REVIEW: “Thoroughbreds”

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Two teenaged friends reunite in Cory Finley’s intriguing debut feature “Thoroughbreds”. As many of us can attest to, even the closest childhood friendships are like a vapor with no guarantees to last. But sometimes, even unexpectedly, old friendships can be rekindled. Such is the case for the film’s two upper-class Connecticut teens Amanda and Lily.

Serving as both writer and director, Finley originally penned “Thoroughbreds” as a stageplay. You can see elements of those roots throughout the film – the emphasis on language, the framing of certain shots, holding them a few seconds longer that normal. It works well within the framework of this unusual thriller/black comedy which has drawn comparisons to “American Psycho” and the even the iciest Hitchcock.

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Olivia Cooke (“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”, “Ready Player One”) plays the eccentric and seemingly emotionless Amanda. She’s been through the rounds with psychiatrists after an animal cruelty charge and now her mother feels she needs more interaction with her peers. Mom secretly hires Amanda’s one-time childhood friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy of “The Witch” and “Split”) to hang out and be her tutor. Lily is perceived to be the “normal one” of the two – smart and popular with the ‘in’ crowd at school.

Normally a social flower and a pariah aren’t the most compatible pair, but as Amanda and Lily spend more time together their psychological bond becomes more evident. A key turning point in their friendship centers around Lily’s cold, abrasive stepfather (Paul Sparks). Lily detests him, Amanda flippantly recommends killing him, Lily scoffs at the idea. But is Amanda really serious? What happens when Lily has second thoughts? From there the story moves forward in full blue-blooded psychological thriller mode

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While both Cooke and Taylor-Joy are interesting and expressive young actresses who truly nail down their characters, Anton Yelchin shines the brightest. It’s a small role but possibly the most genuine and sympathetic. He also gives us a breather from the film’s effective yet steadily acidic tone. Yelchin plays Tim, a low-level drug pusher with big aspirations. He’s as naive as he is pathetic which makes him the perfect stooge for the girl’s on again/off again master plan.

Despite dancing close the line of genre predictability, “Thoroughbreds” never crosses it and it has enough originality to feel uncomfortably fresh. The sound design, the visual style, its obvious noir roots – it all plays together nicely. The result is a half-batty movie that takes the problems of the young privileged and gives them a violent shake. Where do all the pieces land? You’ll have to watch to find out.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Only Lovers Left Alive”

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Several years ago vampires became all the rage in modern pop culture. “Twilight” made millions from novels and movies. “True Blood” was a hugely popular television series. And while I can’t say many flattering things about the quality of these properties, fans could get their vampire entertainment fix almost anywhere. Now, as the vampire craze appears to be fading, writer and director Jim Jarmusch gives us a vampire tale that is boldly unique and intelligently metaphoric. It would also send Twilight fans running for the exits.

“Only Lovers Left Alive” could be described as a mood piece. Like other Jarmusch films, this is more centered around developing characters than developing plot and your enjoyment of the movie will probably depend on how much you enjoy being with these people. As you can guess the two main characters are vampires, but part of the film’s genius is how it uses vampire concepts while stiff-arming the usual tropes and gimmicks. In fact it seems like calling it a ‘vampire movie’ is actually doing it a huge disservice.

At the core of the film lies the love story of a centuries old vampiric couple. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a recluse living in an old two-story Victorian on the abandoned outskirts of Detroit. He surrounds himself with out-of-date electronic gadgets and his music. His wife Eve (Tilda Swinton) lives in Tangier, Morocco where she spends most of her time enjoying books and literature. The two are very different. Adam has grown forlorn and sour due to the current state of the world. Eve is more playful and optimistic, choosing to embrace hope and happiness. Yet despite these differences the two soulmates deeply love each other.

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Sensing Adam’s depression Eve travels to Detroit where the two are reunited. From there the film opens up the characters and their relationship by simply following along with them. We listen to their conversations which range from scientific theory to makes and models of classic guitars. We listen to Adam lament the death of creativity at the hands of humans (who the couple call zombies). We listen to Eve remind him of the great artists and innovators they have known through the centuries. These are fascinating individuals who have a number of fascinating discussions, but they all aim to serve the movie’s greater points.

In many ways “Only Lovers Left Alive” is an indictment of humanity, or at the very least a call for introspection. We hear how humanity’s appreciation for the arts has declined. In fact, in what may be Jarmusch’s jab at modern moviemaking, we hear Los Angeles refered to as “zombie central”. We see how humanity has destroyed what it has created as evident by the hollow and empty Detroit landscapes. We learn about humanity’s destruction of the environment particularly through a couple of references to the scarcity of clean water. Humanity has even destroyed themselves. Vampires are forced to seek alternate methods of acquiring blood because humans have poisoned their own. None of these things ever get to the point of being preachy. Instead they are thoughtful story components that are clever and thought-provoking.

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The film also has a smart sense of humor which shows itself most when the vampires are relating to the past. For example Eve reminding Adam of his time spent playing chess with Lord Byron or sharing creative ideas with composer Franz Schubert. Then there are several gags tied to John Hurt’s character. He plays Eve’s dear friend and fellow vampire Christopher Marlowe – yes, the 16th century playwright. Some fun is had with the conspiracy theory that he wrote many important pieces of literature under the assumed name of William Shakespeare.

It also helps that Jarmusch cast the two best possible people for the parts of Adam and Eve. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are so intensely convincing both in their intelligent coolness and blanched physical appearances. You never doubt them as connoisseurs of fine art and music, and you never doubt their vampire status. They are two of the most compelling and strangely attractive characters I’ve seen this year. I loved spending time with them.

“Only Lovers Left Alive” can be called a vampire movie, but in reality it bucks nearly every common vampire trend. It’s a slick, stylish, and moody character piece that doesn’t shy away from asking good questions and prodding reflection. It’s also great fun watching a true independent director like Jarmusch work with top talents like Hiddleston and Swinton. This certainly won’t be up everyone’s alley, but I found it to be mesmerizing entertainment and a refreshing jolt to the 2014 movie year.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Star Trek” (2009)

Star Trek PosterThe summer movie season is off and running and one of the year’s most talked about releases is due out in a few days. I’m talking about “Star Trek Into Darkness”, the J.J. Abrams sequel to his 2009 reboot of the franchise. With so much hype and anticipation swirling around the new movie I thought it would be a good time to go back and revisit the first installment, a much loved film that I had pretty mixed feelings about. Would a second viewing give me a better appreciation for what Abrams and company were able to accomplish or would it simply reaffirm my initial frustrations with the movie?

First off, attempting to relaunch or reboot the Star Trek franchise is a pretty hefty and gutsy task. Perhaps only Star Wars’ fan base eclipses the passion and devotion of the group affectionately known as “Trekkies”. Tinkering with and altering the beloved universe first created by the late great Gene Roddenberry would be the equivalent to playing with fire and one would assume this was high on the list of the filmmakers’ considerations. Well I’m no Trekkie and I’m not as well versed in Star Trek lore as many, but I have say I’m surprised that more diehard fans didn’t have issues with the liberties and modernizations we see here. More on that later.

“Star Trek” is constructed as a completely new franchise launcher. It creates its own world beginning with the origin stories of the popular Star Trek characters Captain Kirk and Spock and telling how they and the crew came together through Starfleet. The film actually begins with a bang. A flashback shows the federation starship USS Kelvin investigating a lightning storm anomaly when it encounters a huge Romulan mining vessel converted to a warship. A battle breaks out forcing the Kelvin’s first officer (Chris Hemsworth) to evacuate everyone from the ship including his pregnant wife. He then manually flies the Kelvin into the mammoth enemy vessel causing a distraction so the escape pods can get away. This hero’s name was George Samuel Kirk.

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The USS Enterprise

The movie then fast-forwards and puts the spotlight on his son James T. Kirk (Chris Pine). He’s grown up to be a rebellious and rambunctious sort who is challenged to enter Starfleet by Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), the Captain of the USS Enterprise who served with his father. While at the academy he befriends Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban), flirts with Uhuru (Zoe Saldana), and gets off on the wrong foot with Spock (Zachary Quinto). But in a familiar story turn that we’ve seen in everything from “Top Gun” to “Starship Troopers”, the cadets are forced into action when a distress call is made from Spock’s home planet of Vulcan. Through this we’re introduced to other familiar characters including Sulu (John Cho), Scotty (Simon Pegg), and Chekov (Anton Yelchin).

Eric Bana plays the rogue Romulan Nero who we see in the opening and who pops up later to serve as the main antagonist. He has a serious bone to pick with Spock and his revenge-fueled presence poses a major threat. Aside from the normal franchise origin stuff, this tiff between Nero and Spock is a big part of the story. There’s also the story of Jim’s evolution from an immature, self-centered hothead into a responsible, heroic member of Starfleet. All of these strands are woven together pretty nicely and the film moves through them with better pacing than I originally remembered. There are also some fantastic special effects and a cool new Enterprise with an impressive modernized bridge that I thought looked great.

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The USS Enterprise crew

But there were some issues I originally had with “Star Trek” that unfortunately didn’t go away with a fresh viewing. First, I know this is a relaunching of the Star Trek franchise and some of it is aimed at the action-starved audiences of today. But to me there were times where this didn’t feel anything like a Star Trek movie. There were certain scenes that felt so jarringly out of place yet perfectly in tune with the film industries affection for ‘Hollywoodizing’ their big movies. Again, I understand that Abrams and company are showing their new vision but I wish they would have trusted or cared more for the Star Trek formula. But honestly, while it’s still an issue, it didn’t seem to bother me as much during this viewing.

Another issue I still have is with the handling and redefining of some of the characters. I don’t know if it’s just an attempt to force in a fairly underwhelming romance or if it’s simply political correctness, but I wasn’t crazy about Uhuru as a bigger character while McCoy, an important character in the original series, is reserved for comic relief. Maybe it’s because the romance between Uhuru and a certain crew member feels shallow and tacked on. There’s nothing wrong with Saldana’s performance but her role is pretty flimsy. Karl Urban does some great work channelling his best DeForrest Kelley. Even though ‘Bones’ is written almost exclusively for humor, Urban is fantastic and it’s a shame he was given something meatier to work with.

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Eric Bana is Nero

My revisit also verified one thing and clarified another. Zachary Quinto as Spock is by far the best bit of casting in the movie while Chris Pine left a better impression this time around than before. Quinto nicely sells Spock through his tone, mannerisms, and pitch-perfect deliveries. Pine ends much better than he begins. In the first half of the film he’s pretty hard to digest but as his material gets better so does his performance. In fact, overall I found him to be better than I remembered. I can’t really say the same for Pegg’s Scotty or Yelchin’s Chekov, but both of their issues dealt more closely with how their characters were written.

So now the big question. Did my time away from “Star Trek” change my perception of the film? Did this fresh look at the movie provide a better experience? I would have to say yes but only slightly. “Star Trek” is still a film with a handful of flaws. At times it tries to be too hip, too cute, and too modern at the expense of those proven elements that make “Star Trek” great. On the flip side, I did find myself enjoying and embracing more of what Abrams and company were doing. This was a better experience and my anticipation for the next movie has grown. I just hope for a more focused script with less corn and a little better handling of its characters. If that happens “Star Trek Into Darkness” could be a real treat.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

“FRIGHT NIGHT” (2011) – 2.5 STARS

Hollywood is head-over-heels in love with remaking movies from the 80’s right now. So far we’ve had everything from “Footloose” to Total Recall” remade with a modernized story and gloss. Many more already have release dates or are in production. As someone who grew up in the 80’s watching the original pictures, I’m still waiting for one of these recent remakes to really blow me away and make it feel worthwhile. So along comes “Fright Night”, a 2011 version of the 1985 vampire film that I truly loved. The original was a fun and occasionally creepy horror flick that played around with elements from vampire, werewolf, and haunted house movies. It had its share of old-school special effects and classic horror cheese while also maintaining a thoroughly compelling narrative. So I had a natural curiosity and concerns about the remake. Would the Hollywood modernization process be able to capture what made the original so entertaining? Well, not exactly.

The remake’s story is built upon the clever premise of the original “Fright Night” film. Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) and his mother Jane (Toni Collette) live in a small suburb of Las Vegas. An attractive single man named Jerry Dandrige (Colin Farrell) moves into the house next door. Over time we find out that Dandrige is a vampire and Charley finds himself, his mother, and his girlfriend Amy (Imogen Poots) right in his new neighbor’s crosshairs. There aren’t many more significant ways that this “Fright Night” resembles the original. One of my biggest disappointments with this film was with how little effort went into building more tension between Charley and Dandrige. The original spent a lot of time with Charley trying to convince his mother, friends, and the police that his neighbor was a killer responsible for the disappearances of many area women. This made for several creepy confrontations between the two. This film gives us only a scene or two of this, choosing instead to jump headfirst into more action-based horror that seemed purposed more for the 3D than deeper storytelling.

Charley’s predicament is so dire that he seeks the help a Las Vegas horror illusionist Peter Vincent (David Tennant). This Peter Vincent is a boozing, profane, and abusive jerk void of any of the sympathetic charm that made Roddy McDowall’s character so memorable. There was nothing at all in this character that was the least bit interesting. To be fair, it’s not that Tennant’s performance is bad. This is a writing issue that’s a direct result of a story direction choice. This is an instance of modernizing a great character from the original story with pretty poor results. And while this is a modernization problem, the movie is plagued by some fairly generic characters outside of Charley. Poots is good as Charley’s girlfriend but she isn’t given much to do. Charley’s mom is about as shallow as they come and then there are a couple of his friends that seemed to be just thrown in. Then you have one of the first film’s more memorable characters “Evil” Ed (this time played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Here he’s actually developed into a fairly sympathetic character before being thrown aside rather quickly. Farrell is fun and sometimes charismatic, but he’s only asked to talk in a creepy tone and wipe his mouth and lick his fingers after “feeding”. It’s a good performance. I just wish he was given more.

The special effects were a big part of what made the first film such fun. It had some over-the-top gore but it fit in perfectly with the story. Here the effects are fine although in several places the CGI is clearly evident. And with the exception of a pretty spectacular car chase sequence, there aren’t any scenes that at the end of the movie really stuck with me. And this leads into the fact that this “Fright Night” just isn’t that scary. There are a couple of loud music jump scenes but in terms of actual creepiness, there just isn’t much of it.

I know it seems like I made a lot of comparisons between the original movie and this new version of “Fright Night” in my review. I try not to do that. Maybe I’m just too big of a fan of the original to help myself. But I also think this film has some flaws that keep it from being as good as it could be. This film’s decision to spend far more time on horror-based action actually strips the picture of the spookiness that made the first picture so much fun. It’s not boring and there are a few good intentional laughs scattered throughout the film. There’s also a fantastic cameo from Chris Sarandon (Dandrige from the first film) that really hit the spot. But in the end, this was another underachieving remake of a really good 80’s movie. In other words, I’m still waiting for an 80’s remake to blow me away.

“THE BEAVER” – 4 STARS

Regardless of your thoughts on Mel Gibson’s real life personal struggles, there is no denying that he can still command the screen. In “The Beaver”, he gives one of the strongest performances of his career in a role that may touch close to home for him. Everything in this film revolves around Gibson and it’s his mesmerizing performance that sells not only his character but the main focus of what his condition is doing to his family. It’s a painfully authentic portrayal of mental illness and director Jodie Foster allows Gibson to make this complex character his own.

Gibson plays Walter Black, the CEO of a toy company who is facing serious struggles with depression. His wife Meredith (Foster) kicks Walter out of the house after seeing his lack of interest in getting treatment as well as the terrible effects his depression is having on their two sons. Walter comes across a beaver hand puppet in a dumpster and it becomes a channel of communication between him and everyone else. The beaver becomes therapeutic in the sense that Walter begins to gain a self-confidence. He begins mending fences with his family and even comes up with an idea that turns the struggling toy company around. But it’s all done through the mediator which is the beaver leading us to question whether or not Walter is progressing or simply developing a growing dependency.

While Walter is able to regain a relationship with Meredith and his younger son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart), his oldest son Porter (Anton Yelchin) would rather he stay gone. There’s a huge disconnect between Porter and Walter and Porter’s greatest worry is that he will become his father. Their fractured relationship adds an interesting dynamic to the story but it feels underwritten. Sure, we understand the tension between the two but it seems that we have to do too much reading between the lines. Porter finds a little solace in an attractive but deceptive girl at school played by the wonderful Jennifer Lawrence. We get some fun scenes between the two as their relationship is actually fleshed out more than his and Walter’s.

“The Beaver” sold me on almost every point and the performances really click. I love every scene that Foster and Gibson share on screen and it reminded me of why these two have such strong track records. I only wish that Gibson and Yelchin had more screen time. Their relationship seems to be a crucial element of the story and therefore deserved more time than it received. While this is a moving and poignant drama there are also several scenes featuring some really funny dark humor. It all works together to create a really solid picture that, even with it’s few misfires, deserves more attention than it’s been given.