Greta is a mess, and I don’t just mean the character.
In fact, I’m not sure the character is a mess at all, no matter how she hopes to fool you. Played by the inimitable Isabelle Huppert, the titular friend in need is, in fact, a crackpot. She’s a force to be reckoned with, and poor, wholesome Frances (Chloe Grace Moretz) doesn’t seem up to the reckoning.
A Midwestern transplant still grieving the loss of her mother, Frances lives in an irredeemably perfect New York apartment with her debutante bestie (Maika Monroe), but she feels a little untethered in the big city without her mom to call.
Enter Greta, the lonely older woman whose handbag Frances finds on the subway train and returns.
Director Neil Jordan hasn’t shot a feature since his underappreciated 2012 vampire fantasy, Byzantium. Here he shares writing duties with Ray Wright, who’s made a career of outright reboots and overt reworkings.
Like maybe Fatal Attraction with mommy issues.
There are elements to appreciate about Greta. Huppert is superb, her performance becoming more unhinged and eventually comical in that Nic Cage sort of way. Her time onscreen is creepy fun.
Moretz’s fresh-faced grief convinces for a while, and Monroe excels in an absolutely thankless role.
So what’s the problem? Well, number one, are we really afraid of this tiny, frail old lady?
No. We are not. Jesus, push her down already. I get it, you’re polite, but come on. I’m Midwestern and I’d have knocked her under a NYC taxi by now.
The terror is so unreasonable and yet so earnestly conveyed that scenes meant to be tense are comedic, and once you start laughing it’s hard to stop.
In fact, the sound of your own guffaws might distract you from the film’s truly breathtaking leaps of logic. It often feels as if whole reels were chunked out of this film and replaced with unconnected scenes from a private detective TV drama—one in which Stephen Rea’s dialog is inexplicably and unconvincingly dubbed.
What on earth?!
Well, par for the course with this film. It opens strong, develops well and relies on Huppert’s supernatural presence to create palpable tension before going entirely off the rails.
No genre has more invested in the twist ending – in being able to pull the rug out from under you at the last possible second – than horror. The best are the films that truly sneak up on you, making you re-examine everything that preceded the surprise.
Andy Ussery of Black Cat’s Shadow podcast joins us and he has an entirely different list of movies – that’s how many there are! Kind of makes you want to listen to the podcast HERE, doesn’t it?
Sleepaway Camp (1983)
Is it a brilliant movie? Will George be happy it made the list? That’s a lot of no right there, but honestly, how do we not acknowledge this stroke of genius?
Poor Angela (Felissa Rose)! She witnesses the death of her beloved father and, while still apparently quite traumatized, is asked to just go along with weird Aunt Martha’s (Desiree Gould—amazing!) whim.
Well, it doesn’t work out well for Angela or any of the staff or youngsters at Camp Arawak. But the damage you can do with a curling iron is hardly our concern today. No, it’s that final shot. The money shot. That face! That hairy chest! That wang!!
Angel Heart (1987)
Alan Parker directed Pink Floyd: The Wall. That has literally nothing to do with this list, but still.
In Angel Heart, Parker develops a steamy, lurid atmosphere as we follow private dick Harold Angel (Mickey Rourke) through the bowels of New Orleans in search of information on crooner Johnny Favorite.
Rourke’s performance is key to the film’s unseemly feel. A sinner – never a traditional hero – still, Angel’s sympathetic and full of a disheveled charm. You’re sorry for him even as you know he’s outmatched and probably undeserving of your pity. He knows it, too, and that’s what makes the performance so strong.
That, and the sheer diabolical presence of an unsettlingly understated Robert DeNiro. That hard boiled egg thing! Love!!
Bloodshed on the bayou – languid and unseemly.
In 2001, actor Bill “We’re toast! Game over!” Paxton took a stab at directing the quietly disturbing supernatural thriller Frailty.
Paxton stars as a widowed dad awakened one night by an angel – or a bright light shining off the angel on top of a trophy on his ramshackle bedroom bookcase. Whichever – he understands now that he and his sons have been called by God to kill demons.
Whatever its flaws – too languid a pace, too trite an image of idyllic country life, Powers Boothe – Frailty manages to subvert every horror film expectation by playing right into them. We’re led through the saga of the serial killer God’s Hand by a troubled young man (Matthew McConaughey), who, with eerie quiet and reflection, recounts his childhood with Paxton’s character as a father.
Dread mounts as Paxton drags out the ambiguity over whether this man is insane, and his therefore good-hearted but wrong-headed behavior profoundly damaging his boys. Or could he really be chosen, and his sons likewise marked by God?
Brent Hanley’s sly screenplay evokes nostalgic familiarity, and Paxton’s direction makes you feel entirely comfortable in these common surroundings. Then the two of them upend everything – repeatedly – until it’s as if they’ve challenged your expectations, biases, and your own childhood to boot.
The Others (2001)
Co-writer/director Alejandro Amenabar casts a spell that recalls The Innocents in his 2001 ghost story The Others. It’s 1945 on a small isle off Britain, and the brittle mistress of the house (Nicole Kidman) wakes screaming. She has reason to be weary. Her husband has still not returned from the war, her servants have up and vanished, and her two children, Anna and Nicholas, have a deathly photosensitivity: sunlight or bright light could kill them.
What unspools is a beautifully constructed film using slow reveal techniques to upend traditional ghost story tropes, unveiling the mystery in a unique and moving way.
Kidman’s performance is spot-on, and she’s aided by both the youngsters (Alakina Mann and James Bentley). Bentley’s tenderness and Mann’s willfulness, combined with their pasty luster (no sun, you know), heighten the creepiness.
With the help of cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe and supporting actress Fionnula Flanagan, Amenabar introduces seemingly sinister elements bit by bit. It all amounts to a satisfying twist on the old ghost story tale that leaves you feeling as much a cowdy custard as little Nicholas.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
h, you totally didn’t figure it out. Don’t even start.
A troubled child psychologist (Bruce Willis) treats a young boy (Haley Joel Osment) carrying a terrible burden. The execution—basically, seeing ghosts in every corner of Philadelphia—could have become a bit of a joke, but writer/director M. Night Shyamalan delivers a tense, eerie product.
With his 1999 breakout, Shyamalan painted himself into a corner he found it tough to get out of: the spooky surprise ending. And though this would nearly be his undoing as a filmmaker, it started off brilliantly.
Part of the success of the film depends on the heart-wrenching performances: Toni Collette’s buoyant but terrified mother, Willis’s concerned therapist, and Osment’s tortured little boy. Between Shyamalan’s cleverly spooky script, a slate of strong performances and more than a few genuinely terrifying moments, this is one scary-ass PG-13.
The best animated film of 2018 swings into your living room this week, along with (if you’re smart) an instant cult classic. Other biggies of 2018 make their way home this week, so let us help you sort this out.
On this week’s screening room—after we kick around our Oscar predictions—we get down to business with How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, Fighting with My Family, Arctic, Lords of Chaos and all the new stuff in home entertainment.
Rarely, if ever, has WWE PR been as charming as Stephen Merchant’s biopic Fighting with My Family.
A traditional underdog tale, the film is also savvy enough to know how to wield its source material to broaden its audience beyond your traditional WWE fanatic.
Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh) — or Britani or, later, Paige — takes part in her family’s business. Mornings, she hands out flyers to their wrestling events, mainly to passersby who look down their noses at the notion.
Afternoons she helps her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) coach local kids on the arts of grappling. Evenings, she gets in the ring with her brother, mum (Lena Headey) and dad (Nick Frost) to entertain amateur wrestling enthusiasts in Norwich, England.
Then the call comes inviting Saraya and Zak to audition for WWE at an upcoming London Smackdown event.
The set-up is there and, for any sports story, it is golden. Scrappy working class upbringing? Check! Sibling rivalry? Check! Opportunities for montage? Everywhere!
Better still is a madcap supporting cast you can’t help but love. Frost and Headey share a really lovely and incredibly goofy onscreen chemistry as the Mohawk-sporting ex-con patriarch and former homeless drug addict turned devoted mum. Merchant’s sharp direction and even sharper script avoids condescension or sentimentality.
The solid first act dovetails nicely into a less comedic journey for Saraya, the only sibling the WWE actually hires. Additional supporting players cannot live up to the charisma of Saraya’s family, but Dwayne Johnson plays himself and he has enough charisma for an entire cast.
Vince Vaughn, adding one more to a string of solid performances, plays the recruiter/drill sergeant/coach who helps Saraya find her individual strength for the journey to WWE Diva.
Pugh is the spark that makes the engines go, here. Though Saraya’s wigs are not always believable, her inner conflict and fighting spirit are.
While Fighting with My Family manages to sidestep or subvert a lot of genre clichés, it hardly breaks new ground. Instead, Merchant elevates the familiar with a more authentic feeling backstory and a winning cast.
“Based on truth and lies and what actually happened.”
One of the founders of Norway’s black metal sound and scene, Mayhem benefited and eventually suffered from a series of very black metal-ish crimes and misdemeanors—mostly crimes, including arson and murder. A cross between punk rock ethos and early metal imagery, Norwegian black metal espoused a love of Satan and a deep and fiery hatred of Christianity and the Christian moral framework. In keeping with those philosophies, Mayhem became known for far edgier behavior than, say, biting the head off a bat.
Director (and former drummer for Swedish black metal band Bathory) Jonas Åkerlund’s image of art and commerce, fanaticism, metal and death follows Mayhem’s ascension to global notoriety.
Rory Culkin anchors the film as band leader and spinmeister Øystein Aarseth, AKA Euronymous. He narrates with some of Åkerlund and co-writer Dennis Magnusson’s least convincing material—not to mention an absurdly American accent—but the performance itself is the perfect blend of bored teen and insecure leader vulnerable to attack. Inside Culkin’s quietly convincing performance, deadpan cynicism battles with genuine tenderness in a way that gives the film an affecting yet appropriately faulty soul.
Did Euronymous take advantage of early tragedy to create a persona, or did he live his message?
In its smarter moments, Lords of Chaos is a film about poseurs. Who is and who isn’t? And what do you do if you find that you have become the poseur in the circle of your own creation?
How much of it was all for show? Maybe a lot, but when you become a magnet for those who embrace your bullshit, hopefully that bullshit does not require a lot of bloodshed.
Enter Varg (Emery Cohen), a novice and admirer who would become a disenchanted disciple. Cohen’s arc from sycophantic insecurity to narcissistic sociopathy impresses, and as Euronymous’s grasp on the position of Alpha weakens, the dynamic between the two actors sparks.
Culkin’s slippery performance in these scenes works well within the true crime context, but Åkerlund has trouble as he shifts back and forth between crime drama and comedy of manners. There is a consistent “kids sure are stupid” theme a la Alpha Dog or River’s Edge that he can’t fit into his larger themes. While most scenes taken on their own work (if you can forgive the unexplained and hard-to-miss cacophony of accents), Åkerlund can’t pull them together for a cohesive whole.
In recreating a series of increasingly more unfortunate events, Åkerlund never manages to shed new light on the crimes at hand. And maybe he can’t—maybe that’s the point. Perhaps it’s impossible to entirely differentiate between philosophy and promotion, but what the filmmaker was trying to accomplish is just as tough to tease out.
I usually like to steer clear of spoilers, but I really need to warn you…this film contains gratuitous dragon flirting.
And full-on nuzzling.
It’s cute, but The Hidden World offers so much more than just cute, and more than enough substance to solidify the entire Dragon saga as a top tier film trilogy.
Writer/director Dean DeBlois is back to finish what he started in 2010, and continued in 2014. He picks up the tale one year after the close of HTTYD 2, when our hero Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) finds that his pal Toothless isn’t the only Night Fury dragon, after all.
This new one is a Light Fury, she’s a charmer, and Toothless is in love.
But all of Hiccup’s dragon friends are in danger, none more than Toothless, thanks to the bloodthirsty Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) and his batallion of dragon hunters. To continue living in peace, Hiccup and his entire village must find mythical dragon birthplace The Hidden World before Grimmel does.
This franchise has delivered true visual wonder since the original film’s opening frame, and part 3, taking natural advantage of enhanced technology, ups the ante. The aerial gymnastics and high seas swashbuckling are propelled by animation that is deep and rich, while new details in the dragons’ faces bring wonderful nuance and expression.
There is real tension here, along with warm humor, thrilling action pieces and resonant themes backed by genuine emotion.
As you realize Hiccup is leading a group of wartime refugees, the bittersweet coming-of-age tale moves to the forefront. We’ve watched Hiccup move from losing his father (Gerard Buter) to finding his mother (Cate Blanchett) to becoming a father figure for the orphaned Toothless. Now, he may have to let his best friend go and remember that “with love comes loss, it’s part of the deal.”
These themes may not be new, but DeBlois handles them with an understated poignancy that hits the feels, leading to a breathless emotional high point reminiscent of Toy Story 3‘s classic “holding hands” throat-lumper.
Packed with excitement, sincerity and visual amazeballs, The Hidden World ties a can’t-miss ribbon on a wonderful trilogy.
Love is in the air! God help us, especially those who are throwing themselves into the love game. It’s horrifying, right? Scary, vulnerable, awkward, and really bloody once the power tools come out.
Horror filmmakers know a good subject when they see one. Here are our five favorite films focused on the quest to find and secure love.
5. Berlin Syndrome
Aussie photographer Clare (Teresa Palmer, better than she’s ever been) is looking for some life experience. She backpacks across Europe, landing for a brief stay in Berlin where she hopes to make a human connection. Handsome Berliner Andi (Max Riemelt) offers exactly the kind of mysterious allure she wants and they fall into a night of passion.
What follows is an incredible combination of horror and emotional dysfunction, deftly maneuvered by both cast mates and director Cate Shortland. The mental and emotional olympics Palmer goes through from the beginning of the film to the end showcase her instincts for nuanced and unsentimental performance. Clare is smart, but emotionally open and free with her own vulnerability. The way Palmer inhabits these characteristics is as authentic as it is awkward.
Even more uncomfortable is the shifting relationship, the neediness and resilience, the dependency and independence. It’s honest in a way that is profoundly moving and endlessly uncomfortable. Riemelt matches Palmer’s vulnerability with his own insecurity and emotional about faces. The two together are an unnerving onscreen pairing.
4. The Love Witch
Wes Anderson with a Black Mass fetish and a feminist point of view, Anna Biller wrote/directed/produced/edited/set-designed/costume-designed/music-supervised this seductive sorcery headtrip.
Elaine (Samantha Robinson – demented perfection) needs a change of scenery. Driving her red convertible up the seacoast highway toward a new life in northern California, her troubles – and her mysteriously dead ex-husband – are behind her. Surely, with her smart eyeshades and magic potions, she’ll find true love.
Expect a loose confection of a plot, as Elaine molds herself into the ideal sex toy, winning and then tiring of her trophies. This allows Biller to simultaneously reaffirm and reverse gender roles with appropriately wicked humor.
3. Alleluia (2014)
In 2004, Belgian writer/director Fabrice Du Welz released the exquisite Calvaire, marking himself a unique artist worth watching. Ten years later he revisits the themes of that film – blind passion, bloody obsession, maddening loneliness – with Alleluia. Once again he enlists the help of an actor who clearly understands his vision.
Laurent Lucas plays Michel, a playboy conman who preys upon lonely women, seducing them and taking whatever cash he can get his hands on. That all changes once he makes a mark of Gloria (Lola Duenas).
Du Welz’s close camera and off angles exaggerate Lucas’s teeth, nose and height in ways that flirt with the grotesque. Likewise, the film dwells on Duenas’s bags and creases, heightening the sense of unseemliness surrounding the pair’s passion.
Duenas offers a performance of mad genius, always barely able to control the tantrum, elation, or desire in any situation. Her bursting passions often lead to carnage, but there’s a madcap love story beneath that blood spray that compels not just attention but, in a macabre way, affection. Alleluia is a film busting with desperation, jealousy, and the darkest kind of love.
2. The Loved Ones (2009)
Writer/director/Tasmanian Sean Byrne upends high school clichés and deftly maneuvers between angsty, gritty drama and neon colored, glittery carnage in a story that borrows from other horror flicks but absolutely tells its own story.
Brent (Xavier Samuel) is dealing with guilt and tragedy in his own way, and his girlfriend Holly tries to be patient with him. Oblivious to all this, Lola (a gloriously wrong-minded Robin McLeavy) asks Brent to the end of school dance. He politely declines, which proves to be probably a poor decision.
Byrne quietly crafts an atmosphere of loss and depression in and around the school without painting the troubles cleanly. This slow reveal pulls the tale together and elevates it above a simple work of outrageous violence.
Inside Lola’s house, the mood is decidedly different. Here, we’re privy to the weirdest, darkest image of a spoiled princess and her daddy. The daddy/daughter bonding over power tool related tasks is – well – I’m not sure touching is the right word for it.
The Loved Ones is a cleverly written, unique piece of filmmaking that benefits from McLeavy’s inspired performance as much as it does its filmmaker’s sly handling of subject matter.
1. Audition (1999)
The prolific director Takashi Miike made more than 70 movies in his first 20 or so years in film. Among the best is Audition, a phenomenally creepy May/December romance gone very, very wrong.
Audition tells the story of a widower convinced by his TV producer friend to hold mock television auditions as a way of finding a suitable new mate. He is repaid for his deception.
Nearly unwatchable and yet too compelling to turn away from, Audition is a remarkable piece of genre filmmaking. The slow moving picture builds anticipation, then dread, then full-on horror.
By the time Audition hits its ghastly conclusion, Miike and his exquisitely terrifying antagonist (Eihi Shina) have wrung the audience dry. She will not be the ideal stepmother.
Arctic is a survival film that wastes no time getting to the survival.
Director/co-writer Joe Penna drops us somewhere in the Arctic Circle long enough after a place crash that lone survivor Overgård (Mads Mikkelsen) has had time to construct a makeshift camp. We get no backstory, no thrilling crash effects and no time to assess the situation, which is perfect on two fronts.
1) The situation is pretty damn clear, and 2) so are the film’s unflinching parameters. There’ll be no spoon-feeding here, are you in or are you out?
Mikkelsen is all in, with a supremely committed performance full of both strength and vulnerability. In a film that’s nearly dialog-free, Mikkelsen sparks a curiosity about his character that the film is in no hurry to indulge. Overgård is clearly meticulous and intelligent, cautious and resourceful, but it is after an early rescue attempt goes awry that Mikkelsen delivers the layers of humanity that add an ethereal beauty to the sterile, potentially deadly climate.
Suddenly, there is the safety of a badly injured woman (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir) to consider. As Overgård weighs the options of waiting for another rescue or striking out on foot, Mikkelson excels in making the emotional weight authentic, along with some simple joys that come from supplies found in the woman’s downed helicopter.
While it might be tempting to label this a snow-covered Castaway, the experience is closer to Robert Redford’s 2013 vehicle All is Lost. In his feature debut, Penna displays majestic wide-angle vistas without any photographic glamour that might betray what Overgård is up against. In trimming away all excess narrative, he immerses you only in the often gut-wrenching journey.
The result is never less than believable, a no muss, plenty of frigid fuss endurance tale that feels real.