Thursday, February 28, 2019

Find Something, Leave It: Huppert turns formulaic "Greta" into nutso camp


Greta (2019)
98 min.
Release Date: March 1, 2019 (Wide)

If it weren’t for the “…from Hell” thriller label the film embraces, “Greta” would pan out as a lovely platonic May-December relationship drama about loneliness, but that would make it far less twisted, bonkers, and fun to watch. Writer-director Neil Jordan (2012’s “Byzantium”) and co-writer Ray Wright (2010’s “The Crazies”) approach the material with just enough of a wink, recognizing what kind of movie they’re making and diving wildly into a blurred mix of camp and black comedy. As the “Single White Female”-esque surrogate-mother-from-Hell entry in this well-worn but admittedly irresistible sub-genre, “Greta” is a high-end B-movie with a pedigree (and a warning against being a Good Samaritan). It’s formulaic and prefers not to get psychologically deep, but given a major lift by a gleefully unhinged performance by Isabelle Huppert (2016’s “Elle”) and Chloë Grace Moretz’s emotionally vital and forthright presence.

After her mother passed away a year ago, recent college graduate Frances McMullen (Chloë Grace Moretz) left Boston to live in Manhattan with her best friend, Erica (Maika Monroe), in a Tribeca apartment that Erica’s Daddy bought. About to get off at her stop on the subway, she finds a handbag that belongs to an older woman. Despite the street-smart Erica urging her not to, Frances decides to return it to its rightful owner, Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert), a friendly French widow who lives alone since her daughter left for Paris. Greta is so grateful and invites Frances inside for coffee, and from there, they begin an unlikely friendship that fills the void in each other’s life. They make dinner together and play piano, and Frances tags along with Greta to adopt a dog that’s about to be put to sleep. Everything is going well, until Frances is at Greta’s home and finds a cabinet full of handbags identical to the one she found on the subway, along with other women’s names and phone numbers on post-it notes. Realizing she has been manipulated and took the bait, Frances shuts down Greta, ignoring her many calls and voicemails and leans into Greta when she shows up at the fine dining restaurant where Frances works. Greta’s stalking worsens, though, as she stands outside the restaurant for hours on end and makes it clear that she’s not going anywhere until Frances remains her friend because, as Greta says, “Everyone needs a friend.”

Anyone who has ever seen a movie about a possessive, aggrieved character who doesn’t take rejection lightly will catch on before Frances does, but that’s customary in this type of film. A De Palma-esque dream within a dream besides, “Greta” takes on a loony, almost surreal logic, as the script strains credulity to give Greta supernatural powers of sorts, like the ability to be unseen, to show up in Frances’ face when she least expects it, and to gain access into Frances’ apartment. Seemingly normal and sophisticated at first, Greta takes some time to reveal that she isn’t playing with a full deck, doesn’t know the definition of personal space, and will keep turning the screws until Frances pays attention to her. Not unlike Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest, Kathy Bates’ Annie Wilkes, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Hedy Carlson, Greta has clearly lost her mental stability through years of loneliness, her new obsession stemming from her maternal love and neediness, which gives her traces of pathetic vulnerability before showing her certifiably dangerous capabilities. Clearly having a ball as the villain, the divine Isabelle Huppert is fascinating to watch as she makes Greta's insanity feel controlled at times and intensely explosive at others, and she manages to find surprising, darkly amusing notes to play in a mostly stock role. Watching Huppert spit her gum out into her younger co-star’s hair, joyously twirl around like a deranged ballerina when she goes in for the kill, and then make a huge scene by flipping a table at a restaurant is delicious popcorn-entertainment fodder.

Chloë Grace Moretz is sympathetic as the impressionable Frances, who aside from seeing the good in people doesn’t make many dumb mistakes (even if she doesn’t just block Greta’s number); she calls the police in the early stages of Greta's stalking, even if their efforts are ineffectual, and when she’s finally captured by Greta, Frances does deserve points for making a feisty getaway attempt. Maika Monroe (2015’s “It Follows”) also sparkles as the privileged, yoga-stretching Erica, a would-be throwaway role that the actress enlivens with sharp line readings and no-nonsense, Greek chorus-like intelligence, while Stephen Rea (who tends to work with director Jordan) steps in as a private eye who might as well be wearing a name tag that reads, “Next Victim.” 

What seems largely derivative remains eminently watchable the juicier and more overwrought “Greta” gets, and director Neil Jordan unabashedly inserts menacing musical stings to punch up the horror-thriller dread. A sequence where Frances begins receiving real-time photos of an unsuspecting Erica at a bar on her phone from a sneaky Greta is a tensely creepy highlight, and the use of a cookie cutter in self-defense is bloody inspired. While the table-turning finale adheres to the climactic undead-killer and to-the-death showdown tropes, it still satisfies immensely. There comes a point where it’s hard to take much of "Greta" seriously, but then again, Neil Jordan presumably doesn’t want us to take this nutso, slickly shot psychodrama as seriously as his performers who are committing 100%. 

Grade:

Friday, February 22, 2019

Keeping it in the Ring: "Fighting with My Family" a warm, funny winner even for the wrestling-averse viewer


Fighting with My Family (2019)
108 min.
Release Date: February 22, 2019 (Wide)

When a movie centered around a subject that one has zero interest in (i.e. pro wrestling) can entertain and make the viewer care through and through, it has to be doing something right. So it goes with “Fighting with My Family,” a thoroughly engaging underdog sports saga that gives World Wrestling Entertainment superstar Paige the fictionalized biographical treatment, itself inspired by a 2012 hour-long British documentary special “The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family.” Written and directed by Stephen Merchant (co-creator of TV’s “The Office”), the film sports sharp humor, humane sensitivity, and a little insight into the professional world of WWE and the over-the-top pageantry that comes with it, along with a winning lead performance by rising star Florence Pugh (2017’s “Lady Macbeth”). Leaving skepticism and all preconceived notions at the door, “Fighting with My Family” will surprise as an early-2019 gem that won’t require wrestling-averse audiences to know Big Show from Sheamus.

Born with wrestling in her blood in Norwich, England, scrappy 18-year-old Saraya-Jade Bevis (Florence Pugh) has always dreamed of joining the WWE one day and now goes by the moniker “Paige” (Rose McGowan’s Paige on TV’s “Charmed” is her favorite character). Having been trained by their working-class parents, ex-con Patrick “Rowdy Ricky Knight” (Nick Frost) and Julia “Sweet Saraya” (Lena Headey), she and older brother Zak “Zodiac” (Jack Lowden) know every move in the ring, and together as a family, they run a local wrestling gym for troubled youths and manage an indie wrestling league in their close-knit community. Both Paige and Zak get their breakout chance when they’re invited to try out for WWE talent scout and coach Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn) in London. Tensions arise between siblings when Paige only makes the cut to train in the WWE’s NXT boot camp. When Paige gets to Orlando, she learns how hard the training really is and that her Hot Topic-attired oddball image might not exactly be the typical WWE brand, feeling overmatched yet insecure by other trainees who are blonde, sun-tanned models and cheerleaders. As Zak deals with his dashed dreams and the reality of having a newborn baby with his girlfriend back home, Paige will have to persevere if she wants to make it to the big time.

Writer-director Stephen Merchant establishes the family dynamics so well, presenting the tatted, buzz-cut mohawked Patrick and the pink-haired, lip-pierced Julia as loving, brashly funny parents, and it helps that Nick Frost and Lena Headey are so perfectly cast and provide part of the film’s levity. Merchant, who wouldn’t seem like an obvious choice for the material, brings a specificity to this Norwich family and their devoted love for each other, as well as for wrestling, and takes the sport as seriously as the characters do. Fierce but accessible, Florence Pugh makes Paige easy to warm up to with a quick sense of humor and a vulnerability underneath her hard-edged, seemingly unapproachable exterior, and it’s a thrill to watch the character refuse to quit and grow more confident, pushback and nerves be damned, until her victorious debut in the ring. Jack Lowden (2018's "Mary Queen of Scots") is equally strong and understated as Zak; though the focus is on Paige, the narrative doesn’t forget about the rejected-turned-resentful Zak, whose goals are thwarted for not having the spark that his sister does, and gives the subplot emotional heft. Also, Vince Vaughn is effective in acerbic mode as coach Hutch Morgan; Dwayne Johnson (who produced the project) appears as his magnetic, charismatic self in a few scenes with flashes of his eyebrow-raising “The Rock” persona; and Merchant casts himself and the hilarious Julia Davis (HBO’s “Sally4Ever”) as Zak’s girlfriend’s straight-laced parents who loosen up by the end. 

“Fighting with My Family” isn’t immune to hitting the predictably routed notes of any rags-to-riches story, but it’s not exactly a fatal deal-breaker when a well-trodden sports formula is executed this well and upends expectations with certain characters Paige meets along the way. Culminating with Paige’s debut at WrestleMania, where she became history’s youngest Divas champion in 2014, there is an aspirational quality that should resonate with anyone pursuing their dream of choice. Again, rest assured, one does not have to know anything about pro wrestling or even be a fan of it to get something out of “Fighting with My Family.” Unsuspectingly touching and definitely a clap-worthy crowd-pleaser, it is sure to be a sleeper hit that will convert the uninitiated to gain a newfound appreciation for the “fixed,” albeit not fake, sport. 

Grade: B +

Monday, February 18, 2019

Merry Zombie Apocalypse: "Anna and the Apocalypse" a scrappy, exuberant, toe-tapping genre-buster


Anna and the Apocalypse (2018)
93 min.
Release Date: November 30, 2018; February 12, 2019 (VOD)

Intersecting a multitude of disparate genres on the Venn diagram, “Anna and the Apocalypse” is a Scottish “High School Musical” set around Christmas with zombies coming to town. It’s alternately toe-tapping, cheeky, bloody, and surprisingly touching. Based on the late Ryan McHenry’s 2011 short “Zombie Musical,” the film is lovingly made with humble means by director John McPhail and screenwriters Alan McDonald and McHenry, refusing to stodgily remain in one lane and adeptly criss-crossing a coming-of-age high school dramedy, a zombie horror picture, and a full-blown musical. Alive with a sincere, scrappy "let's-put-on-a-show" enthusiasm that proves infectious, “Anna and the Apocalypse” is one exuberantly inspired genre-buster that will be wonderful for any time of the year.

Leading a spirited ensemble, newcomer Ella Hunt is sympathetic with an appealing mix of charm, edge, and pluck as Anna, a high school senior who plans to live in Australia for a year instead of going straight to university, much to the chagrin of her widowed janitor father (Mark Benton). Until then, she’s just trying to get through the school day, as are classmates John (Malcolm Cumming), Anna’s adorably sweet, torch-carrying best friend; lesbian newspaper editor Steph (Sarah Swire), who wants to make a difference at a soup kitchen while her parents are in Mexico without her for the holidays; Lisa (Marli Siu), Anna’s happily-in-love friend who’s excited about putting on the school’s Christmas show; and videographer Chris (Christopher Leveaux), Lisa’s boyfriend who needs to find his creative voice to pass a class. Little do they all know that their small Scotland town of Little Haven has become threatened by a lethal flu-like virus that’s turning everyone into a flesh-eater. When four of them are holed up in the bowling alley where Anna and John work, they must dodge the zombies and make their way across town to their loved ones who are barricaded in their high school with tyrannical headmaster Mr. Savage (Paul Kaye).

The enormously likable “Anna and the Apocalypse” has all the trimmings of a cult favorite: zombie carnage, memorable characters, and song-and-dance numbers. While the film isn’t necessarily scary, it is merrily blood-splattered—Anna uses a razor-sharp candy cane decoration and a seesaw at one point to slay a couple zombies, and an undead head gets fed through the bowling alley’s ball return—and dread-inducing in spots, like when our group of characters must take a shortcut through a darkly lit Christmas tree emporium. Making even more of a poignant impact, there are actual stakes by having endearing, distinctly drawn characters to root for, and not everyone makes it out without a bite. Catchy and full of yearning, the songs by writers Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly manage to develop the characters in their respective crises before the zombie outbreak and push the story forward, beginning with the melancholy-tinged “Break Away.” And, without ever looking overly slick or rehearsed the night before, the small-scale musical numbers are often stirring and joyfully choreographed.

As bloody entertaining and song-happy as it is, "Anna and the Apocalypse" isn't afraid of having a bittersweet undercurrent to match the apocalyptic setting and the end of lives (both young and old), pushing it above being a frothy lark. It's never a downer, though, and how could it be? The instantly hummable cafeteria-set “Hollywood Ending” is the most unapologetically peppy bursting-into-song show-stopper about how reality disappoints and doesn’t match up with cinematic romances; Lisa’s “It’s That Time of Year” is a naughty riff on “Santa Baby” at the Christmas show; and “Turning My Life Around” is another upbeat standout, following an earbud-wearing Anna as she leaves her house to walk to school, oblivious to the zombie mayhem happening around her (perhaps a nod to another genre-smasher, "Shaun of the Dead"). As a dream project that co-writer Ryan McHenry (who tragically died of bone cancer) never got to see come to fruition and was made in his memory, “Anna and the Apocalypse” would have made him very proud. It deserves to become a musical staple that one will want to watch not solely around Christmastime. 

Grade: B +

Thursday, February 14, 2019

And Many More: "Happy Death Day 2U" a superior sequel that's just as fun and ups the ante and pathos


Happy Death Day 2U (2019)
100 min.
Release Date: February 13, 2019 (Wide)

2017’s “Happy Death Day” was shrewdly imagined as “Groundhog Day” with a whodunit slasher spin, and the result was cheeky, fresh, and a lot of fun, much like its sequel. The déjà vu is intentional again with “Happy Death Day 2U,” a sequel that seemingly shouldn’t exist or work and could have easily felt like a lazy, slapdash cash-in rushed into production to be released only 16 months later. While the film repeats itself by design, returning director Christopher Landon (who also co-wrote the script) avoids the easy pitfall of making the same movie twice and being too cute by a half. This time name-checking “Back to the Future Part II” (another movie its protagonist has never heard of), “Happy Death Day 2U” is funnier and just as breathlessly entertaining with a more sci-fi flavor and even more surprising pathos. It is ambitious and busier than its lean predecessor, but it might even be superior by upping the ante and deepening its characters.

The story opens shortly after the end of “Happy Death Day,” finding Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) and Carter (Israel Broussard) happily canoodling in Carter’s dorm room just as roommate Ryan (Phi Vu) barges in, having experienced a case of déjà vu like Tree, right down to being murdered by someone in their Bayfield University’s Babies mascot mask. Tree knows a thing or two about dying eleven times and tries to help before she herself relives her birthday, September 18th, all over again. When she discovers the quantum reactor that Ryan and two other science nerds, Samar (Suraj Sharma) and Dre (Sarah Yarkin), created was the cause of her time loop, Tree gets sent into an alternate dimension, where everything is different: Carter is no longer her boyfriend but actually dating snarky sorority president Danielle (Rachel Matthews); Tree’s mother (Missy Yager) is still alive; and there is someone new behind that creepy baby mask. 

"Happy Death Day 2U" is a little less concerned with its slasher-centric plot than before, although a few set-pieces still manage to be suspenseful; in one case, Tree and Lori must enter an under-construction wing of the hospital to evade the killer. In another tonal high-wire act, director Christopher Landon expertly seesaws between absurdist comedy, poppy horror, an affecting emotional core, and crazy time looping, while raising the emotional stakes. By unveiling the answer to why Tree was stuck in a time loop, the film goes full-bore sci-fi and it's the most ideal direction this story could go. In a few small but amusingly savvy throwaway touches, Ryan asks why their university would ever choose a creepy baby as their mascot, and in another instance, Tree wonders what Carter is always looking for under his desk when she wakes up every time in his dorm.

A breakout star right out of the gate, Jessica Rothe is such a charismatic performer with tip-top comedic timing, while handling the dramatic challenge of making Tree sympathetic and organically making her come to terms with her grief. Like before, Rothe sells every facet of Tree’s situation and personal growth, her emotional conundrum feeling real and her furious aggravation hilarious, as she stomps through the campus grounds yet again, now with Carter and Ryan in tow. Also, there is another very funny montage that goes through the many ways Tree dies, from downing toxic cleaner to skydiving in her underwear without a parachute. Though not much time has passed, Landon was also lucky to get the entire original cast to return, including extremely supporting characters. Rachel Matthews even gets to be a true scene-stealer, bringing a sweeter, more generous side to Danielle, who uses her thespian talents to play a blind French student as a distraction to comedically pleasing effect. “Happy Death Day 2U” never seems like it means to be frightening, but it’s so much fun and emotionally involving, the kind of crowd-pleaser that audiences will want to experience on a loop.

Grade: B +

Last Rom-Com Heroine: "Isn't It Romantic" a smart, knowingly clichéd PG-13 romantic comedy


Isn’t It Romantic (2019)
88 min.
Release Date: February 13, 2019 (Wide)

“Isn’t It Romantic” is a clichéd PG-13 romantic comedy, but knowingly so, at once calling out and indulging in the general mechanics and conventions of every blissful rom-com. Having helmed a similar film-within-a-film conceit to ingeniously fresh effect with pathos to boot in 2015’s slasher-pic love letter “The Final Girls,” director Todd Strauss-Schulson employs a buoyant, breezy tone from a bright screenplay by Erin Cardillo and Dana Fox (2016’s “How to Be Single”) & Katie Silberman (2018’s “Set It Up”) that is always in on the joke and trusts audiences to do the same. Neither a full-on parody like 2014’s gleefully mocking “They Came Together” nor is it a “spoof” that thinks lazily referencing a number of films is the same as commenting on the genre (i.e. 2006’s “Date Movie”), “Isn’t It Romantic” is a gently meta ribbing with the brassy, appealing Rebel Wilson at its sweet center.

As a young girl in Australia, Natalie (Rebel Wilson) couldn’t get enough of watching romantic comedies, hoping she would one day be just like Julia Roberts and live happily ever after like in "Pretty Woman," but her straight-talking mother (Jennifer Saunders) squashed her dreams. Twenty-five cynical years later, she lives in a cramped New York apartment and works as an architect who designs parking lots. As opposed to her romantic comedy-loving assistant and friend, Whitney (Betty Gilpin), Natalie has closed her heart off to love and hates such movies now because they perpetuate lies to independent, goal-oriented women. After being mugged in the subway, Natalie takes a blow to the head, waking up in the Williams Sonoma-styled hospital room of a magical parallel universe not unlike a gauzy, idealistic romantic comedy. New York now smells like lavender and not garbage, her apartment building is now surrounded by bridal and cupcake shops, and her apartment itself is impossibly spacious and gorgeously designed. She also earns herself a flamboyantly gay BFF, Donny (Brandon Scott Jones, a scream), who lives to give her advice and hopes for a clothing montage, but has no life, job, or other interests of his own. Natalie’s suitor happens to be the rich and dashingly handsome Blake (Liam Hemsworth), who finds her positively “beguiling,” but wouldn’t you know it that Mr. Right is actually co-worker Josh (Adam Devine), who is already on course to marry stunningly beautiful swimsuit model and “yoga ambassador” Isabella (Priyanka Chopra).

Smartly self-aware and pleasantly funny, “Isn’t It Romantic” has so much affection for its formulaic genre that it winds up becoming the genuine article of a romantic comedy, and a charming one at that. The film is both obvious and sly but always savvy in its criticisms of the genre's archetypes and tropes, like Natalie pointing out how problematic it is for two women to hate each other in the workplace rather than stick together, and Natalie realizing the fantasy Movie Land she's stuck in is sorely PG-13 when her four-letter words are perfectly bleeped out by a truck backing up and her sex scene with Blake just keeps cutting to the morning after. Thankfully, the film avoids being hypocritical and largely stays true to Natalie’s disenchantment with rom-coms. Sure, it gets to have it both ways, but it allows her journey to reach a wise, well-earned destination, being just as concerned with Natalie as it is about which guy she will be embracing by the end.

Receiving her first solo lead role after being a standout supporting performer in every film she’s been a part of, Rebel Wilson gives her most vivacious and fully formed performance as Natalie, making the character's arc, from a talented but put-upon doormat blossoming into a confident woman who loves herself and can stick up for herself, fun to watch. Game to pratfall on cue and commit to any shenanigans that come her way like she does in the “Pitch Perfect” movies, Wilson also carries over her sweet, naturally honed chemistry with Adam Devine, who’s toned-down but still energetic as Josh. The soundtrack, featuring Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles," Annie Lennox's "No More 'I Love You's," and Donna Lewis’ “I Love You Always Forever,” is well-chosen, and an impromptu musical number of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” in a karaoke bar is an irresistible highlight, where all the patrons and servers turn into backup dancers and nail the choreography. To send us on our way, the entire cast reunites for a big finish with an exuberant song-and-dance number to Madonna's "Express Yourself" before the end credits. While the script could have been written with an even sharper satirical bite, “Isn’t It Romantic” remains such a richly comic delight that proves romantic leads can realistically love themselves and fall in love. It’s just that beguiling.

Grade: B

Friday, February 8, 2019

We Need to Talk About Miles: "The Prodigy" another Bad Seed horror pic but sufficiently unsettling


The Prodigy (2019)
 

92 min.
Release Date: February 8, 2019 (Wide)

“The Prodigy” is neither the first nor the last horror film about a bad seed, and while not wholly unexpected in every beat, it does dare to go to some pretty ballsy, disturbing places along the way. Recognizable to fiercely devoted genre fans, director Nicholas McCarthy (2014’s “At the Devil’s Door”) steps into the mainstream with his first wide theatrical release, working from a script by writer Jeff Buhler (2008’s “The Midnight Meat Train”), and the result is pretty good. Melding together 1988’s “Child’s Play” and 2004’s “Birth” with every movie about an evil child, the film does offer an intriguing variation on the immortal sub-genre, although that wrinkle is revealed before the title card that watching the film becomes a waiting game for the characters to catch up with what the viewer already knows. It is decidedly exploitative, but for an unsettling, R-rated horror offering released so early in the year, “The Prodigy” is more than serviceable.

At the same instant, married couple Sarah (Taylor Schilling) and John (Peter Mooney) bring their son Miles into the world in Fox Chapel, Pennsylvania as severed hand-collecting serial killer Edward Scarka (Paul Fauteux) is ambushed and killed by a SWAT team in Montgomery Country, Ohio. Other than being born with heterochromia—one eye is brown and the other is blue—Miles is a completely healthy baby, so developmentally ahead of the curve that he begins talking at just 20 weeks. At 8 years old, Miles (Jackson Robert Scott) has an IQ that’s off the charts, but he struggles to socialize with other kids his age, to the point of there being a violent incident at school and an injury with the babysitter at home. Then, checking on him at night, Sarah hears Miles muttering gibberish and records it, only to discover that it’s actually something profane in a rare Hungarian dialect. On the advice of Miles’ child psychologist, Sarah gets referred to Arthur Jacobson (Colm Feore), a researcher with a theory of his own, but Miles’ behavior gets even more disturbing from there.

“What is wrong with Miles?” is the question being built around the film’s marketing campaign, and it ends up being answered from the very beginning. Opening with a would-be victim (Brittany Allen) escaping with one hand still intact from her captor and intercutting to Sarah going into early labor, “The Prodigy” tips its hand early with the death-and-birth connection of two souls, Edward Scarka and Miles, through reincarnation. That forthright decision sheds some of the mystique, but actually works more to the film's advantage rather than saving it for a third-act exposition dump. Director Nicholas McCarthy stages some familiar shocks, like Miles taking a pipe wrench to a classmate and having something to do with his family’s “lost” dog, but Miles’ hypnosis session with Arthur Jacobson is more riveting, toeing the line between uncomfortable and darkly amusing, and there is a boldly suggestive moment where Miles holds hands with his mother during a regular staring contest. There is also one humdinger of a jolt involving Miles running into Sarah’s arms that, with moodier lighting, is either a homage or a direct steal from 1977’s Mario Bava-directed “Shock,” and an expertly timed scare has Sarah spotting a grown man’s sinister face grafted on Miles’ face.

Taylor Schilling (Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black”) is strong in handling the role of Sarah, who reasonably at first doesn’t buy into the ridiculous notion of her son being the manifestation of a former life to carry out his unfinished business. Schilling understands Sarah’s internal conflict and sells the character’s choices to do something reprehensible, making the implausible easier to swallow in terms of what a mother would to do rid the evil from her son. Sure, outside of having a son, Sarah and Peter Mooney’s John are curiously underwritten, never seen at their jobs or even working from home, and never visiting with friends, but perhaps it’s just the tight, albeit superficial, nature of the script. As 8-year-old Miles, Jackson Robert Scott (who played the ill-fated Georgie in 2017’s “It”) effectively flips from sweet and innocent to malevolent and manipulative; like Macaulay Culkin in 1993’s “The Good Son” and so many other actors before him, it’s startling to see and hear a child performer doing and saying such heinous things.

“The Prodigy” is worthwhile enough for what it does right within its genre parameters, not to mention sleekly shot and chillingly scored by Joseph Bishara in a way that’s reminiscent of horror films from the 1970s, but one can’t help but walk away thinking that it could have been more. The fiendish final moments are a little frustrating, too, but they aren’t a cop-out at least. Without setting itself apart from superior like-minded entries, namely 2007’s subtly chilling “Joshua,” 2009’s deliciously diabolical “Orphan,” and 2011’s supremely unnerving “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” “The Prodigy” still fits the bill as another reliable form of birth control.

Grade: C +

Friday, February 1, 2019

In the Art of Madness: "Velvet Buzzsaw" a mean, wildly entertaining art-world satire with a slasher horror twist and an excitingly eclectic ensemble


Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)
109 min.
Release Date: February 1, 2019 (Limited & Netflix)

The haute Los Angeles art scene is ripe for criticism in “Velvet Buzzsaw,” writer-director Dan Gilroy’s (2014’s “Nightcrawler”) barbed, wildly entertaining satire with an offbeat slasher horror twist. Gilroy has things to say about the commodification of art and how art is valued before literally skewering all types of people—critics, gallery owners, curators, advisers, agents, and artists themselves—in the cutthroat art world, most of them covetous, shallow, and altogether unpleasant, but really, it comes down to despicable people dying at the hands of art in spectacularly gruesome fashion. If one can get on its straight-up mean wavelength, “Velvet Buzzsaw” plays like a wickedly unpredictable nightmare yarn that would have the Crypt Keeper cackling with glee.

Opening by introducing a gallery of characters, Robert Altman-style, the film weaves between all of them and establishes their self-serving networking relationships at a Miami art show. There’s respected art critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal); gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo); Rhodora’s promising assistant Josephina (Zawe Ashton); museum curator Gretchen (Toni Collette); up-and-coming street artist Damrish (Daveed Diggs); gallery rival Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge); and legendary installation artist Piers (John Malkovich). Back in Los Angeles, when Josephina’s old neighbor, Ventril Dease, drops dead, she realizes he was an artist. Ignoring his instructions to have all of his artwork destroyed, she decides to represent him posthumously and put his collection into circulation. It seems Dease’s art has a mind of its own, so much that anyone who tries to benefit and profit from promoting, selling, or stealing his darkly visionary paintings gets what’s coming to them.

Coming from one of the most excitingly eclectic ensembles in recent memory, the performances are of the big, juicy, memorable variety, each actor seeing who can play the biggest narcissist. Always one to transform himself as he did with his intensely chilling performance in 2014’s Dan Gilroy-directed “Nightcrawler,” Jake Gyllenhaal is more mannered and yet not entirely one-note as Morf Vandewalt, but he’s still fascinating to watch and no less committed to making this character feel like somebody who probably exists, blending his work into every facet of his life that he even critiques the color of a casket at a funeral. Seconding Gyllenhaal's deliciously cruel and cruelly funny one-liners is Rene Russo (Gilroy's spouse), terrific in ball-breaking mode and sinking her teeth into the tough-as-nails Rhodora, who used to be a punk rocker. 

Zawe Ashton is endlessly interesting to watch as Josephina, who seems like she could be the moral anchor of the story before she becomes just as treacherous as anyone else when getting swept up in her power of finding Dease’s art; a few extra beats might have smoothed out her rushed arc and made it more convincing, but that's a script issue rather than a fault of Ashton's performance. That leaves plenty of colorful supporting turns from Toni Collette, John Malkovich, Tom Sturridge, Daveed Diggs, Billy Magnussen, and Natalia Dyer (Netflix’s “Stranger Things”), as meek assistant Coco. With the lone exception of Coco, who hilariously keeps finding every one of her bosses dead, the awesomely named characters are all caricaturized body-count constructs and, by design, only show humanity after someone in their art circle dies or is about to die.

Slickly shot by Robert Elswit and whimsically scored by composers Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders, “Velvet Buzzsaw” is one posh, tonally arch slasher film that delights in having it out for its characters. This time, art in its various forms is the masked killer, and Dan Gilroy's script, as bonkers as it gets, actually makes sure there is an internal logic to who lives and who dies; the gnarliest sequences involve one character getting their arm severed by an interactive art piece called Sphere, while another literally gets absorbed into the dripping paint from a graffiti painting. Right down to its nihilistic conclusion, the film knows exactly what it wants to do and does it well, critiquing the art world without blowing the lid off in saying anything surprising or being a hard-hitting exposé. Darkly playful and startlingly weird, “Velvet Buzzsaw” might not be high art, but one shouldn’t mistake it for being idiotic or commercial.

Grade: B

Mr. and Mrs. Murder: "Piercing" a demented waltz with retro style and pitch-perfect performances

Piercing (2019)

81 min.
Release Date: February 1, 2019 (Limited); March 12, 2019 (Blu-ray/DVD)

The macabre, twistedly perverse retro answer to “Fifty Shades of Grey” with hints of 2000’s “American Psycho” and 2017’s “Phantom Thread,” “Piercing” is the sophomore effort of writer-director Nicolas Pesce, whose meticulously crafted, unforgivingly grim “The Eyes of My Mother” was a very assured debut. While that film announced a talented filmmaker right out of the gate with an auteur’s nerve, his follow-up still avoids the infamous sophomore slump by taking on a project that he made exactly the way he wanted to make it and that won’t be for everyone. Based on the novel of the same name by Ryū Murakami (who also wrote the novel that was adapted into 1999’s grisly, unsettling shocker “Audition”), “Piercing” is a pitch-perfect exercise in tone, style, and performance that doesn’t quite hang together as a complete story, but for 81 minutes, it never wears out its welcome as a lurid, demented waltz.

Resisting the urge to take an ice pick to his baby daughter while his wife (Laia Costa) sleeps, Reed (Christopher Abbott) leaves on “business,” but he’s really planning the perfect murder that he needs to get out of his system before taking on fatherhood. Once in his hotel room, Reed tests out chloroform and runs through his murder process before calling an escort service and carrying out his best-laid plans. An hour later, prostitute Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) walks in, and she’s not what Reed expected once he finds Jackie stabbing her thigh with a pair of scissors in the bathroom. Is Jackie more aware than she lets on and consenting to Reed’s plans, or does she have a plan of her own? Who is more mentally unstable, or are they each other’s soul mate? 

“Piercing” could be the closest writer-director Nicolas Pesce might ever get to making a romantic comedy, where kink and murder make for fine bedfellows. With Reed and Jackie, the film flips the roles of predator and prey in a sadistic power play that keeps ratcheting up the often wince-inducing tension and a deviant sense of humor. If “The Eyes of My Mother” was Pesce’s Hitchcock film, albeit with more black-and-white blood, then “Piercing” is his Argento film. From the word go, the film is precisely, stylishly designed like a homage to giallo films from the 1970s, complete with split screens, urban high-rise miniatures, and Goblin’s magnificent original scores from Dario Argento’s “Deep Red” and “Tenebre” to create a heightened reality. Since the story predominantly takes place within two interior locations, it gives Pesce the opportunity to bring much unexpected specificity to every detail in the production design, particularly Jackie’s minimalistic but striking self-decorated apartment. 

Aside from Laia Costa as Reed's wife, as well as Reed’s mother (Maria Dizzia) and a girl (Olivia Bond) from Reed’s past who both pop up in hallucinatory flashbacks, “Piercing” is largely a two-hander between two proverbial cats who take turns being the mouse. Christopher Abbott (2017's "It Comes at Night") is an expert internal performer, and as Reed, he effectively conveys a cold, calculating apathy behind that baby face. It is revealed that Reed has acted upon his impulses in the past, but his ability can’t quite equal his desire when he finally meets his match. In an amusing moment of gallows humor, Abbott gets to pantomime-rehearse his murder and cleanup of the dismembered body, and his murmurs and the disgusting sound effects do all the talking. As the unpredictable Jackie, Mia Wasikowska (2015's "Crimson Peak") is fearless and sprightly, keeping the viewer guessing what her next move will be and coloring her quirky proclivities with a tortured sense of self-loathing. Like an oddball couple made for each other, Abbott and Wasikowska’s performances are so in-sync with one another and with Pesce’s darkly playful tone. Even if it ends abruptly on a cheeky punchline of sorts rather than a fully satisfying payoff, “Piercing” is bracingly wicked and weird with two compelling lead performances and plenty of style to burn. 

Grade: B