Greetings! Have you ever wondered if a movie's worth blowing the money on to see at the theater or what to add next to your NetFlix queue? Then you've come to the right place! Enjoy!

"Nerve" Review

Even the most ridiculous movie premises need a kernel of grounding in reality to work and the supposed critique of social media, shallow celebrity and risky thrill videos, Nerve, doesn't seem interested in playing by those rules as it tells its silly story about daring to break the rules for fun, fame and profit.

Emma Roberts is a high school senior on Staten Island with Sandra Bullock's Syndrome (a condition in movies where we're supposed to believe a traditionally attractive woman can't get a guy because reasons). Dithering about whether to go an art school in California and unable to tell the hot jock she's crushing on him, she watches as her bestie, a trashy party girl stereotype, moves on him instead. Upset, she signs up to play Nerve, a game her friend has been playing and gathering followers.

Copypastaing from Wikipedia here, "The game collects her personal data and explains the three rules: all dares must be recorded on the player's phone, earned money will be revoked if a player fails or "bails" a dare, and a player must not report the game to law enforcement. In addition, the top two most-watched players will compete in a highly sought-after final round." This is Nerve's first credibility shark jump: We see her Facebook profile and other data slurped into the system which eventually is revealed to include total bank account access to deposit and drain money which is the technophobe's vision of what the Internet is like. (Since the target market for this movie is tech-savvy kids, it's as if an Amish person living in the jungles of New Guinea dreamed up this plot.)

Her first dare is to kiss a stranger at a diner for five seconds which brings her in contact with Dave Franco, the Jim Belushi of the Franco family. They quickly team up as it's clear the game is steering both of them into parallel and colliding paths. This is the next BS detail: As dares are issued and payouts remitted, who is ultimately controlling the game. While its open-source nature becomes a plot point, the anonymity of players and viewers (which becomes the lynch pin of the finale) doesn't jibe with the deliberate manipulations going on.

Also floating out there is her bestie, offended that Roberts has blasted past her in followers and ranking, risks her life on a dare and starts macking on the jock to pay her back. Because mean girl, man. If this is the commentary on fame and friendship part of the show, it's too stupid to land a punch.

Of course, it ends up in a scary showdown in a public place where somehow everyone knows to gather without the authorities catching wind. Did I mention that Roberts has a Platonic friendzoned boy pal who is a super nerd and likely to be involved in saving the day with his mad h4x skillz? Yeah, that happens.

While colorfully shot and generally entertaining in a not-hating-myself-for-watching-this way, Nerve doesn't suffer from a lack of that, but a typical lack of brains.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.

"The Shallows" Review

This is 10 months after she had her first kid.

They should've called The Shallows something more descriptive like Girl vs Shark because that's literally what it is, not that it's a bad thing.

Blake Lively is a surfer chick heading for a secret beach in Mexico that her recently-deceased mother visited while pregnant with her. She's debating dropping out of med school because everyone ultimately ends up dying and someone read some Nietzsche. A scene of her talking via FaceTime to her father, Basil Exposition, basically exists to let us know she's a med student because she's a med student and it will sure be good that she's a med student in case she were to, you know, be in need of medical assistance for some reason.

Like being bitten by a gigantic Great White shark. Whoopsie!

Chomped on the thigh and stuck on an exposed finger of rock that's in danger of becoming submerged when the tide comes back in, she's royally screwed because the beach's isolation means there are few others to see she's in need and she's too far out to swim to shore while the shark is in the neighborhood, even if she wasn't leaking blood into the water.

It's a tidy little scenario and it works because Lively's character is resourceful and not a damsel. Did I mention she's a MEDICAL STUDENT which makes her survival plausible. Sure, the premise is goofy, no blonde hottie should be hitting secret Mexican beaches alone (her friend was too hung over to join her) from a basic safety standpoint, and she somehow manages to still look smoking hot at the end of ordeal baking on the rock in the sun without fresh water, but it's still a taut and tense flick. Worth watching.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable.

Don't watch this VFX breakdown until after seeing the movie in order to have your mind properly blown as to how it was filmed. (Hint: Life of Pi)

"Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping" Review

The Lonely Island gang - most notorious for their fake rap SNL Digital Shorts - are back with their first feature film since Hot Rod, the music mockumentary Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.

Andy Samberg starts as Connor4Real, a Justin Bieber-ish pop singer who started off as part of a rap group, The Style Boyz (played by fellow Islanders and directors Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer), before going solo and hitting big with his first album, Thriller, Also. Now on the verge of the release of his sophomore joint, Connquest, the documentary is meant to record his triumph, but of course it turns into a Spinal Tapesque debacle. Instead of collaborating with his DJ Owen (Taccone), he's written all the lyrics himself (bad call) and worked with a hundred different producers and the resulting album is both stupid and offensive (in a bad way) and critically savaged.

Popstar's targets - marginally talented pop idols surrounded by yes men, living in a bubble divorced from reality; tabloid journalism as embodied by a running TMZ spoof fronted by Will Arnett, etc. - are easy fish-in-a-barrel stuff, but they managed to hit most of the marks. The music spoofs aren't as good as their SNL-era material, but suffice.

Samberg is OK doing his thing, but the surprise MVP is SNL alum Tim Meadows as Connor's long-suffering manager. Meadows has never really had much of a movie career after SNL - The Ladies Man did about as well as It's Pat and Superstar (i.e. not good) - and he's quite good with the material he has here as a man who used to be part of New Jack Swing-era band Tony! Toni! Toné! as the forth Tony with a question mark: Tony! Toni! Toné! Tony? There is also a parade of real musicians playing along with the gag as well as surprise cameos I won't spoil here.

Sweetly raunchy - it is co-produced by Judd Apatow and if you liked the gratuitous penises in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story you'll be happy here, too - and innocuously amusing, Popstar never real pops hard, but it's worth watching for music spoof and Lonely Island fans.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable.

"Sicario" Blu-ray Review

As we're told in an opening title card, Sicario means "hitman" in Mexico. It could also mean (according to me) "somewhat overrated movie."

Emily Blunt stars an FBI agent who as lead of a hostage rescue team leads a raid on a drug den in Arizona and after narrowly escaping death discovers the walls are filled with bodies of victims of the cartels. (While it's a striking image, it doesn't make much sense. Why stash rotting corpses in your walls when there's plenty of desert out the back door to bury them?) Recruited to a join a DEA task force run by Josh Brolin with his mysterious sidekick Benicio del Toro, she rapidly suspects this is a CIA operation (which would be illegal on US soil) and is sucked into the violence of life fighting the brutal cartels.

There was a lot of praise for Sicario upon its release, but I attribute that to director Denis Villeneuve's constant simmering tone of dread. But like his previous film, Prisoners, that dread is in service to a script that is frustratingly thin under the gloom; it's as if playing the scenes slowly - bordering on monotonously - lends the impression of depth where little exists. It's not that the movie isn't great looking - with Roger Deakins' Oscar-nominated cinematography, how couldn't it? - with well-staged scenes and strong performances, it's just not as profound as the tone conveys, a problem with Prisoners as well.

Taylor Sheridan's script fancies itself a meditation on how far should good people go to fight truly evil people, but undermines the complexity by making del Toro's motivations so obvious that their attempts to cloud him with mystery insulting and having Blunt's by-the-book Girl Scout persona undermine her supposed kick-ass chick veneer by having her come off as naive more than idealistic. As she does one dumb thing after another against the advice of people whom she should be listening to, you start to wonder if dumb luck has kept her alive this long. Some struggle with her being seduced by the efficacy of drifting into the gray ethical terrain would've done Sicario a lot of good.

On the AV front, the transfer is nice and sharp with even the darkest scenes clear without banding. (Which is why properly-encoded physical discs will always trump streaming.) I don't have the speakers to judge the Dolby Atmos soundtrack, but on an old 5.1 system the low-end menace of Jóhann Jóhannsson Oscar-nominated score (it was also nommed for Sound Editing) came through to amp Villeneuve's dread.

Extras are thin with a quartet of brief features discussing the look of the film, the stars, the score and the background of the cartel wars which inspired the screenplay. The signature border crossing shootout (it's in the trailer, so no spoiler) required building a replica of that stretch of road because using the actual crossing was impossible, but while we see blue screen walls off in the distance which would be replaced by CGI extensions, they never go into how that was done. There is no commentary, which may've been because Villeneuve is from Quebec and has an accent, but why not have scripter Sheridan talk?

Not as good as the hype and frustrating in it dumb bunny lead, Sicario is one of those movies that make people leery of films with tons or critics' pull quotes on the poster. It's still worth a watch as long as you temper your expectations going in and don't mind being a bit annoyed the next day.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable. (It is currently on Amazon Prime.)

If you watch(ed) the movie, check out this analysis of the border crossing scene which also, surprisingly, calls out the Villeneuve's dragging out of things.

This video condenses most of the info bits from the extras in case you watch it on TV instead of renting/buying the BD. BTW, the rental versions don't include extras, only the retail copies.

"It's So Easy and Other Lies" Review

Rock star memoirs are a dime a dozen, but for some reason Duff McKagen's tome It's So Easy: and other lies got the documentary concert treatment in It's So Easy and Other Lies. (Don't ask me why the capitalization and punctuation.

Part standard documentary with interviews and part concert film as McKagan sits reading excerpts from his book while backed by an band strumming mellow lounge versions of Gun 'n' Roses tunes, It's So Easy (itself a GNR tune title) follows McKagan from his DIY punk roots in Seattle, his exodus from the heroin death zone in 1984 to LA and his meeting up with Slash and company (you'll notice a distinct lack of anything Axl even in band footage), onto his nearly dying from alcohol-induced pancreatitis, sobering up, getting married and starting a family, Velvet Revolver, falling off the wagon, the usual Behind The Music drill.

McKagan's stage readings are stiff compared to his voluble offstage interview persona and I'm not sure what this mixed media presentation provides that a straight documentary couldn't have. It's different, but not necessarily an evolution of the format and frankly, I think the method constrains the story from delving deeper into some parts of his life that would've merited more attention. You'll also notice that while there are several members of GnR interviewed and historical footage, Axl is never shown. Weird.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on Netflix.

"Gravity Is Just A Habit" Review

Since oddternative (I just made that word up!) band OK Go became a viral sensation maker with their video for "Here It Goes Again" (the one where they're on treadmills), they've been in and escalating race to top their previous videos which work the theme of one single shot with wildly complex Rube Goldberg machines or complicated framing and props that are like Michel Gondry on steroids.

Earlier this year, they dropped this eye-popper for "Upside Down & Inside Out":

While they state up front that they shot it in an airplane flying parabolic arcs - the same method for parts of Apollo 13 - the limitation of creating weightlessness this way is that you only get about 27 seconds of zero-G per arc and the song was three-minutes-long.

So how did they do it? That's what the brief (19 mins) documentary Gravity Is Just A Habit (the title is a line from the lyrics) details, showing how the band connected with Russian filmmakers and used a huge cargo plane with the airplane set inside to film this epic in brief chunks, splicing it together to present a seemingly seamless whole.

While it looks like it'd be fun, it was actually grueling, nauseating work that took weeks of flights to pull off. The ending "Thunderdome" segment (where they burst paint balloons) is a point of drama because they'd thought they'd gotten a perfect take only to discover paint had landed on the lens, ruining the end. The debate about whether to take one more flight is complicated by one member, who looks absolutely miserable, not wanting to do it but knowing it has to be done.

If you're a behind-the-scenes junkie, this is well worth the time to check out.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on Netflix.

UPDATE: This video actual does a better job in explaining how they did it in a quarter of the time.

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