Nerve (2016): killer app taking over generation Z of Pokémon Go era

Neon lights reminiscent of Korine’s deranged and hedonistic Spring Breakers shine through this teenage techno-thriller that unapologetically throws us into the life of a high school senior Vee (Emma Roberts) and her generation Z peers, whose virtually-mediated reality gets a daring and dangerous twist with a sudden emergence of a new game/phone app called Nerve. Almost overnight the game seems to overflow the entire Manhattan and even those who are reluctant to join eventually give in, either due to sheer interest or as a result of relentless peer pressure.

Vee, a quiet teenager who likes to stay inside her comfortable zone and tries to avoid any (un)wanted attention (that persistently follows her ostentatious best friend), is definitely one of the later. And while she otherwise seems content by her unexciting and adrenaline-free life, she eventually caves in to her peers – if only to prove the point that she is not as boring and afraid of seizing life as everyone assumes. To prove that she too can be hip and cool, she impulsively decides to join the game – and not just that. There are two options of participating – you can either be a watcher; a voyeur hidden behind the screen, watching others except and complete dares for money, or you can step out of the shadow and become a player. Which is exactly what Vee decides to do.

Soon after she completes the first dare she teams up with a mysterious Ian (Dave Franco) and it is not long after they join forces that the dares start to escalate into ever more crazy and impossible scenarios. Things eventually go too far, with film losing its main power of being scary exactly because it was plausible. Instead it moves into a sphere of impossible to the point of ridiculous, resulting in a weird hybrid of the show Jackass and The Hunger Games. Nerve indeed seems to be putting to a test both how far the players are prepared to go at excepting stupid and life-threatening dares in return for some quick cash and momentary fame, as well as how far the watchers are prepared to go at demanding petrifying tasks for their own entertainment. But instead of staying in a scary-enough territory of things that could (and probably, at some point, did) happen, it completely loses its way in the second half and it never quite manages to pick itself back up from the messiness it got itself into.

While the players slowly start to drop out as the dares become ever more brutal and dangerous, the watchers do not seem to care about the line of what is still legal and acceptable. Feeling safe behind their computers, they keep on rising the stakes and it is not long before the game turns into a modern-day gladiator arena. They want blood, they want fatalities – and by this time there is hardly any options to get out anymore; it is simply kill or be killed.

The film is very aware of its post-Snowden era and the cinematography, constantly switching perspectives between film, mobile and computer camera, indeed gives us a feeling of the players constantly being spied on and surveilled; as if the web itself had eyes, persistently observing their every move. At times the perspective also moves to that of anonymous watchers watching the game on their phones or computers, ruthlessly commenting on what should happen next, while also continuously posting harsh comments that borderline on cyber-bullying. But Joost and Schulman (whose Nerve marks their return to exploring the darker side of internet identities and anonymity after their 2010 documentary Catfish) fail to carry this side narrative to any meaningful ending. Although Nerve clearly draws some inspiration from last year’s cyber-horror film Unfriended, it does not manage to tackle the cyber-bullying quite as successfully – instead of showing us just how brutal anonymous watchers can be, how they rarely understand the consequences of posting an insensitive vlog or comment, of clicking a button that could determine someone’s fate and how (even when confronted) they rarely feel any remorse about their actions, Nerve turns the narrative into a ridiculous hacker-war where watchers become semi-accountable for their actions; only that nothing actually happens except for everyone leaving the game by temporarily going offline. Perhaps we were supposed to believe that they actually felt remorse after they got exposed as accomplices in a crime; but why would they? Why would they not just turn to a new gaming platform where their anonymity would be restored, where they would be able to continue operating in the same, hurtful manner?

Nerve clearly seemed to have bigger aspirations at making a social commentary about contemporary teen culture and perils of technology than it actually manages to deliver, but it still manages to make some relevant points which elevate this film into a far more entertaining experience than I have initially anticipated. However, it does not come even close to portraying the deranged youth culture obsessing over fame, wealth and immoral hedonistic escapades as Harmony Korine did in Spring Breakers, and it furthermore fails at successfully blurring the lines of when the game is actually being played and when the game, by becoming bigger than life, starts to play us, as the criminally underrated Cronenberg’s eXistenZ managed to do. By relying too heavily on currently relevant social media to be able to survive the passage of time and by ending the story in a far too simplistic manner, this film will leave the majority of people somewhat unsatisfied, but for today’s teens of the Pokémon Go era it will undoubtedly go down as one of this year’s best cinematic experiences.

The Basics:
Directed by: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Written by: Jessica Sharzer (based on the novel by Jeanne Ryan)
Starring: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade, Miles Heizer, Juliette Lewis
Running Time: 96 minutes
Year: 2016
Rating: 5

The Commune (2016): unsuccessful attempt at living in a community based on equality and direct democracy

Putting micro-societal life under a microscope seems to be the territory where Vinterberg excels the most – whether he is testing complicated family bonds in an unsettling and uncompromisingly complex Dogme 95 film Festen, or examining a small community that has its strength and tolerance tested by an innocent lie in The Hunt. After temporarily leaving his typical thematic area by exploring Victorian England in last year’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel, Far From the Madding Crowd, he has now returned to his native Denmark and adapted one of his stage plays into what may be his most personal film yet.

Partly inspired by Vinterberg’s own upbringing in a hippie commune in the 70’s, it explores the ups and downs of a social experiment where multiple families try to live under the same roof, living by the principles of direct democracy where each of them, no matter the age, gender or monthly income, has an equal say, where everyone’s vote (including children’s) counts and where everyone’s opinion is heard and acknowledged. At least that seems to be the original idea. However, some of the members, their good intentions aside, seem to be far from immune to expanding individualism that is tearing down the collective spirit of the 70’s hippie era and things soon turn awry as some of them start to put their own aspirations and self-fulfilments before the collective good.

Erik and Ana (Ulrich Thomsen and Trine Dyrholm) are a middle-aged couple with a teenage daughter Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen) who find themselves at a crossroad after Erik inherits a mansion-like family house, clearly too big for a family of three to live there by themselves. Erik’s initial reaction is to sell it, but Ana seems to have something very different in mind: why wouldn’t they invite some friends to live with them instead? This way they could share all the expenses while also enjoy the company of interesting individuals. However I otherwise support this way of living, this has to be read as the first alarm of what is yet to become of their marriage, since the decision is not instantly unanimous and Erik, otherwise an architecture professor, needs some convincing by his wife whose main reason of establishing a commune is the need to fill a gap that started to spread through their marriage. Since Erik likes to repeat his stories and hardly ever says something interesting or surprising anymore, she wants to expand their “family” to enrich their dinner conversations – the commune is therefore hardly the reason for their marriage to fall apart, for their relationship starts to disintegrate long before any of the new house members moves into their communal home.

The first to join them is Ole, their old nomadic friend who moves into the house with nothing but a bag of clothes and leftist literature. The next addition to the family is a couple with a sick child, then there is promiscuous Mona and a foreigner Allon who barely speaks Danish, is prone to cry whenever he gets upset and has problems holding a job for more than a few weeks. Together they make a weird and interesting group of people that seem to thoroughly entertain Ana, while bringing nothing but frustration to Erik who starts to feel like his voice is no longer heard. And as most men who feel like their ego has been neglected, he turns for attention elsewhere. However, what was supposed to be a meaningless fling with one of his students ends up turning into a full-on affair. But it is not until his daughter accidentally walks in on him that he decides to come clean to the rest of the household, which throws the entire family, as well as the film itself, into a downward spiral of messy emotions and melodrama.

I would have wished for a fuller and more substantial development of the supporting characters, but as the film progresses they slowly start to fade into the background instead, clearing the battleground for the initial family members. It is now Erik who ties to push their social experiment even further by suggesting that he and his new girlfriend Emma should move in the commune while his wife is still living there – and it is here that the film starts to delve into melodrama all too frequently. But Dyrholm nonetheless manages to give a fantastic and nuanced performance as a woman who is trying to be open-minded about her husband’s affair, trying to accept and befriend his new woman, but who gradually breaks down and completely falls apart, losing her job and family along the way.

There is one event in particular that shows how direct democracy, while great in theory, does not really work when people entitled to a vote do not perceive one another as entirely equal. After Erik’s initial proposition of Emma and him moving in, the rest of the household appears to be hesitant; they can see Anna’s poor mental condition and they don’t think their moving in would be good for an open and carefree communal life that they have established. Them voting Erik and Emma out of the house is, of course, the right call. However, this vote could have counted only if all of them would indeed be equal, without anyone having the authority over everyone else  – which, of course, is not the case. This is, after all, Erik’s house – he is the owner who was prepared to cooperate at their decision making until he found himself in danger of getting thrown out of his home by people who moved in to help maintain the house and share the expenses. It is also Erik and Ana who are paying for the majority of the bills since they are the only ones with steady and well-paid jobs, while others hardly contribute anything when it comes to money. And it is here that their experimental way of living finally shows its messed-up baseline: not everyone’s voice can be equally important and equally heard if they are not, in fact, equal. For complete social equality to exist, economic equality needs to be achieved first – because as long as some will own and earn unproportionally more than the rest they will undoubtedly perceive themselves as more entitled to making decisions and expressing opinions. This scene may not be one of the most memorable in the film, but it is, in my opinion, a crucial one, for it is here that the hierarchy among the members of the commune is established and where democracy as well as their somewhat socialistic way of living, is finally and irreversibly defeated.

As we came to expect from Vinterberg, this is an excellent and engaging study of family dynamics, as well as of power relations and possibilities of collective living in general. How far are we prepared to go at making our private affairs public, of collectively making our life decisions? Of sharing everything we own and putting collective needs above our own? Not very far, is what Vinterberg is trying to show us – and this message seems to resonate even more in today’s world of beastly capitalism.

The Basics:
Directed by: Thomas Vinterberg
Written by: Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm
Starring: Ulrich Thomsen, Trine Dyrholm, Helene Reingaard Neumann, Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen
Running Time: 111 minutes
Year: 2016
Rating: 7

Suicide Squad (2016): a messy and inconsistent blockbuster that even superheroes can’t save

This film was supposed to be about the worst superheroes ever – about the bad-ass, chaotic, nihilistic criminals who are brought together to fight an even bigger, other-worldly evil that threatens to destroy the world as we know it. But as it turns out, they are hardly anything of the above. Sure, they are criminals – something that the film quickly establishes by letting us know they are all in high-protection Louisiana prison. But where is all the chaos, anarchy, things spinning out of control when these inexplicably bad guys get set free? They are far from the “worst heroes ever”, as Amanda Waller introduces them before turning them into her soldiers – and not only that, they can hardly even pass as actually being bad. And the film sure seems to be disturbingly aware of that for we are constantly reminded that they are, in fact, dangerous and evil, working on the wrong side of the law. “We’re the bad guys!” Harley Quinn points out defensively when she stops in front of the store window to steal a purse – just in case we forgot because based on their actions they seem to be anything but.

The film is an inconsistent mess that, as the story progresses, makes less and less sense. Perhaps one of the biggest questions that the film does not manage to answer is why Waller actually puts the group of unrehabilitated criminals together, since the negotiations leading to their release happen before the biggest evil of them all, the Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) escapes from her captivity. Waller’s shady persona is otherwise perfectly captured by Viola Davis, but as far as the plot is concerned, we hardly ever know what her motivations are or where are her constant manipulations supposed to lead.

That being said, perhaps the biggest problem I had with the film is how it is supposed to be about the members of the Suicide Squad, yet it fails to let us know who they are actually supposed to be. Only Deadshot and Harley Quinn (and to a lesser extent, Diablo) manage to rise above the rest of the crew with flashback stories that give us some minimal insight into their personal life and that, as a result, reveal the more human side of their criminal persona. Sure, the human part makes them more vulnerable, but it also establishes them as real characters, while the rest of the group ends up being somewhat forgettable and in retrospect quite insignificant.

Will Smith does a good enough job portraying Deadshot, but the one that really and uncompromisingly stands out has to be Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Margot perfectly captures her disturbing joyfulness, unpredictability and chaotic tendencies and manages to lift the character beyond the “hot but crazy chick” that she could easily become would this part end up in someone else’s hands, since most of the remarks made by other squad members made it crystal clear that she was not supposed to be much more than a sexualized object whose presence was primarily to visually please the male audience. And director’s numerous close-up shots of her bending down in the tiniest hot pants was simply another proof that she was hardly meant to be anything more than a caricature of a frat boy’s wet dream.

13-harley-quinn.w1600.h1064 (1)
Harvey Quinn’s original look in 90’s cartoon Batman: The Animated Series.

If David Ayer managed to spend half as much time on establishing and exploring her character as he did on close-ups of her overly-exposed bottom this would have been a much better film. However, portrayed as she is, she never manages to establish herself as anything else but Joker’s counterpart, as her whole existence, her every act, seems to be for and because of him. And even Margot’s charisma and undeniable talent can’t help much about the fact that her character simply does not have her own identity.

When the film finally tries to give us some insight into Harley’s head it once again manages to fail as it delves into stereotypical and unsubstantiated assumptions about what every woman secretly wants. When crossing paths with the Enchantress, each member of the squad starts hallucinating their deepest life-goals and desires due to her unlimited magic powers and this results in a unique opportunity to see into Harley’s subconscious; to see past her current madness and into the person, a psychiatrist, that she once was. And to my complete bewilderment this subconscious dream was Harley living a perfect little family life right from the 50’s lifestyle catalogue for women, while being married and having kids with the Joker. The hallucination did not make any sense – even Deadshot, otherwise obsessed with getting back to his daughter, imagines defeating Batman and not being with his family. Where did this dream came from? If anything, her dream should be about escaping the suffocating power that Joker has over her – about breaking free from the psychologically and physically abusive relationship they are in. This would open up doors to establish her as a character that could exist on her own, as well as address the problem of domestic violence that their dysfunctional love life clearly represents. The film thus makes a poor choice of portraying their love story as a romantic one, because it is anything but. They are far from being equal partners in crime, Bonnie and Clyde of Gotham City. They are more like Sid and Nancy, where madness is their heroin and where Nancy eventually ends up dead due to a stab wound.

“I sleep when I want, where I want and with whomever I want” Harley points out at the very beginning of the film, as if this is somehow the core idea of female empowerment. But there is hardly anything empowering about her – true, she walks around with a baseball bat, but below her smudged make-up and pantless cheerleader appearance she is hardly anything else but a damaged, vulnerable and, as far as her hidden core values go, conservative character who is unable to break free from a destructive and abusive relationship.

Jared Leto does a fairly good job as the Joker, but since he went all Method-acting for a year (which resulted in a few disturbing on-set incidents that I would not mind characterising as harassment) I need to point out that there was not a moment where I would forget that I am watching Leto desperately trying to fill Heath Ledger’s shoes. This was one, albeit perfectly adequate, very self-aware performance and all the publicity that was made due to his unprecedented commitment to the role just shows how unproportional Leto’s ego is compared to his acting abilities since he won an Oscar.

However, the weakest link of the film and where the story really fails to engage has to be the character of Enchantress. An ancient magical spirit that possesses the body of an archaeologist June Moone has to be one of the least interesting villains I have ever seen on screen and Cara Delevingne’s poor acting does not help to lift this character above cringe-worthily awful. Her army of blobby faceless creatures also fails to make things interesting and what we are essentially left with is a messy and inconsistent story that threw all the potential of elevating this genre to something different and potentially more interesting out of the window.

The Basics:
Directed by: David Ayer
Written by: David Ayer (based on a comic book by John Ostrander)
Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Jared Leto, Cara Delevingne
Running Time: 123 minutes
Year: 2016
Rating: 4

 

Me Before You (2016): a manic pixie Cinderella finds her Prince Charming

Lou Clark is a British Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose main purpose in life is to bring happiness and the will to live to the male protagonist with her naive happy-go-lucky attitude, kooky fashion style, unrealistically positive outlook on life and a constant smile on her face (that in all honesty makes her look more mentally unstable than anything else). If this sounds like a story that we have heard a thousand times before it is because it is true – and Me Before You hardly does anything that would elevate the narrative above any of the films that came before it. It all begins after Lou unexpectedly loses her job at the bakery where she got stuck working for far too long and starts searching for a new employment. Her being from a working-class family and completely unqualified for most of the jobs on the market does not make it easy for her to figure out what to do next – at least until the aristocratic family of the region doesn’t call out in need of an assistant. Unaware how this would change her life forever, she accepts the job and makes it her top priority to teach her patient how to love life again. But it is ultimately Prince Charming who recently suffered a horrible, life-changing incident that comes to the rescue to our Manic Pixie Cinderella.

While the film firmly leads us into believing that it is all about Lou showing Will the meaning and joys of life, You Before Me soon changes the direction and instead shifts into something very different. For it is ultimately him, the aristocratic son, who shows her what life is really about: foreign films, classical movies and exotic travels. He shows her how fantastic and more fulfilling life is among the “cultivated”, richer and privileged – and it hardly comes as a surprise when she eventually ends up falling in love with him (or rather, with the life that he represents).

Now, I do not want to imply that it is impossible to fall in love with a disabled person – but I do want to point out how utterly ridiculous and unnecessary the choice to make the quadriplegic character an English aristocrat was. I would guess that most of the people who were unfortunate enough to have had an illness or an accident that left them in a wheelchair do not belong to the 1%, nor do they have a family who has the means to re-build their entire house and change the stables (!) into a new apartment where everything is easily accessible. While the film would certainly like us to believe that it is about quadriplegia and the impossibly complex question of life and death that such a condition usually brings with it, I do not believe that this is the case here. Him being in a wheelchair seems more like a plot-device that helps Lou’s character to develop and that makes us somewhat more invested into the love story that would never had happened if it weren’t for his unfortunate condition (since it is more than obvious that he would not have spend a minute of his time with this simple, uneducated, overly-nice and naive girl if he would still have been his old, healthy self).

Lou (played by Emilia Clarke) is a plain and uninteresting character that does not do much but spend time with her family and her self-involved boyfriend. She does not seem to have friends outside of this circle of people and she sure does not seem to have any interests in life (besides fashion; the most stereotypical female interest there is). She is also one of the least independent women I have seen portrayed in cinema lately – the kind of a woman who lets men to take her for granted and who never expresses her discomfort or disagreement because she does not want to offend anybody. And it is not until she meets a sarcastic, cynical, well-educated, well-travelled and rich beyond our comprehension Will Traynor (played by Sam Claflin) that she reaches her full potential and blossoms into a curious and exciting new woman who leaves her old life behind and moves to Paris. She is a modern-day Cinderella and she needed her Prince Charming to be able to transform from the simple girl that let people walk all over her into a woman that does what she wants. She needed the Prince to be able to escape from her simple-minded athlete of a boyfriend and a family that was keeping her stuck in her unexciting hometown. So, despite the all-women crew that worked behind the camera and despite the novel being written by a woman as well, this movie ends up being just another story where a woman needs a man to succeed in life.

At least they do not get their happily ever after, something that I thought would somehow save this insufferable tearjerker. However, it turned out that even his death could not have saved the film. I do believe that euthanasia should be a possible option for all people who are not able to end their own life – however, this is a very complex matter and a very hard choice to make for each individual; something that the film does not emphasize at all. For Will living is not an option, not ever. I would have expected this decision being approached to more delicately, as I would also preferred the film to focus on his decision-making process and not only on the furious reactions of people around him, unable to accept his (selfish, at least from the film’s point of view) decision. We do not get to know him well enough to know what exactly is it that makes his life so insufferable – is it the awful feeling of being a burden to the people around him? Or is it really just because he cannot return to Paris for his ego cannot handle Parisian women not turning around anymore when he would pass them on the sidewalk? Because he cannot go skiing in the Swiss Alps anymore? Or go sky-diving? And jumping off a cliff? Because if so, this is a shitty reason; he has done and seen more things in his 20+ years than most people will ever do in their lifetime. And they do not seem to commit suicide over that. The bottom line is therefore this: His reasons for not wanting to live anymore seemed superficial and ultimately disrespectful to all disabled people who deserved a better portrayal as well as a more meaningful contribution to the conversations and dilemmas about euthanasia and assisted death.

The Basics:
Directed by: Thea Sharrock
Written by: Jojo Moyes (based on her novel)
Starring: Emilia Clarke, Sam Claflin, Janet McTeer, Charles Dance, Matthew Lewis
Running Time: 110 minutes
Year: 2016
Rating: 2