Happy Death Day – Film Review

It’s a rare occasion when a great performance manages to elevate an otherwise sucky movie. The likes of Nicholas Cage and Eva Green have made careers out of the art – but very few others have managed to pop up out of the mess and do something truly special to make their movie watchable. Jessica Rothe does just that in Happy Death Day, her full-blooded performance turning an otherwise forgettably bloodless teen slasher movie into a genuine thrill.

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Rothe plays Teresa – or Tree for short – an irresponsible college student whose birthday – a day she already loathes – gets off to the worst possible start when she wakes up hungover in the dorm room of her adorably dorky one-night-stand. Naturally, things get progressively worse for Tree in the ensuing 24 hours as she endures repeated calls from her disappointed dad, snarky snipping from her sorority sisters and the needy advnaces of her sexually confused ex. Oh yeah, and she gets murdered in a campus underpass by a baby-faced psychopath. But then she wakes up, stuck in the same day, unable to to break the cycle until she finds her killer.

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Few surprises lay ahead in this slasher horror meets teen comedy as Tree naively barrels into every cliche in the horror cannon in her attempt to Live.Die.Repeat her way to uncovering her killer’s identity. There’s enough walking through darkly lit corridors and fleeing into obvious dead ends that genre aficionados will likely suffer a repetitive strain injury from the amount of eye rolling they’ll be doing. The lack of invention wouldn’t be so problematic if Tree’s many deaths weren’t so scare-free and gore-less. That’s the key flaw with this Groundhog Day-aping format: we already know she’ll wake up again so we have no reason to fear her next impending demise – especially as it appears it’ll be largely painless.

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Thankfully, Rothe is the movie’s saving grace. Whether she’s strutting across a college campus in the nude, delivering brilliantly bitchy one-liners with venomous aplomb or going full Sarah Connor in her attempts to defeat her killer, Tree is a fireball of badass energy that actually makes the movie a fun, spirited watch for 90 minutes. It’s also pretty refreshing to see a female action hero being so unafraid to be unlikeable and confident in her sexuality – at least until she’s bizarrely slut-shamed by an incomprehensible third act twist. It’s just a shame that the rest of the movie doesn’t share her boldness.

Runtime: 96 mins (approx.)
Director: Christopher Landon
Screenwriter: Scott Lobdell
Stars: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Charles Aitken

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Mother! – Film Review

Whether it’s Jennifer Connelly’s desperate drug addict in Requiem for a Dream or Natalie Portman’s barmy ballerina in Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky seems to draw an almost sadistic thrill from dragging his desirable female leads through hell. Even so, the torment inflicted upon Jennifer Lawrence’s titular Mother in the director’s latest psychological horror is beyond anything we’ve seen before.

A dense, deranged and distressingly breathtaking piece of art, it’s no wonder Mother! has polarised critics, with many praising it’s sickening beauty and others dismissing its befuddling plot as nothing more than auteuristic twaddle. The truth, as if often does in these cases, lies somewhere in the middle. Mother! is an undoubtedly astounding work of artistic vision, both horrific and mesmerising; but in his haste to disturb and disorientated his audience, Aronofsky loses sight of exactly what he’s trying to say.

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The movie starts off in compelling fashion, resembling a slow-burn chamber piece as Lawrence’s Mother devotedly restores the previously gutted home she shares with her husband (Javier Bardem), a poet wrestling with his latest work. Their idyllic seclusion is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Ed Harris’ wheezing doctor and, the next day, his boozed-up wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). Invited to stay for as long as they like by Bardem, the destructive couple make themselves comfortable, breaking precious heirlooms and asking invasive questions. It’s not long before Mother starts to worry that her husband has opened the door to something far worse than passing strangers.

Aronofsky’s direction is masterfull in these early scenes, gently dialling up the tension and paranoia by drip-feeding jarring sounds (amplified by the absence of a soundtrack) and unsettling images as Mother’s anxieties take shape. And unsettling is most certainly the right word. Like Hogwarts, if J.K. Rowling had written the Harry Potter series while suffering a bad trip on LSD, the house has a mischievous life of its own. The walls shake, the doors don’t lock, and the floors ooze blood from human-like orifices. Despite her desire to make it a model home, Mother is a prisoner here, never leaving the confines of the house and shot either in tight close-up or from her own dizzying perspective. It’s a claustrophobic experience, but also an exhilarating one.

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Not that any of it prepares you for a brutal and bewildering final act that’s the closest thing to an actual living nightmare ever committed to film. Time seems to lose all meaning as the walls shift and mutate in the blink of an eye and all manner of frightening apparitions storm the scene, culminating in one sequence so vile and vicious, it will likely be too grotesque for many.

The technical skill on display here is impressive, with Aronofsky seamlessly mashing together a discordant collection of genres and influences. Yet, as his visual ambitions expand and become weirder, he loses sight of his story. Mother! works best as an intimate study of maternal anxiety, with Lawrence powerless to prevent the dangerous forces of the world from invading her perfect home and laying ruin to everything she holds dear.

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But as Aronofsky’s roller-coaster of bizarre despair shifts into overdrive, he over complicates matters by throwing even more ideas into the mix. Religion, family, sexuality and the crumbling of civilisation are all exposed and plastered across the screen. Still, Aronofsky saves his most scathing work for a self-loathing portrait of the creative process as Bardem’s blocked artist becomes increasingly frustrated by his inability to find inspiration.

It’s this theme that eventually overwhelms and derails the plot. As the focus shifts more and more towards Bardem’s creations, Lawrence’s angelic Mother gets lost in the maelstrom, losing her voice and agency until she is little more than a (at times literal) punchbag for Bardem’s creative ambitions.

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There’s no denying that Mother! is a bold and unforgettable visual masterpiece, but as soon as Lawrence’s compelling presence fades into the background, the film descends into a cold, hollow mess of vivid imagery that lacks purpose or meaning. It seems that, like his onscreen counterpart, Aronofsky is guilty of letting the embers of a good idea burn out before that’ve truly caught fire.

Runtime: 121 mins (approx.)
Director/Screenwriter: Darren Aronofsky
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer

 

It – film review

For those who’ve ever pondered what the resultant movie would’ve looked like had Stephen Spielberg directed The Exorcist in 1973, Andy Muchietti’s It might be the closest you’ll get to the real thing. Pitched somewhere between The Goonies and E.T., if either of those movies had a penchant for perma-grinning demonic clowns or severed toddler arms being munched on like breadsticks, this latest adaptation of Stephen King’s classic tome is a heartfelt coming-of-age yarn that will pin you to your seat – even if it doesn’t always rattle your bones with fear.

Barring a few slight differential nods, this new version immediately sets itself apart from the Tim Curry-starring TV movie of 1990 by making some smart updates to the source material. Discarding the cumbersome back-and-forth timelines (saving the grown-up part of the story for a planned sequel), Muchietti shifts the action forward from the quaint 1950s to an Amblin-inspired 80s that often makes it feel like we’ve mistakenly dropped in on the set of Netflix’s Stranger Things.

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Like that TV show, It hones in on a band of young outsiders, each with their own identifiable dysfunction. There’s Richie, the class joker; Ben, the chubby new kid on the block; Miles, the orphaned son of a sheep farmer; Eddie, a germaphobic mama’s boy; Stan, whose dad is a rabbi; Bev, the snarky token female of the group; and stuttering B-B-Bill, whose little brother was believed to have drowned during a heavy storm.

Though it leads to a rather baggy and cliche-riddled opening third, Muchietti’s devotion to developing each member of The Losers Club pays off to great effect when the gang eventually face-off against Bill Skarsgard’s titular supernatural being. Each kid has their own frightening encounter with Pennywise, who often takes the form of their greatest fears.

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While the fright-factor of these encounters is fairly hit or miss – Bev’s bloody grapple with a tangle of sentient drain hair is chest-poundingly terrifying, while Eddie’s tussle with a decaying patient feels rote by comparison – they’re still intensely gripping throughout, the horrifying effect amplified because we understand the personal stakes for each kid and feel invested in their survival.

It helps that the entire cast are superb throughout, each perfectly capturing the carefree recklessness of youth and the paralysing fear of impending adulthood that courses through the veins of every adolescent.

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And then there’s Pennywise. Though Tim Curry’s iconic performance will continue to linger long in the memory, Skarsgard has successfully carved out his own distinct interpretation of the unhinged child killer. With his oversized porcelain dome, puffy cheeks, protruding bottom lip and grubby Victorian garb, Pennywise is a triumph of make-up and design. Yet it’s the subtle nuances in Skarsgard’s performance that really draw you in and disturb. The realisation that It’s eyes aren’t looking in the same direction as Skarsgard executes that slight malevolent smirk and a bead of drool drips from his chunky fangs will unsettle even the toughest of moviegoers.

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The only disappointment is that the resultant horrors don’t quite match the insidious power of Skarsgard’s performance. Muchietti leans heavily on well-worn horror tropes, with jump scares, spooky empty rooms and bone-snapping body horror all getting a thorough airing here. The practical effects work is mightily impressive, but the set-pieces themselves so often fail to elicit a stir simply because we’re so familiar with how they will play out. It’s telling that the most chilling scenes of all are the moments when the kids are subjected to real-life horrors, whether it’s a harrowing encounter with a rabid school bully or the uncomfortable touches of Bev’s lecherous father. Proof that sometimes the suggestion of evil can be even more potent that the real thing.

Nevertheless, It works surprisingly well as a standalone movie – a rarity in these times of tentpole blockbusters, unleashing an emotionally affecting tale that effectively relays the horror in King’s original novel while amplifying its heart. How Muchietti will make the second part as entertaining and satisfying is anyone’s guess, but the very prospect has us grinning like a bloodthirsty demonic clown whose just spotted his next victim.

Runtime: 133 mins (approx.)
Director: Andy Muchietti
Screenwriters: Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman, Cary Fukunaga
Stars: Bill Skarsgard, Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Taylor, Sophie Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Grazer