Movie Review ~ Happy Death Day 2U


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Tree Gelbman discovers that dying over and over was surprisingly easier than the dangers that lie ahead.

Stars: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Phi Vu, Rachel Matthews, Ruby Modine, Suraj Sharma

Director: Christopher Landon

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I think it shocked everyone when 2017’s Happy Death Day was such a sleeper hit. Sure, it was released on a Friday the 13th and made for a miniscule budget so the target audience was primed and the success factor was measured by a low bar but there was no denying the movie was very likely better than it ever should have been. A fun PG-13 horror spin on Groundhog Day that didn’t have the blood quotient to deter the gore averse or totally turn off the hardcore fans looking for the next great slasher film, the general consensus was that the film took it’s concept capably to the finish line and earned it’s place on the higher end of lighter horror fare.

A little over a year later, Happy Death Day 2U has arrived in theaters just in time for Valentine’s Day and both Blumhouse Productions and writer/director Christopher Landon (Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) have another pleasantly pleasing winner on their hands. Though it’s less of an outright horror film this time around, the movie aims to keep things light when it has to and isn’t above pumping the brakes to take its time navigating through some surprisingly dramatic territory. In many ways, it feels like a superior film to its predecessor because everyone involved knows what they are getting into and doesn’t hold back.

If you haven’t seen the first film and don’t want key plot points spoiled (even though the trailer already spoiled them for you!) then you are free to stop reading now – thanks for visiting! Everyone else, read on for a spoiler-free look at what new directions the sequel takes the action.

Picking up where the first film left off, Tree (Jessica Rothe, La La Land) has discovered who was trying to kill her and broken the time loop that kept her waking up on the same day over and over again. No longer afraid of being killed and having to relive her death day in and day out, she’s settling in with Carter (Israel Broussard, The Bling Ring) when his roommate Ryan (Phi Vu, Pitch Perfect 2) comes into their shared dorm room with some strange news. He’s reliving the same day after being killed the day before…something Tree knows a thing or two (or 11) about.

How and why Ryan gets stuck in the same time loop as Tree is linked to Ryan’s science project that deals with time and space, and when it’s activated again by the Dean of the college trying to shut the study down it sends Tree back into her previous death day cycle. Now Tree is stuck in her old pattern but with new wrinkles as she finds herself in an alternate reality where the previous killer is now a victim, old enemies are friends, and a deceased loved one apparently never died. As she keeps dying in her quest to figure out an algorithm that will send her back to her previous reality, she needs to decide if this reality is better and what she’s willing to sacrifice to save those she loves.

As with most sequels, the stakes are higher and credit should be given to the producers for throwing some more money at this follow-up and to Landon for taking some time to think through the set-up of the next chapter. The logic is still fairly broad and wouldn’t hold up in a court of law but there’s a breezy effortlessness to everything here that makes it all go down without much fuss. The killer out to get Tree becomes a glorified subplot and only shows up again near the end when the action needs a little zap of energy.  Mostly, this is a film that owes more to Back to the Future II than Groundhog Day, with the consequences of changing things in alternate realities playing a part in most everything Tree is thinking about. The performances (particularly Rothe’s) are more assured here and even though production on this one started fairly soon after the release of the original it was nice to see the entire cast (and some extras!) reassembled for this follow-up. Like the first one, Rachel Matthews as Tree’s rival sorority sister gets some of the better moments, even if the outlandish comedy of her faking being a blind foreign exchange student feels like it’s out of a totally different campus frat movie.

At the theater I attended on Valentine’s Day, I was surprised how many of the audience at Happy Death Day 2U were females who apparently had a ball with it. The reactions to the scares were received well and the comedy landed exactly in the right places. It’s horror-lite to be sure but it was an entertaining mix of time-travel comedy and gore-less horror. Blumhouse and Landon obviously are hoping for a third chapter if the mid-credits stinger is to be believed, and I’d be interested to see where they think future time loops could take things.

Movie Review ~ The Prodigy


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A mother concerned about her young son’s disturbing behavior thinks something supernatural may be affecting him

Stars: Taylor Schilling, Brittany Allen, Jackson Robert Scott, Colm Feore, Peter Mooney, Paul Fauteux, Oluniké Adeliyi

Director: Nicholas McCarthy

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: At this point early in the new year, audiences are easy targets for cheap, mindless entertainment that goes in one ear and out the other before you are back to your car and warming your hands. Most often, the easy targets are horror fans looking for a decent scare they can’t get from firing up their streaming service. They have to be inspired to get all gussied up (for me that’s basically putting on pants), head to the theater, pay an exorbitant ticket price, and then hope for the best. I don’t really blame Hollywood for preying on viewers in this fertile hunting ground but you do wish that once in a while they would get it right and make it worth our effort.

The latest wilted offering is The Prodigy, a fleetingly scary but most languid “evil child” story being released from the recently resuscitated Orion Pictures. I don’t know about you but every time I see that Orion logo there are two movies that come to mind. The first is 1989’s black comedy She-Devil starring Meryl Streep and Roseanne Barr and the other one is 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. Each time I see the starry sky that forms the Orion title card I get a chill up my spine and I think the producers of The Prodigy are counting on that. They even go so far as to mimic some font titles emblematic from The Silence of the Lambs that show the location where the prologue takes place.

Eight years ago, a woman (Brittany Allen, Jigsaw) escaped from a serial killer (Paul Fauteux) who had a thing for women’s hands. The police track him down to his home where he is taken down in a flurry of bullets. On the same night, a young couple (Taylor Schilling, The Lucky One and Peter Mooney) are rushing to the hospital for the birth of their son, Miles. When Miles is born, the blood on his body mimics the bullet wounds of our dying killer. It’s the first of several interesting visual cues director Nicholas McCarthy (The Pact) has for us and they become the smartest things about the film.

As the boy grows older, he demonstrates early signs of genius. He speaks before he’s one year old, he can solve difficult IQ tests, and he shows some disturbing social tendencies his parents and teachers shrug off as just going with the territory of children with advanced gifts. Miles is more than just socially awkward though, as we come to see he has killer instincts…and not just in solving algebra equations. When the ties to the killer become known, it’s up to Miles’ mom to put a stop to a madman that has taken over her son’s persona or risk losing him forever to a psychopath’s deadly revenge plot.

Bringing in some supernatural elements, the script from Jeff Bluher (who is also scripting 2019’s remake of Pet Sematary) is big into psychobabble mumbo jumbo (delivered with dead seriousness by Colm Feore, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) but light on logic. Main characters disappear for long stretches only to show up when the movie needs to enact some gruesome violence and the connection between how the killer winds up within Miles isn’t explained more than a passing reference to historical possession cases.

That leaves the success to rise and fall on the performances and Schlling’s sleepy acting doesn’t serve the film well. She always speaks as if she’s phonetically sounding out her sentences and isn’t able to flip from one emotion to another without physically making some adjustment. It’s a strange performance to anchor the film, which makes her scenes with Miles (Jackson Robert Scott, IT) all the more awkward because he seems like he’s come with exactly the right attention to what his job is while Schilling struggles right up to the end with metering her performance.

Even though it comes up short as a whole, I’d be lying in saying that McCarthy’s doesn’t pull off several shocking scares and a few eyebrow raising bits of dialogue that must have been recorded by a double for Miles. There’s just no way some of the things the boy says could have come from the young actor. I jumped several times and not because the music suddenly gave me a jolt, McCarthy clearly has a way with constructing a creepy visual.  Though much of the cinematography is fuzzy to suggest shooting on film stock and favors shadows, McCarthy finds ways to make what comes out of that darkness quite ghoulish.

This one could easily have gone straight to streaming and might have been regarded as a decent thriller for a gloomy day. Releasing it in theaters brings it to a higher scrutiny, though, and you have to evaluate the movie on those merits. It doesn’t meet the standard we’d expect from a wide-released horror film so I’d advise you to hold off on The Prodigy until you can give it a spin at home without much regret…and you don’t even have to put your pants on.

Movie Review ~ The 2019 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Live Action

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BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT

Detainment (Directed by Vincent Lambe)
Synopsis: In 1993, ten-year-old friends Jon and Robert are brought to an English police station for questioning after CCTV footage implicates them in the kidnapping and murder of a two-year-old boy.
Review: I’m not sure in what order the Live Action shorts are being shown to audiences in theaters but in my screening package this one came first alphabetically and it sure started things off on a somber note.  Based on the interview tapes conducted after the horrific 1993 slaying of James Bulger, the filmmakers of Detainment have come under scrutiny by the family of the slain toddler for not reaching out to them and gaining their blessing. Watching the film, even with its strong performances it’s hard not to side with the family because it truly rips open wounds that won’t ever fully heal.  Having this thrust back into the spotlight can only serve to hurt and while the filmmaking itself is admirable the ethics behind it are questionable.

Fauve (Directed by Jérémy Comte)
Synopsis: At an isolated surface mine in the Quebec countryside, two boisterous young boys run wild, challenging each other to reckless tests of endurance and daring, with only Mother Nature as their witness.
Review: Two boys spend a lazy afternoon exploring an abandoned train and causing some youthful trouble before eventually finding themselves in an abandoned quarry.  All alone in what looks like a barren planet, the boys trek over large rock piles and dirt mounds without any thought that something could go wrong.  It’s hard to go any further in a review of this one because it would give away a major twist that affects the latter half of the film, but suffice it say that the day doesn’t remain carefree for long.  There’s a poignant coda to Jérémy Comte’s short that I found particularly moving, showing a rare moment of connection during an extreme circumstance.

Marguerite (Directed by Marianne Farley)
Synopsis: Elderly Marguerite is cared for by kindly nurse Rachel and the two become friends. As the lonely Marguerite learns more about Rachel, feelings from her youth resurface, prompting her to examine and accept her past desires
Review:  The relationship between Marguerite and her nurse Rachel is explored in this short that I found extraordinarily delicate and lovely.  I never knew quite where Marianne Farley’s film was going to end up and that’s a tribute to her thoughtful writing and the performances of our two lead actresses. A daily routine is thrown off balance when a secret is revealed, sending Marguerite on a journey into her younger days when particular choices weren’t available to her.  I found some parallels between this and the Oscar nominated short Late Afternoon, both feature women in their advanced years longing for days gone by.  A sensitive and well-acted nominee.

Mother (Madre) (Directed by Rodrigo Sorogoyen)
Synopsis: While chatting with her mother at her apartment in Spain, Marta receives a phone call from her six-year-old son Iván, who is on vacation with his father in France. Marta quickly realizes that something is desperately wrong and that she has very little time to solve the problem
Review: Every year it seems this category has one film that frays your nerves in the span of a brisk 10 minutes.  Last year it was the breathless DeKalb Elementary, the year before that it was Everything Will Be Okay, and in a previous year it was the heart-pounding Just Before Everything Falls Apart.  This year we have Mother (Madre), a tense short seemingly done in one take that brings every parents worst nightmare to the forefront.  What if your child was in danger and you were helpless to do anything about it?  As she’s about to leave her apartment with her own mother, Marta gets a call from her son that his father has vanished and left him alone on a beach in another country.  With his phone dying and her options limited, Marta has to think on her feet as how to rescue her child thousands of miles away.  The one-take style made this feel like a play and upped the ante for everything to go as planned.  Aided by strong performances, it’s a winner in the maximum tension department.

Skin (Directed by Guy Nattiv)
Synopsis: After spending the day shooting guns and relaxing at the lake with several white supremacist friends, Jeffrey and Christa head home with their young son Troy. Stopping at a grocery store, Jeffrey is irate when Jaydee, an African-American man, is friendly to Troy, and Jaydee’s innocent act results in bloodshed.
Review: This is one film likely to divide most viewers.  With the heightened tension in our society toward race relations, I can’t tell if Skin is trying to make a political point or just be a fiery bit of sensationalist drama but it’s a frustrating experience no matter how you look at it.  The son of a white supremacist sees his father beat a black man for no apparent reason, only to be witness to an act of revenge that will send shock waves through their family.  The dank places Skin goes in it’s final moments are kind of repulsive but it accomplishes its mission of getting your blood boiling.  Interesting note: the director has already filmed and screened a feature length film of the same name featuring at least one returning cast member.  Though the plot isn’t exactly the same, it does bear a striking resemblance in tone to this original short.


Final Thoughts
: It’s been my experience that the Live Action shorts are often the most forgettable of the bunch because they wind up feeling like early calling cards for feature directors looking to cut their teeth on a smaller scale. This year, however, the nominees are a strong bunch and though they are tonally dark they are more successful as a whole than they have been in the past.  I can see the skill of Mother (Madre) being rewarded while Marguerite might be a safe bet because it’s the least depressing and its rich emotion might capture the hearts of voters more.