There’s No Vaccine for This

Cooties

by Hope Madden

Welcome to the dog eat dog and child eat child world of elementary school.

Kids are nasty bags of germs. We all know it. It is universal truths like this that make the film Cooties as effective as it is.

What are some others? Chicken nuggets are repulsive. Playground dynamics sometimes take on the plotline of LORD OF THE FLIES. To an adult eye, children en masse can resemble a seething pack of feral beasts.

Directing team Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion harness those truths and more – each pointed out in a script penned by a Leigh Whannell-led team of writers – to satirize the tensions to be found in an American elementary school.

Whannell – co-creator of both the Saw and Insidious franchises – co-stars as the socially impaired science teacher on staff. He’s joined by a PE teacher (Rainn Wilson), an art teacher (Jack McBrayer), two classroom teachers (Alison Pill, Nasim Pedrad), and the new sub, Clint (Elijah Wood), in a fight for survival once an aggressive virus hits the student population of Fort Chicken.

School-based horror abounds – even Wood’s done it previously, having starred in Robert Rodriguez’s 1998 alien invasion fantasy The Faculty.

Cooties is also not the first horror film to mine tensions from the image of monstrous children turned against us. Come Out and Play (both the 2013 American version and its Spanish predecessor Who Can Kill a Child?) generate tensions based on the presumed difficulty an adult would have in slaughtering children.

Two things set Cooties apart. One: It is often laugh out loud funny. Two: It is willing to indulge the subversive fantasy of (possibly all) school teachers.

They kill a lot of children in this movie.

If Murnion and Milott couldn’t find the comedic tone to offset the seriously messed up violence, the film would be a distasteful, even offensive failure. But, thanks in part to a very game cast, as well as an insightful screenplay, Cooties comes off instead as a cathartic (if bloody) metaphor and an energetic burst of nasty fun. It might be welcome after school viewing in the teacher’s lounge.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

Killer Performance

 

Grand Piano

 

by George Wolf

A man with a very particular set of skills is lured into a deadly cat and mouse game by an unseen tormentor…

If you’re thinking Liam Neeson, think a little smaller.

Elijah Wood is the star of Grand Piano, as stage-fright prone master pianist Tom Selznick.  Returning to the stage after a five-year hiatus, Tom finds an unexpected piece of music inserted into his planned repertoire. It is an “unplayable” piece, and one that he botched big-time in a previous try.

A hand-written message on the sheet music, coupled with a sudden laser target on his chest, give Tom extra motivation: play it perfectly, without missing one single note, or die.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s request hour!

Much like Neeson’s recent thriller Non-Stop, Grand Piano does a fine job setting up an engaging premise, only to stumble trying to find a worthy way out.

Screenwriter Damien Chazelle invents clever twists to keep the tension going, providing multiple Hitchcock homages that are able to toe an entertaining line between cheesy fun and pretentious contrivance.

Chazelle has the perfect partner in director Eugenio Mira, who seems almost gleeful in the way he sets the pace. Multiple perspectives are blended with skill, precision and timing, not the least of which are impressive concert sequences of Wood appearing to be a virtuoso.

The unplayable piece and the deadly situation escalate in delightful symmetry, and Wood deftly conveys the persona of a man pushed to the edge of both his nerve, and his talent.

In case you don’t already know who plays the baddie, I won’t spoil it, but his battle of wits with Wood is all fiendish fun until everyone involved must deal with that pesky conclusion. After the buildup, it smacks of a give-up, or something lifted from an old episode of Magnum, P.I.

Sure, there are a couple leaps in logic and classical music fans will likely nitpick the concert details, but until that last sour note, Grand Piano stays in tune.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

 

 

 

Elijah Wood in Leg Warmers?

Maniac

by Hope Madden

Just a steel town girl on a Saturday night lookin’ for the fight of her life. Back in 1983, that song backed the legwarmers, sweat, quick feet, and water buckets of Flashdance, but originally, Michael Sembello wrote it about a different hot mess.

Sembello first penned the tune in tribute to 1980’s cult slasher Maniac. Mouth-breathing schlub Joe Spinell made waves with the low budget flick featuring a sympathetic(ish) protagonist whose mommy issues drive him to extreme behavior. Despite its obvious plot, poor acting and over-the-top misogynistic butchering (or perhaps because of these), the film maintains a lingering popularity.

French horror maestro Alexandre Aja (Haute Tension) – who produces and co-writes – leads the reboot that ups the budget, talent, and blood.

Elijah Wood fills in for Spinell as Frank, mannequin aficionado. Frank’s mom showed her maternal devotion in unseemly ways, and those mixed messages took their toll on the boy. As a result, migraines, anxiety attacks, lacking social skills and a tendency toward dismemberment mark Frank’s adulthood. (What is Frodo Baggins doing to that lady?!)

The basic plot remains intact, but Aja and his crew of writers update Frank’s tale in a number of ways, most of them for the better – and yet, there was a seedy charm to Spinell’s setting, the workaday world of New York, the retread doesn’t capture.

The acting is certainly superior, though.

Wood, in particular, crafts a genuinely sympathetic character. This feat is more impressive than it sounds, and Frank’s way with a hunting knife is not the only obstacle facing the actor. Director Franck Khalfoun chooses to adopt the killer’s-point-of-view, shooting the entire film as though through Frank’s eyes. We see only what he sees, meaning that we rarely even glimpse Wood except by way of reflective surfaces.

The decision works here and there. You are aligned with the killer, seeing events as he sees them. Given what it is that he sees (largely his own actions), Khalfoun simultaneously indulges and punishes our voyeuristic behavior.

The act of seeing through Frank’s eyes should make the character feel more real for us, as it ostensibly establishes a connection between viewer and character. It doesn’t, though. It articulates Frank’s disconnect from humanity by disconnecting us from Frank.

This could be a blessing, though. He is, after all, a maniac.

And he’s dancin’ like he’s never danced before! (Go ahead – try and get that song out of your head.)

 

Verdict-2-5-Stars