The Boy Next Door

Posted on January 22, 2015 at 5:57 pm

Copyright 2015 Universal
Copyright 2015 Universal

Even by the very low standards of January movies, “The Boy Next Door” still manages to be a disappointment. It even manages to disappoint beyond the very dim expectations for director Rob Cohen, His “Alex Cross” and “Stealth” were both on my year-end worst lists and his entry in the “Fast and Furious” franchise (the first) is by far the least of the series. This dumb, thrill-less thriller, produced by star Jennifer Lopez, has no surprises, with the possible exception of how she manages to have such perfect hair and lipstick in every scene, even when she is being chased by a maniac.

Lopez plays Claire Peterson, a high school English teacher (specializing in “the classics”), living with her teenage son, Kevin (Ian Nelson), and separated from her husband, Garrett (John Corbett, who needs to raise his fees for those Walgreen ads so he can stay away from drek like this), who was sleeping with his secretary but now wants Claire to forgive him and start over.  Claire is hurt and finds it hard to trust Garrett again.  Her generic sassy best friend, Vicki (Kristin Chenoweth) wants her to date other men and have some fun.  But the blind date Vicki sets up is a disaster.  Claire is lonely and relationships seem scary and complicated.  Garrett and Kevin are off camping and she is alone.  

She gets a distress call from the hunky 19-year-old next door.  He’s great with anything mechanical and easily fixed her garage door.  But it seems that he does not know how to defrost a chicken.  Out of concern for possible botulism, which can definitely have an adverse impact on hotness, she goes over there.  Of course.  And it’s raining.  Of course.  And he tells her she is beautiful.  And starts to kiss her. And take her clothes off.  And then they engage in activities that, as she will find, are even higher-risk than undercooked chicken.

But (spoiler alert) the lip gloss stays perfect throughout.

At least the walk of shame is a short one.  She lives next door.  And she thinks she knows how to talk to teenagers.  She explains, kindly, that it was not his fault and tries impose some boundaries.  But he does not want to go along.  And we’re only 30 minutes in, so that means one third build-up to sex, two-third still ahead for him to make her feel threatened until (spoiler alert) a big, violent, confrontation.

We don’t need a lot of sophistication and subtlety from thrillers like this one.  We just need the plot to be not completely laughable, the characters not completely incomprehensibly idiotic, and the action not something we’ve seen a dozen times before.  This movie fails on all counts.  The script barely qualifies as dialogue, with exposition-heavy lines that all land with a thud except for the ones that land with a splat.  But that’s still better than what passes for wit.  Garrett has been sleeping with his secretary on business trips to San Francisco, so Vicki quips, painfully, “That gives new meaning to ‘San Francisco treat,'” which would not have qualified as movie-worthy even when those old Rice-a-Roni ads were still in heavy rotation.  And even that’s still better than what passes for suspense.  (Okay, actual spoiler alert coming here, in case anyone cares.)  When the bad guy starts monologuing to a motionless good guy we cannot see or hear, it’s a pretty safe bet that Elvis has left the building, and by Elvis I mean life.  The biggest disappointment of all?  It’s not even stupid enough to be dumb fun — with the possible exception of fan of “the classics” Claire’s delighted response to a gift from the hunk next door, a “first edition” by Homer, who lived centuries before the invention of the printing press.

Parents should know that this film includes extreme peril and violence including guns, knives, and other weapons and fire, characters injured and killed, graphic and disturbing images, very strong language, nudity and explicit sexual situations.

Family discussion: How did Claire’s blind date make her more vulnerable to Noah? How did Noah’s past affect his view of Claire’s marriage?

If you like this, try: “Firstborn” and “The Crush”

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Interview: James Ward Byrkit of “Coherence”

Posted on June 18, 2014 at 8:02 am

James Ward Byrkit wrote “Rango” and designed the visual effects for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies.  His new movie, “Coherence,” is a nifty little mind-bender of a psychological thriller that makes the most of its micro-budget.  He talked to me about filming in his own living room, without a crew, and telling the cast about their characters but not about what was going to happen to them.

This is a deliciously scary movie!  Talk to me about how it all came together.

This was really just a reaction from all the movies that I had worked on, these huge blockbusters that you sort of plan in advance for years and years which I love. I loved working on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies and “Rango.” But because they are so planned, you sort of lose the ability to improvise. You lose the spontaneity of being in the mix with the actors. And I come from theater where I was trained to really just concentrate on story and character on a stage with actors and so I was craving getting rid of everything, getting rid of the crew; getting rid of script, no special effects, no support, no money, no nothing, and just getting back to the purity of that, of a camera in your hand and some actress that you trust and an idea.

Copyright 2013 Bellanova Films

And no money means not having to account anybody.  No notes from the suits.

Exactly! I needed that freedom and the freedom to experiment. We shot over five days, five nights actually, in my living room and instead of having a script, each actor was given a page of notes each day with their back story or sort of motivation for the night. But they wouldn’t know what the other actors had received so it had a very natural, very spontaneous collision of motivations that ended up being what you see on film; obviously guided by a very strict outline that we have been working on for about a year that tracked all the clues and the puzzles and all the rehearsals and things like that. But the actors weren’t aware of those, those things happened because we were sort of guiding them through it.

So the actors were all people that you knew pretty well?

Yeah exactly. They were just friends that I knew I could just call up and say, “Show up at my house in a couple days. I can’t really tell you what we’re doing, trust me I’m not going to kill you. It should be fun!” And they didn’t know each other before they got to my house and so I had to pick people that seemed to be like they could be couples, seemed like they could be best friends and that I just knew were up to the task of jumping into it.

I just assumed that they all knew each other very well because they fell into the kinds of rhythms that old friends have.

That’s just casting great people that could do that. Just five minutes after they arrived at my house they had to pretend to be married and lovers and best friends.  Lorene Scafaria is a writer and director.  I’d never seen her act before but I just had the feeling that she would be great. And so I said, “Do you want to act in something? Can you show up at my house next week and ready to make dinner for eight people?” So she had to cook the chicken.

I don’t want to give the movie’s surprises away, but the actors had another challenge as well.

What we usually say as a euphemism, we talk about fractured reality. Reality starts to fracture that night. And it gets very complicated, it gets very mind-bending and twisty but they love it. Once the actors realize that they are safe and it’s all about just being in the moment, it doesn’t matter that your character might have made a slightly different choice, slightly had a different time in their life, you are you right now and whatever immediate concerns you have is driving you and so whatever your relationship is or whatever your inner conflict is. These are all people who are either in hidden conflict with themselves or hidden conflict with each other and they understood that part of it. They didn’t have to understand the whole science fiction puzzle of it all.

Did you run into any unexpected problems in filming?

I wouldn’t say anything was actually wrong but you’re constantly dealing with unexpected things. One night we tried to shoot outside and we had to make the whole thing look completely desolate and the power being off; that was the one night that we had another movie shooting on our street. So the whole street is completely ablaze with lights  and hundreds of extras. It turned out they were shooting a Snickers commercial.  We would be right in the middle of the dramatic scenes and there would be another knock on the door that would just scare the hell out of everybody. And it would be the pizza guy you know, just bringing our food for the night. So when you don’t have a fully supported production, there’s a lot of things like that but you just have to roll with and make the best out of it.

It occurred to me as I was watching it that in a way it kind of paralleled the process of making a movie or editing a movie where you’ve got all these different fractured realities from the different takes and you’re trying to figure out how to piece it together.

That’s exactly it and especially because it wasn’t rehearsed.  And we told them that they could go anywhere in the house they want to, we’ll follow them. So we have to improvise just as much to figure out how to make a good-looking frame on the fly. We have to figure out how to get it in focus. We have to figure out how to maneuver this mass of people because they basically become their own organism after a while. They got completely comfortable with each other. They started having their own surprising motivations as a unit, as a model and so you have to wrangle this whole thing. It’s like herding buffalo throughout an entire crazy, fun house of a puzzle.

There is also poignancy to it that I wasn’t really expecting.  You really tapped into a very deep conviction that we all have that there is some other version of our lives somewhere else that’s going on that’s better, and where we should be.

That’s exactly it. That was the universe that we hoped would ground the whole thing because we said if we’re going to make a story like this that gets absolutely incoherent at one point, we have to have a solid throughline with a character. That is a universal concern that you think about; what would my life be like if I had made different choices. Is this the best version of my life I could have? What would the other version look like? And what would I do to get it?  If you could see it again sometime, I promise you, you would like it even better the second time. You realize all the random stuff they are talking about in the first ten minutes at the party isn’t so random.

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Directors Interview

Two Film Noir Classics Now Free Streaming

Posted on January 31, 2014 at 11:59 am

“Film Noir” (“black films”) usually refers to the stylized dark crime films of the 1940’s, usually made by German directors who came to the United States to escape the Nazis.  Their cynicism, sense of dread and loss, and themes of betrayal, obsession, and sin gave their stories of crime and mystery an archetypal feeling.  Two of the best can now be seen for free.

A neglected gem from Orson Welles, “The Stranger” is the story of an investigator (Edward G. Robinson) who is tracking down a Nazi war criminal (Welles), now living a quiet life as a professor and married to a woman (Loretta Young) who knows nothing of his past.  The climax in a church belfry tower is brilliantly staged.

Edward G. Robinson also appears in the less characteristic role of a mild-mannered professor who gets caught up in a web of deception and betrayal in “The Woman in the Window.”  The ending is a disappointment, but the direction by Fritz Lang is a masterpiece of noir mood.

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Classic Drama Mystery Thriller

Knowing

Posted on July 7, 2009 at 8:00 am

When MIT astrophysics professor John Koestler (Nicolas Cage in one-note mournful mode) looks distracted and thoughtful as he invites his class to debate randomness vs. determinism, you don’t have to be much of a determinist to figure out that as inevitably as night follows day, John is about to be hit with some Evidence of a Greater Plan. This isn’t determinism, the idea that events that may seem random are a part of some greater pattern. This is just predictable hogwash, and it gets even hogwashier until it arrives at an ending that manages to be inevitable, uninspired, and preposterous.

John’s son Caleb (a sincere Chandler Canterbury) attends a school that is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The ceremony involves opening a time capsule filled with drawings from children on its opening day. But the envelope Caleb is given to open does not have a drawing of spaceships. It has an apparently random string of numbers. John notices that one string is 09/11/2001 and the number killed that day. A night-long Google search later, he has assigned many of the numbers to known disasters — and figured out that the final three dates are still in the future.

And then this becomes just another big, dumb, loud, effects-driven movie. Forget determinism; if one character behaved in a rational manner, the movie would be 20 minutes long. Three dates in the future? That of course means that the first one is there to prove the theory. Next, John figures out that the next one will happen in NY. Instead of staying in Cambridge, he heads for the location so that he — and the audience — can be in the middle of a technically impressive but narratively brutal catastrophe. And then we are all headed for the big finish (and I mean FINISH), but first there is a lot of completely pointless racing around in a fruitless attempt to build some tension.

The movie sinks from dumb to offensive first when it devotes so much loving detail to the graphic, even clinical depiction of pointless calamity and second when it ultimately and cynically appropriates signifiers of religious import in an attempt to justify itself. Professor Koestler, in a world of rational determinism, this movie would never have gotten the green light. Case closed.

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