents, so they are presumably on their own), are hopelessly naïve. Any adult can anticipate 90% of the film’s plot, because they’ve been there before. Cole, on the other hand, hasn’t been there before, and Efron does a nice job of portraying that lack of experience. Unfortunately, what that makes this film is the story of a kid making mistake after mistake until he figures it out. Even the party scenes have a sadness to them, as Cole and his mates remain those immature dopes who take unspeakable jobs for cash (working for a very well-cast Jon Bernthal) so they can continue Living the Lifestyle. They’re pathetic, and that’s the point, but they’re still pathetic.

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Movie Review: “Mistress America”

Starring
Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Matthew Shear, Heather Lind, Michael Chernus
Director
Noah Baumbach

Real-life couple Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig clearly enjoy working together, but their films are far from enjoyable. The pair’s first collaboration, 2012’s “Frances Ha,” was a painfully obtuse look at self-entitled millennials living in New York City, and although “Mistress America” isn’t as bad, it covers a lot of the same ground while forcing yet another group of mostly unlikable characters down the audience’s throat. Last year, Baumbach directed a movie about a similar subject (“While We’re Young”) without Gerwig’s involvement, and the reason that film was such a success is because it skewered the faux-intellectual hipster crowd from the outside looking in. The problem with “Mistress America,” however, is that its main characters are just like the people Baumbach so effectively mocked in his previous outing; they’re great comic fodder, but they don’t make for very endearing company.

Lola Kirke stars as Tracy Fishko, a lonely college freshman at Barnard College with high hopes of being accepted into the school’s exclusive literary magazine. She hasn’t had much luck making friends, save for fellow wannabe writer Tony (Matthew Shear), so her mother suggests that she get in touch with her soon-to-be stepsister, Brooke (Gerwig), who lives in the city. Brooke is more than happy to take the impressionable Tracy under her wing, and after a night on the town together, the two become inseparable. Tracy idolizes Brooke, using her wild social life as inspiration for a new short story, while Brooke loves that someone so intelligent could look up to her. But when Brooke’s latest business endeavor, a terribly conceived restaurant/hair salon/community center, loses one of its key investors, she brings Tracy with her to Connecticut to convince some wealthy college friends – former boyfriend Dylan (Michael Chernus) and frenemy Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) – to bail her out.

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Movie Review: “Z for Zachariah”

Starring
Margot Robbie, Chris Pine, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Director
Craig Zobel

Director Craig Zobel’s last feature film, 2012’s “Compliance,” was more than a little divisive. Nobody dismissed the quality of the filmmaking or the convincing performances, but the focus was on the story itself, which left audiences asking, “Why would someone do this?” But that was the point. What pushes people to make questionable decisions, ones that they didn’t think they were capable of making? Zobel’s newest movie, “Z for Zachariah,” poses a similar question, amongst many others in this deceptively simple post-apocalyptic tale.

The film is set in a near-future dystopia where most of humanity is gone. One of the survivors, Ann (Margot Robbie), lives on her father’s farm, managing to get by. She lives a fairly simple, lonely life, but that all changes when she meets Dr. John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Though the man of science’s views clash with her religious beliefs, they soon develop a deep bond – one that’s interrupted by the arrival of another survivor named Caleb (Chris Pine). As they spend time together, Ann becomes torn between the two men, but this story is about much more than a love triangle.

As a love triangle, though, it’s quite challenging and brutal. There’s a scene where Dr. Loomis catches Caleb and Ann in a small moment of intimacy, and the way Ejiofor silently reacts in this scene is painful to watch. “Z for Zachariah” is a film that often plays its cards close to its chest. The biblical subtext is clear – Caleb is the snake that enters the Garden of Eden and temps Ann to sin – but it never calls too much attention to itself. A conversation about science vs. religion is secondary to the lead characters’ struggles.

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Movie Review: “American Ultra”

Starring
Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo
Director
Nima Nourizadeh

After making his directorial debut with the totally distasteful and juvenile found footage comedy, “Project X,” it wouldn’t have been surprising if Nima Nourizadeh never worked in Hollywood again. But someone clearly saw something in the filmmaker that warranted giving him another chance, and while he doesn’t exactly redeem himself with the action-comedy “American Ultra,” it does prove that he’s at least somewhat competent behind the camera. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement, and deservedly so, because although the movie boasts a talented cast and intriguing premise, it never amounts to more than a mildly amusing end-of-summer distraction that squanders its considerable potential under the indecisive direction of Nourizadeh.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mike Howell, an unambitious stoner who’s perfectly content with his mundane life in West Virginia alongside his live-in girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). Mike is completely in love with her, and even plans a romantic getaway to trip in order to propose, but for some reason, he keeps having panic attacks that prevent him from leaving town. Unbeknownst to him, his crippling anxiety is actually a side effect from an experimental government program he volunteered for that wiped his memory and turned him into a CIA sleeper agent. When the program’s architect, Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), learns that bureaucratic brownnoser Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) plans to terminate all the subjects from the abandoned project, she decides to activate Mike using a secret code phrase and give him a fair shot at survival. But it doesn’t work as expected – that is, until Yates sends a pair of assassins to kill Mike and he snaps out of his daze, dispatching them with only a spoon and a cup of ramen. Marked for death and forced to go on the run, Mike must utilize his new abilities to rescue Phoebe when she’s kidnapped by Yates and his team of programmed killers.

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Movie Review: “Sinister 2″

Starring
James Ransone, Shannyn Sossamon, Robert Daniel Sloan, Dartanian Sloan
Director
Ciarán Foy

Director Scott Derrickson’s “Sinister” remains a chilling movie. It’s a quietly effective horror film that’s anchored by a solid lead performance from Ethan Hawke. Though Derrickson has returned for “Sinister 2,” it’s not behind the camera, but rather as a screenwriter alongside his co-writer from the first film, C. Robert Cargill. Taking over helming duties instead is Irish-born director Ciarán Foy (“Citadel”), and although his sequel doesn’t reach the bar set by its predecessor, it comes close at times.

Deputy So & So (James Ransone) is haunted by the events from the first film, believing he could’ve done more to help Ellison Oswalt (Hawke) and his family. No longer an active deputy, So & So now spends his time tracking down the evil spirit Bughuul. He’s dedicated his life to preventing the demon from harming more families, which brings him to Courtney Collins (Shannyn Sossamon) and her 9-year-old twins, Dylan (Robert Daniel Sloan) and Zach (Dartanian Sloan), who could potentially be Bughuul’s next victims. On the run from the law and her sons’ abusive father, Courtney hides away in an abandoned house, unaware that it’s haunted, which prompts Bughuul and his pack of possessed kids to lure the boys in by showing them 8mm films of grisly killings.

Much like the first movie, the 8mm footage is truly unsettling, except it’s lacking this time around. Part of the reason why the footage was so horrific in “Sinister” was because we were experiencing it from the point of view of a flawed, human and believable protagonist. We weren’t just watching seemingly senseless murders; we were also seeing the toll it was taking on Ellison. Those 8mm films played a role in his arc, as he was so obsessed in regaining his success as an author that he continued watching the murders. In the case of the sequel, the 8mm films don’t serve as substantial of a purpose, and they’re not pleasant in the way they’re probably intended to be. Since the footage doesn’t carry the same weight as they did in the first movie, it becomes a little tiresome watching people killed over and over again.

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