Friday, September 14, 2018

Worth Mentioning - None of This Makes Any Sense

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Some games shouldn't be played.

NERVE (2016)

This seems odd to say about a film that relies so heavily on modern technology, but something about Nerve, which was directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (the duo behind Catfish and Viral), felt a lot like an '80s movie to me. If the internet was more prevalent and smartphones existed back then, this is exactly the sort of movie that would have been made thirty years ago.

Emma Roberts stars as Vee, a high school senior who is trying to figure out what to do with her life, as the tragic loss of her older brother has made an impact that is threatening her future - Vee wants to go to college in California, but her mother Nancy (Juliette Lewis) will be heartbroken if she leaves Staten Island.

When her wild child friend Sydney (Emily Meade) decides it's time for Vee to break out of her shell of repression, she does the unexpected: she signs up to play the internet game Sydney has become obsessed with, Nerve. Players of Nerve are given a serious of escalating dares that range from innocuous to risque to extremely dangerous, the price increasing depending on what kind of dare it is. Some are a couple hundred, others a couple thousand. The price goes up to $15,000. $25,000.

At first, the game is fun for Vee, and she meets a fellow player called Ian (Dave Franco) who she makes a bit of a romantic connection with. They ride around New York City on Ian's motorcycle, they're dared to kiss and try on fancy clothes. Things go a little far when Ian is dared to reach 60mph on his motorcycle while blindfolded, but the pair has fun while risking death in this manner.

The closer Vee and Ian get to winning this round of the game, however, the more sinister things get, especially when Vee tries to go to the police to blow the lid off Nerve. One of the rules of Nerve is, "Snitches get stitches."

Soaked in neon and featuring involving scenarios, Nerve is very enjoyable to watch. The suspension of disbelief starts to get wobbly as the film nears its climax, but it holds up well enough.

Joost and Schulman had some practice in the horror genre between Catfish and this film, and they put that practice to good use during a sequence late in the story. A scene in which Sydney attempts to cross between two high buildings on a ladder, Judgment Night-style, had me on the edge of my seat. The way this sequence was shot and cut together was very unnerving, I felt how high up Sydney was, I felt the danger. It was very suspenseful; it was tough to watch, but I couldn't look away because I wanted to see what was going to happen.

Nerve may have been aimed at teenagers, but a group of thirty-somethings (including myself and Priscilla) had as much fun watching it as anyone could hope to.


In concept, writer/director Kurtis David Harder's sci-fi thriller Incontrol reminded me of Strange Days, the 1995 Kathryn Bigelow-directed, James Cameron-scripted film that involved a device called SQUID, which would record a person's life experiences directly from their cerebral cortex to disc. These recordings could then be experienced by anyone else - you could see a moment from someone else's life through their own eyes (or even re-experience a moment you recorded of your own life) and feel every emotion and physical sensation that went along with it. Incontrol also deals with a device that allows its users to experience the lives of others through their own eyes, but the difference here is that the characters aren't watching recordings. Their consciousness is projected into the minds of others so they can experience their lives in real time, as it's happening. And they can even manipulate what's going on, control the person whose body they're in.

The users in this film are a quartet of college-age kids - sociology student Samantha (Anja Savcic), who works at a coffee shop to support her emotionally troubled mother; Samantha's friend / crush Mark (Levi Meaden); and a pair of Mark's friends who Samantha is just meeting - Victor (Rory J. Saper), who is a wild card because any movie like this needs a character who has the capability of doing something terrible at any moment, and Jenny (Shayla Stonechild), who pays her apartment rent with money she steals from the rich kids she sends her consciousness into. This bunch aren't fans of rich kids. The device they use to go body hopping isn't really explained, it's just something that Victor found at the university and decided to steal.

We follow Samantha into this situation and learn the rules of this device through her, as the others have already been using it for a while. The person you send your consciousness into has to be nearby, the further they get away from you and the device, the harder it will be for you to bring your consciousness back into your own body. It's also hard on you if you are in the other person's mind for too long. You need to come back from time to time. Samantha is also advised not to jump into anyone she knows. It's a trust thing. Invading the privacy of strangers, that's fine.

For the most part, the group uses the device for fun. They experience rich kid parties; Samantha, who is allergic to peanuts, gets to taste peanut butter while in another person's head; they can find out what it's like to be a different gender. But darkness starts to creep in amongst the fun, as it quickly becomes difficult to know when a character is interacting with a person who is who they appear to be or if someone else is in the person's head, and of course anyone who has the ability to control someone else's actions is going to start using that ability to achieve their own agenda. Like Jenny stealing the money. There's also the possibility of something terrible happening while you're in someone else's mind.

The body hopping concept is great, the questions Incontrol brings up about privacy and what a person might do if they could be someone else for a little while are quite interesting, but the movie doesn't really explore its own ideas in a satisfying way. When the end credits started rolling less than 77 minutes in, I was left feeling that so much more could have been done with this set-up. The film is preoccupied with college parties and unrequited love, and it doesn't branch out far beyond that.

I was also left wondering if these kids want to be someone else so bad because their own personalities are so weak. I wasn't able to connect with or really care about any of these characters. Since we're following Samantha we do side with her a little bit and maybe root for her, to improve the situation with her mother if nothing else, but she's so milquetoast that she makes it tough to do anything more than just observe what she's going through without strong emotions in any direction.

There are thrills to this sci-fi thriller, but they're honestly not that thrilling. Bad things happen, sure, but they were met by me with a shrug. Don't expect this one to drift into the horror genre. In fact, the best way to approach Incontrol is probably to just see it as a college drama. There are sci-fi elements and it goes down a dark path, but it really is a college drama more than anything.

Incontrol is worth watching for the core ideas alone, but you shouldn't expect too much from it because it wasn't aiming too high. If it were a college student itself, it would be getting lectures about not living up to its potential.

The review of Incontrol originally appeared on

RAZE (2013)

Director Josh C. Waller's Raze basically has a classic exploitation movie set-up: a group of women are held captive in a prison-like environment and forced to fight each other to death to the amusement of their captors, who are threatening to kill their families if they don't fight. Roger Corman could have made an exploitation masterpiece out of a story like that in the 1970s. But rather than be exploitative, Waller and his co-writers Robert Beaucage and Kenny Gage chose to craft Raze in a way that's no different than if they were making a movie about a group of men being forced to fight to the death. There is no gratuitous nudity here, no communal shower scenes, and no lascivious edge to the scenes of women fighting.

Those fight scenes are actually quite brutal and disturbing. None of these girls deserve this fate, but several of them come to a bad, bloody end.

Stuntwoman-turned-Grindhouse-star Zoë Bell takes the lead in Raze, and it's easy to root for her when she's in a fight, but Waller makes sure that we're not enjoying watching her beat her opponents to death too much by introducing us to this scenario through a character played by P2's Rachel Nichols. Nichols has a very likeable presence, and we see her character being lured into this trap, abducted, locked up, and then forced to fight Bell's character Sabrina. Viewers won't want Nichols to leave the film too early, but thanks to Bell she does.

Bell and Nichols weren't the only strong casting choices Waller made. Other fighters include Bell's Grindhouse co-star Tracie Thoms; Amy Johnston, who is starting to land lead roles in the action movies; Bailey Anne Borders as a girl named Cody; and Rebecca Marshall, who stands out as the antagonistic Phoebe, who actually likes killing people. Rosario Dawson, who shared the screen with Bell and Thoms in Grindhouse, also shows up along the way. Character actor Doug Jones, who is also a frequent creature performer for monster movies, creepily plays the man who has gathered these women together, with Sherilyn Fenn as his loving wife.

Raze is so bleak and confined that it starts to wear out its welcome before it reaches its conclusion, but I was entertained by it in a troubled way and found it to be an interesting, well-made movie. Honestly, I probably would have been more into that Roger Corman version I daydreamed about above, but this was an admirable take. It was the cast that got me to watch this movie, and I wasn't disappointed... except when certain cast members made their exit sooner than I would have liked. But I understood why they were dispatched when they were.

At least, that is, until the ending. Those last couple minutes are an unnecessary bummer.


I have seen a fair number of the movies that have been widely referred to as "the worst movie ever made", and they usually don't even come close to living up to that reputation. Plan 9 from Outer Space is a fun movie, Manos: The Hands of Fate has its charms (and made for a great episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000) - those are definitely not the worst movies ever.

For me, something that would have a better chance of being the worst movie ever made, more so than an incompetently put together original film, would be a terrible movie that dares to claim it's connected to a classic, something that drags a beloved title through the mud just by existing. Something like Day of the Dead 2: Contagium.

George A. Romero's 1985 classic Day of the Dead had been distributed by the United Film Distribution Company, and a couple years later UFDC merged with Artists Entertainment Group to form a new company called Taurus Entertainment. Twenty years after the release of Day, Taurus president and CEO James Dudelson and VP Ana Clavell realized they held the rights to make sequels and prequels to, and remakes of, Day of the Dead (and some other Romero properties), so they decided to cash in, slapping together a dirt cheap follow-up with an odd subtitle.

Directed by Dudelson and Clavell from a screenplay Clavell wrote with Ryan Carrassi, Contagium purports to be a prequel to the first Day, seeing itself as something special enough to replace Romero's Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead in the film's mythology. Talk about brazen audacity.

The movie aims to please with its opening sequence, which depicts a zombie outbreak tied to a Russian defector at the Ravenside Military Installation in Pennsylvania, an outbreak that is wiped out with several minutes of gunfire. Whatever caused the dead to rise is contained in a vial that's hidden inside a thermos that doesn't get very far. It's dropped on the military base property.

But somehow that thermos remains hidden in the weeds for the next thirty-seven years, even though it's very easily found when the film jumps ahead to modern day. The military base has been replaced by the Ravenside Memorial mental hospital by this point, and the thermos ends up in the hands of a group of patients. When the thermos is opened, the patients become infected with the living dead virus. So there you go; even though Romero's films never had an answer for why the dead were returning to life, only theories, and not even the team of scientists in the original Day of the Dead could say why this was happening, according to Contagium it's a virus.

To be fair, it is a virus unlike any other. One which escapes from its container as purple vapor and green light. As the infected people get sick and gradually become zombies (maniacal, speaking, taunting zombies), they continue to be dazzled by the sight of strange floating lights. It doesn't make any sense, and it doesn't have anything to do with anything that was ever in a Romero movie... This is supposed to be connected to Day of the Dead, isn't it, Taurus?

Contagium's dull, nonsensical story chugs along, brought to the screen with lackluster production value and an overabundance of lame dialogue. Showing the infected go through symptom after symptom while doctors disagree over how to handle the situation, it's basically a slow-paced transformation movie. It wouldn't be interesting if it were an original film, but the fact that this uninteresting, poorly thought out film passes itself off as a prequel to a classic is truly a cinematic sin.

Is Day of the Dead 2: Contagium the worst movie ever made? I wouldn't go that far - that is something positive I can say about it, "It's not the worst movie ever made." But it is a movie that I like to pretend doesn't exist... and most of the time, I can forget that it does.

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