Movie Review: Thoroughbreds

In Martha Stout’s “The Sociopath Next Door,” she points out to the reader that if they happen to be sitting there concerned that they might possibly be a sociopath, they aren’t. Actual sociopaths, she writes, may have some understanding of what they are, but it’s not going to distress them – because that would require the capacity to feel genuine emotion. So since that’s settled, what are the markers? None that you can tell from simply looking at someone, but if for example, they lie repeatedly, that’s a good indication.

Thoroughbreds,” features two upper-crust Connecticut teen girls, one of whom (Olivia Cooke) confides to her former childhood friend (Anya Taylor-Joy, an eerily Neve Campbell clone) that she doesn’t feel anything, but she can compensate – and has been doing so her whole life. In one scene as they watch a movie, Olivia instructs Anya in the art of crying on cue. As for Anya, her domineering stepfather (Paul Sparks) informs her in one scene that she treats everyone in her orbit as if they’re her personal staff, and even Olivia concludes that empathy isn’t her strong point. Unlike the two Australian teens (Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet) in “Heavenly Creatures,” another movie about friends who team up to commit murder when they’re threatened with separation, these two are mostly ice cool. While Melanie’s and Kate’s passion for each other causes them to imagine an elaborate fantasy world of giant clay figures, Olivia and Anya rekindle their friendship solidly in their cushy world of private schools, parties and estates that come complete with tennis courts, giant outdoor chess games and waterfront views. But there are cracks that soon become apparent: Anya has been expelled from Andover due to cheating and is in danger of being set to a boarding school for problem girls. As for Olivia, her scandal has something to do with her horse – it’s gruesome, but fortunately is only described not shown.

When the girls first reconnect, they are tentative, but eventually Anya confides how much she hates her stepfather, and Olivia suggests she kill him. Anya doesn’t want to go quite that far, but then changes her mind. The girls enlist Anton Yelchin, a drug dealer with ambitions bigger than his intellect, who is on probation for sexual assault. Unlike “Heavenly Creatures,” the true story behind the crime is not (as far as I know) based on a real scandal. It is, however, a typical indie with the story told in “chapters.” There’s also the obligatory clichéd scene where a character goes underwater, and sees how long she can stay there, as well as a complete lack of indoor lighting, even in day time because – thriller. While I assume directors do this to up the creepiness factor, all it does for me is draw attention to the fact that they’re trying overly hard to be creepy. But in movies luckily no one ever barks their shins, or has trouble reading things, or falls down the stairs unless, of course, they’re pushed. That doesn’t happen in “Thoroughbreds,” but the crime itself is grisly and drawn out. The ending just made me go, “Huh?” but the movie does disprove the nursery rhyme that little girls “are made with sugar and spice and all things nice.” Some are borderline sociopaths. And some are just really troubled.

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A Look Back: Pitch Perfect

If you were alive and coma-free in the nineties, you probably couldn’t escape the hit “The Sign” by Ace of Base, (which at first I mistook for “The Sun”). Like other earworm-prone hits from that era, “Who Let the Dogs Out?” and “The Macarena,” it appeared out of nowhere on the radio one day, made little sense when you analyzed the lyrics, and saturated the airwaves until it finally faded away into the graveyard of One Hit Wonderdom. But then it struck again in the opening of the film “Pitch Perfect,” about all-girl college a cappella group The Bellas, starring Anna Kendrick as a reluctant first year recruit. Not only that, but there was projectile vomiting by one weak-stomached Bella (Anna Camp), which surprisingly causes the group to lose the Big Competition. If you’re squeamish about the sudden unnoticed appearance of bodily fluids in films, you might want to skip that part. But fortunately, things get better.

So skip ahead several months after that humiliating disaster, and meet Beca (Anna Kendrick) who is decidedly un-thrilled about starting college. We can tell right away that she’s a rebel because she’s wearing the Eyeliner of Moody Nonconformity, plus she’s into DJ-ing. (After being greeted with a cheery, “Welcome to Barden College! Here is your student handbook – and your rape whistle,” I might not be too keen on my new school either.) Anyway, after about a month when it’s clear that Anna is coasting, her father (John Benjamin Hickey) bribes her by saying that she is free to drop out after a year and pursue a music career, but first she has to join a club. Okay then! So persuaded by head Bellas, Brittany Snow and Anna Camp, Anna joins the group, along with Rebel Wilson, who plays an Australian transplant named “Fat Amy,” which she calls herself, “so you twig bitches won’t say it behind my back.” Anna also gets a love interest in the form of adorable Skylar Astin so she can have a movie misunderstanding with later on. And a movie reunion.

As the collection of musical misfits hits the competition circuit, all sorts of high jinks occur, such as a knock-down, drag-out fight that winds up with John bailing Anna out of jail, resistance when Anna attempts to add some originality to the usual mix of performance songs, and of course, romance. There’s also John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks, who play naysaying announcers at each competition. Not to mention nonstop puns and witty comebacks. It climaxes with a really rocking version of Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” guaranteed to drive the Gen Xers in the audience wild with joy.

Fun fact about Simple Minds – they did not want to perform their “Breakfast Club” hit at the Live Aid concert, but realized during it how much the fans in the audience loved it. Similarly, the Bellas only realize how much they need and miss Anna after she leaves the group for a time, but in the end, the group that sings together, stays together.

A Look Back: Ted

A quick pop quiz.

Question: What’s the most risky behavior a character can engage in while on film?

a) Hijacking a vehicle and leading the authorities in a high-speed chase.
b) Drinking to excess and then going somewhere other than to sleep afterward.
c) Partaking of recreational substances not known for their ability to sharpen one’s wits.
d) Making random wishes – at mechanical gypsy fair booths, in thunderstorms, or on shooting stars.

Yes, indeed, it’s a toss up. But if I had to pick just one, I’d go with d). This year alone, “I Feel Pretty,” has demonstrated that it’s possible to be an average-looking woman who, after losing her head, runs outdoors and screams at the universe (during a storm), then becomes convinced that she’s gorgeous because – why not? (Unfortunately for her, none of the other characters are similarly enchanted.) Gypsy fair booths can also result in scary consequences, such as waking up the next morning realizing you’ve aged out of Nintendo and fart jokes to become an adult without any source of disposable income. (Try explaining that one to your mom when she comes in to wake you.) Oh, and shooting stars can have jaw-dropping results, too, as in the film “Ted,” in which a lonely young boy in a Boston suburb (who grows up to become Mark Wahlberg) wishes that his beloved teddy bear (voiced by director Seth MacFarlane) would become real. And lo and behold – he does!

We all know how that worked out for the Velveteen Rabbit, but that was a children’s story, and “Ted” is most definitely an R-rated movie. To give any moviegoer who happened to be too young or their parents a broad hint that this was a film better bypassed when it came out, the poster featured the bear prominently hoisting a beer, but alas, this was too subtle a nudge for some. But if you went without kids in tow as I did, you were free to laugh at the bawdy humor that dominated the story.

Unlike some cinematic friends from childhood (i.e. Drop Dead Fred of the titular nineties movie), Ted can be heard and seen perfectly fine by everyone other than Mark, although there are times they may wish otherwise. His interests also mature (a dubious verb) along with Mark’s, so that both cuss like sailors and often partake of alcohol. They also share a taste for gorgeous individuals of the opposite gender and parties that resemble college ones. Mark, however, is taking some steps to becoming a full-fledged adult in more than appearance. Since he is engaged to a lovely young woman (Mila Kunis), he eventually becomes upset at Ted treating their apartment like a frat house. So Ted agrees to get a job at a supermarket where he acquires a love interest of his own (Jessica Barth). But there is yet another blow-up between the two, which involves Mark’s hero, Sam Jones (played by the real one). After that, Ted is kidnapped by creepy stalker Giovanni Ribisi who has coveted him since he was a child and now has a son of his own. There’s also the amateur fan interrupting an arts performance trope, as well as chase which ends in Fenway Park. And there’s yet another shooting star wish to ensure that everything turns out okay.

Ted” received an Academy Award nomination for Best Song and spawned a sequel. There are many boy-and-his-dog movies out there, but boy-and-his-teddy-bear ones are rather thin on the ground, especially boy-of-delayed-adolescence-and-his-beer-drinking-teddy-bear ones. Like “Bad Santa,” and “Bad Grandpa,” it uses the “what if someone that’s traditionally supposed to be nurturing actually wasn’t?” premise. In many movies, the main character is ultimately forced to grow up and put away childish things, but here, he gets to have his bear and mature with him, too. In a manner of speaking (as the sequel proves).

Movie Review: Tag

One of my earliest childhood earworms, which included the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love?” and the “Laverne and Shirley” theme song, was the tune that accompanied the Toys R Us Kids ads. Maybe because the ads played constantly, but there was something about the punchline: “I don’t wanna grow up/’Cause if I did/I wouldn’t be a Toys R Us Kid!” that looped in my head on never-ending cycle upon the slightest provocation. (Apologies if I’ve just triggered it in yours.) With the release of “Game Night,” and now “Tag,” it looks like 2018 is shaping up to be a Toys R Us Kids Year. But “Tag,” as the viewer is solemnly informed at the start of the film, is “based on a true story,” and we get to see the real life players during the end credits. Upon learning there is actually a group of adult guys, all friends from childhood, who spend an entire month well, playing tag, and the concept did not spring fully formed from some Hollywood exec’s cranium, I didn’t know whether to laugh or be fearful for the fate of our nation.

When the film starts, we see Jon Hamm attempt to explain to a skeptical interviewer that he has decided to become a janitor, even though he has a flourishing veterinary practice (thankfully, his clients are not roped into the high jinks). Having successfully conned his way into the job, Jon then sneaks into his buddy, Ed Helms’ interview with a Wall Street Journal reporter. At first, Ed appears to be a grownup, i.e. he’s wearing a suit and has an office, but we quickly learn otherwise when he succumbs to his friend’s disguise and gets tagged. The poor reporter (Annabelle Wallis) can only trail them in wide-eyed horror, and then attempt to salvage her story by jettisoning the original idea and accompanying them to their hometown to attend their friend (Jeremy Renner’s) wedding to Isla Fisher. You see, Jeremy is the only one of their group who hasn’t been tagged. At all! Ever!

On the principle “The more the merrier,” they also pick up perpetual stoner Jake Johnson, and Hannibal Buress, who plays a kind of Yoda figure and who gets ambushed when he’s in the middle of a session with his shrink. (Good times!) In addition, there’s Leslie Bibb, as a hyper-competitive wife, who can’t play properly because when the guys made the rules they were nine, and they decided that there were no girls allowed, and Steve Berg, who plays a bartender who longs to join the group – he’s like Jesse Plemons in “Game Night,” only much less sinister. There are no murders – fake or otherwise – in “Tag,” though there’s a medium-powered golf cart chase, the destruction of an AA meeting, and a miscarriage that may or may not be real. Not to mention the wedding itself.

Tag” breaks new ground by having perhaps the only comedy movie wedding that’s not crashed in order to break up the happy couple, but otherwise I fear will quickly slip out of the viewer’s memory after leaving the theater, though there are some very funny parts. The movie has a kind of “Office Space“/”Horrible Bosses” vibe – most of the soundtrack is rap, apparently a popular choice to accompany guys in a state of perpetual adolescence doing silly things. But there’s also a few nuggets of self-awareness slipped in here and there, including what’s running through Annabelle’s mind during the AA meeting battle: “And people wonder why print journalism is dying!” Yes, the part about the Wall Street Journal is apparently true, too. God help us all.

Movie Review: Adrift

When “Adrift” opens, Shailene Woodley is up to her ears in alligators, as the saying goes. She’s also up to her chest in water because her yacht is in the process of capsizing on the open ocean. She sloshes around and finally manages to clamber up onto the deck, where we can see clearly that she’s in rough shape: for one thing, there are two noticeable spots of blood decorating her tank top. Also she is totally alone with not even a stray seagull in sight. The tap water comes out in spurts, then not at all. The navigation radio is dead. It is difficult to discern how she might extract herself from this situation. The audience is thus adrift, as well.

However, we’re soon whisked away to a flashback in which Tami Oldham Ashcraft (Shailene) disembarks from a (fully staffed) ship. A man checking her papers asks what her profession is. Anything, as long as it gives me the money to continue on my journey, she replies. He buys this, and soon she’s working at a marina, where she meets Sam Claflin who has an impressive boat it turns out he built himself, which dispels any suspicion that he might just be a spoiled playboy (like the guy in “Overboard“). The two begin a relationship, and Sam takes Shailene out on his boat where she quickly proves that her claim of “I’m not a real sailor,” is being overly modest. When a British couple that Sam knows bumps into them and offers them money to sail their yacht back to California, the two agree. Little do they know that they’re in for a rough ride, to put it mildly.

Things also get fuzzy time-wise and logic-wise for the viewer, regarding Sam and his actual existence. But for most of the movie, Sam is sidelined on the ship with back and leg injuries, yet he’s able to provide advice and solace as Shailene struggles through a shortage of food supplies (sardines and Spam, yum), squalls, and injuries of her own (she sports an impressive hematoma on one calf, though it’s clear there’s razors uncontaminated by bilge water, as her legs always look shaved). In “Me Before You,” Sam played a charming paraplegic, and in the “Hunger Games” franchise, a young man who grew up near the sea and thus had nautical knowledge, perhaps someone decided to combine the two for “Adrift.” Shailene and Sam have the kind of doomed romantic relationship that is common in Hollywood movies, but this time is actually based on a true story, a memoir by the real Tami, who was only 24 when she survived all this.

It seems like there’s an abundance of movies about the dangers of the sea out lately. Between “Overboard,” “Adrift” and the upcoming shark film, I may just stick to inland water this summer. While there aren’t any sharks in “Adrift,” there are some pretty impressive storms; sharks are about the only obstacle that Shailene doesn’t have to overcome. It may take seven other women to help Sandra Bullock pull off a heist in “Ocean’s 8,” but here it’s only one who manages to pilot her ship to its ultimate destination – a genuinely impressive display of girl power.

 

 

 

 

Movie Review: Hotel Artemis

When “Hotel Artemis” opens, the year is 2028, and whoever is now the Leader of the Free World is doing a less-than-stellar job. Los Angeles is burning – as residents desperate for water mob the streets and express their displeasure with a company called Clear Water in a riotous manner. Meanwhile in the Hotel Artemis, which happens to be right in the thick of the anarchy, Jodie Foster, who is a combination concierge/head nurse, gets a call that there’s an injured woman (Sofia Boutella) who desperately needs her aid. Also, a gravely injured man (Brian Tyree Henry) who requires emergency surgery, which she does with an expertise that suggests an actual medical background. Indeed this is the case, though we won’t learn Jodie’s full backstory for awhile. We do learn that Sofia is a spy of some sort, and that Brian isn’t exactly a model citizen either. Indeed the Hotel Artemis is populated solely by criminals – except for Jodie’s errand boy and bouncer (Dave Bautista), but governed by a strict set of rules, as presumably laid down by its owner, the Wolf King (Jeff Goldblum). What goes on in the Hotel Artemis stays in the Hotel Artemis – that sort of thing.

Several stories soon emerge. Sofia, who is on assignment, is trying to take a break (her injury turns out to be self-inflicted) but is pestered by Charlie Day, who plays an arms dealer with the persistence of a mosquito at a barbecue. Seeing her hassled, another guest, Sterling K. Brown, intervenes – though just to warn Charlie that he hasn’t a clue who he’s really dealing with. (Surprisingly, this won’t be the end of it.) Sterling is the brother of Brian, and all evidence points to Sterling being some kind of high powered assassin, as well. There’s also an injured cop (Jenny Slate), who knew Jodie growing up and who provides key info in her backstory about her deceased son, and who isn’t technically supposed to gain entrance. But all rules go out the window with the arrival of Jeff, who is – wait for it – injured by a gun wound, but not the kind of gun wound where you turn the color of snow and pass out from the pain. No, Jeff is able to talk coherently and inform his youngest son (Zachary Quinto) that he will be next in line if Jeff passes; he even gives him a super-secret Magic Decoder Ring. So Daddy issues are thrown into the mix, as well.

Eventually, things come to a climax, and there are deaths, explosions and escapes, not necessarily in that order. The lights go out, so that everything is bathed in a weird red film; meanwhile outside, the riots rage on, while Sterling helpfully escorts Jodie out of the hotel with the sage saying, “Getting out is harder than getting in.” I assume the hotel is named for Artemis, the legendary Greek hunter, and to quote Carson McCullers, the heart is a lonely hunter, too. But Jodie resolves what’s eating away at her, so we assume she’ll be around and up for healing more wounded souls for a long time.

A Look Back: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

It’s a story as old as the hills. A young child grows up perpetually persecuted by their family – or family substitute – dealing with all sorts of horrors that will involve years of therapy as an adult – or perhaps a best-selling memoir if they happen to be literary-minded. However, one day out of the blue, a stranger appears and informs the child that they are, in fact, special, that they possess magical powers or at least will grow up to be distinguished and beloved far and wide. The child is then whisked away to a place where they are free to develop their gifts, enjoy the company of kindred spirits, and revel in their riches to the fullest – leaving behind a group of envious, teeth gnashing former tormentors. The formerly rag-clad heroine climbs into her carriage to return to the prince’s palace, while her sisters deal with their maimed feet they’ve unsuccessfully tried to squeeze into the glass slipper. Or in the case of Harry Potter, easily the most famous child wizard ever, shop in a magical village for wands and robes, pass through a barrier with his eyes shut, then board a magical train which will take him, his friends and his foes to Hogwarts, a magical secondary school known for its Quidditch program, its revolving Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers, and its propensity for putting its young pupils in grave danger, not once, but every school year.

Perhaps equally satisfying (if one is not a fellow young adult author blinded by envy) is the story of Harry Potter’s creator, J.K. Rowling, who wrote the first novel “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” while a cash-challenged single mother and managed to capture lighting in a bottle. As the “Harry” books increased in volume with each new one (until eventually they could be used for doorstops), with each shooting to the tops of bestseller lists, with even adults horning in on the fun (for the self-conscious, there were more “adult” looking covers), and with many turning to book clerks and declaring, “I’ll have what she’s reading,” it seemed like the whole world was just wild about Harry. Not to mention millions staying glued to their homes the day each book was released – and mobbing the Amazon delivery truck when it finally dared appear at the end of the drive.

Inevitably, a movie – and its sequels – would be made.

Though the first director, Chris Columbus, was American, the cast was all-British, causing fans to breathe at least a partial sigh of relief. (The title, however, kept its American version, as “HP and the Philosopher’s Stone,” was considered too complex for non-Brits to fathom.) Young Harry was played by Daniel Radcliffe, and his two school pals, Hermione and Ron, by Emma Stone and Rupert Grint respectively. When the film begins, however, Harry is friendless and living in a suburb with his uncle (Richard Griffiths), aunt (Fiona Shaw, and cousin (Harry Melling), all of whom seem to have no other aim in life than Keeping Up With Their Neighbors (which means hiding Daniel’s embarrassing magical tendencies) and bullying Daniel. Despite being able to free a snake at the zoo by melting a glass case in order to scare his cousin, Daniel has no idea he’s really a wizard until gentle giant Robbie Coltrane shows up with an admission letter from Hogwarts, headmastered by a wise soul called Dumbledore (Richard Harris, in the early films). Not only that, but he learns that his parents were a witch and a wizard (and Hogwarts’ alums), who were murdered by the evil Voldemort, a guy who is going to make a reappearance by the book’s/film’s end and who has more lives than a cat. (Fortunately, thanks to mum’s sacrifice, so does Daniel.)

Once at Hogwarts, the whole forming-a-clique-issue is dispatched handily by having each newbie try on a hat which places Daniel, Rupert and Emma into a House known for the bravery of its occupants. Then it’s on to dealing with sarcastic Potions teachers (Alan Rickman), sparring with spoiled rich bullies (Tom Felton) and solving mysteries involving three-headed dogs called Fluffy. Of course, Daniel triumphs in the end with a little help from his friends, although he does have to go back home for summer vacation at his uncle’s and aunt’s. But thankfully, there are more magical adventures to come. And by the time the series is over, Harry Potter himself could cash in on memoirs, although we’re told in the epilogue that he settles for a quiet family life.