Capsule Reviews: Happy Death Day; Moon; The Childhood of a Leader

Brief reviews of: Blumhouse’s Happy Death Day, plus Moon and The Childhood of a Leader

Happy Death Day

Happy Death Day

Happy Death Day doesn’t look particularly promising on paper; it’s basically Groundhog Day for the Blumhouse set, and even cops to the influence in the dialog. But it actually works despite its script being a pile of college-dorm-life clichés. Christopher Landon keeps the pace brisk enough to outrun the script’s copious plot holes without exhausting the audience. Meanwhile, Jessica Rothe provides an exuberant and affable performance in the lead role of Tree (not kidding), a sorority queen-bee who finds herself reliving the day of her murder over and over again. I would have liked a bit more edginess and satire and a bit less predictability, but hey, you can’t have everything.

Special props to Phi Vu for delivering the line “So did you tap that fine vagine?” as if it were something someone somewhere would actually say.

Starring Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Charles Aitken. Directed by Christopher Landon. 96 minutes.

Moon

Older Films

Moon

Sam Rockwell gets an entire movie to himself and the result is Moon, in which he plays an engineer and the lone crewmember of a lunar helium refinery. I felt director Duncan Jones could have done more with the script’s central twist (no spoilers but it’s very similar to a film released around the same time as Moon, that starred Sally Hawkins and Charlotte Rampling as schoolteachers), but he does a great job of communicating the vast, awesome emptiness and solitude of the Moon, and I haven’t seen a better performance from Rockwell than this one. Also, Kevin Spacey gets to play the voice of the base’s controlling AI, a performance delightfully reminiscent of Douglas Rain’s outings as HAL.

Starring Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey, Dominique McElligott, Benedict Wong, Matt Berry. Directed by Duncan Jones. 97 minutes, 2009.

The Childhood of a Leader

For his feature début in the director’s chair, American actor Brady Corbet—still probably best known for playing Peter to Michael Pitt’s Paul in the Funny Games remake—takes a Jean-Paul Sartre story and turns it into a two-hour-long temper tantrum…literally. British child actor Tom Sweet (apparently seven years old at the time this film was made) plays Prescott, the son of an American diplomat (Liam Cunningham) and his French wife (Bérniéce Bejo) living in France during the waning days of World War I. For the most part, it plays as a typical dark family study about unpleasant parents raising an unpleasant child, until the film’s final fifteen minutes take everything to a bizarre yet logical extreme. Featuring gorgeous cinematography courtesy Lol Crawley and a frightening disjointed score by pop star-turned-avant garde legend Scott Walker, it’s bloated and pretentious, but not easily forgotten.

Starring Tom Sweet, Bérniéce Bejo, Liam Cunningham, Stacy Martin, Robert Pattinson. Directed by Brady Corbet. 115 minutes, 2015.

Capsule Reviews: Get Out; Dunkirk; Good Time

Closing out December with Get Out, Dunkirk, and Good Time

Get Out

Get Out

Directed by Jordan Peele. Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, LilRel Howery, Caleb Landry Jones, Marcus Henderson, Betty Gabriel, Lakeith Stansfield, Stephen Root.

One of the reasons I find the present so exciting when it comes to genre films is the growing recognition that there is no distinction between “genre” films and “quality” films (or at least there shouldn’t be). This is nothing against the year’s crop of “quality” films such as Three BillboardsCall Me by Your Name, Phantom Thread, and Lady Bird, but I’m not seeing them dominate other critics’ rankings to the extent I’d expected. I think I’ve seen Baby DriverWonder Woman and even It on more best-of lists than The Square. And then there’s Get Out, which was not a film I’d expect any critic to name as the year’s best-of.

Not because Get Out isn’t a good film; by all metrics, it is, in fact, every bit deserving of the hype it’s received. Jordan Peele has managed to pull off a masterful juggling act, interpolating Carpenter-esque suspense sequences with the surreal artsiness of the Sunken Place. Daniel Kaluuya lives up to the promise I first saw in “Fifteen Million Merits,” his episode of Black Mirror, and he heads a brilliant cast that ranges from dependable character-actors like Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, and Stephen Root, to “where have you been hiding all these years?” revelations like LilRel Howery, Caleb Landry Jones, and Betty Gabriel. Get Out is scary when it needs to be scary, funny when it needs to be funny, and balances the two modes with a deftness I’ve not seen since The Cabin in the Woods.

And then, of course, there’s the social commentary. I doubt the conversation surrounding Get Out would be much improved by more white-guy-splaining, but I do want to say that this sort of commentary is the exact thing that horror, as a genre, is uniquely positioned to deliver. In fact, I believe that delivering uncomfortable truths with a dollop of entertainment value—especially, in the case of this film, to white audiences—is what horror entirely exists to do. Get Out inherits from a long tradition of horror-with-social-subtext that includes films such as Dawn of the Dead and They Live and The People Under the Stairs, films that critics and “serious” audiences overlooked because they were genre efforts. But our culture has changed since then, to the point where Get Out is recognized as one of the finest films of the year. And that’s all for the better.

Dunkirk

Dunkirk

Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy.

May 21, 1940. Eleven days into the Battle of France, and Nazi forces have the British Expeditionary Force, along with three French field armies and the remains of the Belgian and Dutch forces, trapped along the northern coast of France, near the port city of Dunkirk. The best course of action is to evacuate the soldiers from Dunkirk across the English Channel to Dover, a distance of about fifty nautical miles. That is, if they can make it past the German Luftwaffe (air force).

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, then, is less about heroism at wartime and more about simply not getting killed. The narrative follows the evacuation on three fronts: on the ground, a trio of British privates desperately try to make it off the beach; in the air, a pair of Spitfire pilots engage the Luftwaffe; at sea, a civilian sailor, his son, and his son’s friend sail from Weymouth in a civilian vessel. The Axis soldiers and pilots are almost never seen; the only markers of their presence are the bullets and bombs raining from the sky. Fighting can only effectively be done in the air. If you’re on land or in the water, your only option is to run or swim and pray to God the projectiles don’t follow you.

This is Nolan at his most straightforward and concise. While the three stories don’t all play out at the same pace, Nolan eschews the narrative trickery he’s become associated with. In terms of putting the audience in the middle of the action (such as it is), Dunkirk is perhaps the most effective war film since Saving Private Ryan. With so much going on, there’s very little room for character development. The civilian sailors—Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies), Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), and newcomer Tom Glynn-Carney—are the only characters with time to register as people. And even at a comparatively breezy 106 minutes—the shortest running time Nolan’s delivered since his début, Following—too many scenes stretch on for too long.

Still, there’s an important lesson here. On the last day of the evacuation, Winston Churchill delivered his celebrated “we shall fight on the beaches” speech, rallying the British people and preparing them for the long road ahead. The Allies did, of course, eventually triumph over the Axis, proof positive that Nazis can be defeated…something it may help us to keep in mind in the near future.

Good Time

Good Time

Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie. Starring Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Buddy Duress, Taliah Lennice Webster, Barkhad Abdi, Jennifer Jason Leigh.

There are movies that have to pull off delicate balancing acts, and then there’s Good Time. Robert Pattinson stars as Connie, a small-time hood who takes a trip through the seedy underbelly of New York culture to come up with bail money for his developmentally challenged brother Nick (Benny Safdie, who co-directed with his brother Josh), recently arrested for participating in a bank robbery Connie masterminded. Imagine a cross between Dog Day Afternoon and Of Mice and Men, and you’re not far off.

Good Time shifts from exciting to disturbing to funny in turn, as Connie’s adventures draw in a motley gang of allies and antagonists, including Ray (Buddy Duress), a parolee who finds himself in trouble within hours of release, and Crystal (Taliah Lennice Webster), a rebellious and bored sixteen-year-old. The plot shifts into a rollicking new gear once the McGuffin—a 16-ounce bottle of Sprite, spiked with LSD—is established; a propulsive score by electronic artist Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) keeps the pace quick and steady.

Through it all, Pattinson keeps everything grounded. If you’ve managed to miss everything he’s done that doesn’t have the word Twilight in the title, prepare to be blown away—this is not the mumbly “hero” of the Cullen saga. Connie isn’t always a sympathetic or even likable protagonist, and he’s capable of some vicious scumbaggery. But his (admittedly unhealthly) love for his brother shines through in every inch of Pattinson’s electrifying performance and gives the film a heart you wouldn’t ordinarily expect from a New York crime drama.

Papillon

I Also Watched…

Papillon (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1973). I’m on a Steve McQueen kick lately. Papillon is apparently a true story about a French safecracker who was framed for murder and sent to a brutal prison camp in French Guiana that he then spent the next decade attempting to escape from. It’s engaging for about the first hour and a half or so, but after that it becomes a bit of a pointless drag. The thing I find really interesting about it, though, is the fact that the screenplay was co-written by blacklist target Dalton Trumbo; while I don’t know for sure that Trumbo drew parallels between his own struggle and Papillon’s bloody-minded obsession (even after being retired from the prison camp and moved to a comparatively comfortable colony for exiles, he continues to plot escape, because he’s not really free), but I like to think that.

The Best of 2017

Because I got such a late start on my 2017 movies I’m deferring my Year in Movies post until the end of January. I still have a lot of 2017 movies to see (just to name a few: Atomic Blonde, Logan, Logan Lucky, Untamed, Nocturama, ColossalThor: RagnarokThe Post…). I don’t want to close out my list without seeing the two year’s two big non-genre critical hits, Lady Bird and Call Me by Your Name, even though neither film could really be described as “my type of thing.” And I want to revisit a few films from Fantastic Fest 2016 (Buster’s Mal HeartA Dark SongRaw) and even 2015 (The Blackcoat’s Daughter, once known as February) that finally saw release in 2017.

However, as of right now my top ten films of 2017 are:

  1. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  2. The Shape of Water
  3. Baby Driver
  4. Get Out
  5. It Comes at Night
  6. Kedi
  7. Okja
  8. Blade Runner 2049
  9. Good Time
  10. It: Chapter One

Maps to the Stars

David Cronenberg’s haunted Hollywood

United States/Canada, 2014. Directed by David Cronenberg. Starring Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Evan Bird, Olivia Williams, Robert Pattinson, Kiara Glasco, Sarah Gadon. 115 minutes.

Maps to the Stars paints Hollywood as a ghost town in more ways than one. Both the main characters–aging, washed-out actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) and cocky child star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) interact with the dead: Benjie’s is a young fan; Havana’s is her mother (Sarah Gadon), a starlet who died young. Other ghosts are metaphorical: Benjie’s dim memories of a long-buried incident involving his estranged sister, the legacy Havana’s mother left her in the form of accusations of abuse–and a juicy Oscar-bait role of a lifetime. And Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), though very much alive, haunts them both, an agent of chaos ready to turn lives upside down. In keeping with the film’s theme of duality, burn scars mar her soul as well as her skin.

The idea of Hollywood being a wretched hive of scum and villainy, entirely fueled by cocaine and crystals–the new age kind, not the methamphetamine kind–and utterly obsessed with itself above all, isn’t exactly new, particularly in the context of Maps screenwriter Bruce Wagner’s body of work (which includes Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills). When Havana privately celebrates the death of a fellow actress’s young child (because it opens a role in her dream project), it shocks rather less than it should. We’re too used to the gallery of sociopaths we assume inhabits Tinseltown. The film’s structure is also a bit flabby, featuring too many diversions and not always gracefully juggling a large ensemble of dramatis personae, which includes John Cusack as a self-help guru and Robert Pattinson as an actor/writer moonlighting as a limo driver.

It’s up to director David Cronenberg (surprisingly, this is the Canadian’s first film shot in the States) to tame this wild beast, and for the most part he proves to be a good match for the material. It’s not for nothing that Cronenberg earned the title of provocateur, and longtime fans will recognize the frankness and sensation that most people associate with his name. Of all mainstream filmmakers, I can’t think of many others who would put Moore’s character into an explicit three-way with her character’s own mother. The visuals are up to Cronenberg’s standard, save for an unfortunate effects shot near the film’s end.

Cronenberg seems to have a knack for drawing bravura performances out of his casts and Maps is no exception. Moore shines the brightest, bringing a sad sympathy and relatability to a character whose actions often hew too close to Joan Crawford Mommie Dearest excess. Wasikowska’s Agatha embodies alluring and creepy in equal measure. Bird’s role is perhaps the toughest–Benjie’s not just a spoiled tyrant, he’s a spoiled tyrant navigating the treacherous waters of adolescence…and the unwitting victim of secrets and lies he had no part in. Bird tackles the role with a confidence which largely overcomes the occasional flaw in characterization.

While Maps to the Stars isn’t quite as essential as some of its director’s last decade-and-a-half or so of successes, it’s still a good film distinguished by strong acting and that certain something only Cronenberg can offer.

Originally published by Cinema Axis.