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‘Thoroughbreds’ Races Along With Stellar Cast

A blunt, bracing effort from first-timer Cory Finley.

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Early on in Cory Finley’s dark comedic thriller Thoroughbreds, upper-class teens Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) sit curled up on the couch, watching a classic film on TV. “That’s the worst crying I’ve ever seen,” Amanda says flatly, as a black-and-white blonde dabs a handkerchief at her eyes. Lily disagrees, and to demonstrate “the technique,” Amanda lets her breath become shallow and allows tears to stream down her cheeks. When Lily insists on being shown how to do the same, Amanda instructs her to force her body into distress. “It’s like you’re choking yourself,” she says effortlessly, as if there’s nothing to it.

A tightly edited and bracing film, Thoroughbreds itself often feels effortless. The story centers on the relationship of two estranged teenagers who grow close once more as they begin to speak honestly about identity, morality, and death. Their rekindled friendship is abruptly threatened when Amanda offhandedly mentions killing Lily’s stepfather, but the offer needles its way into Lily’s brain to the point of obsession, and they soon gravitate towards each other yet again.

Cooke (Bates Motel) has the unenviable task of portraying a self-proclaimed sociopath, and while her dialogue is completely devoid of feeling or intonation, her performance remains mesmerizing. On a sunny afternoon, Amanda details the lengthy murder of her prize-winning horse, Honeymooner, as Lily hides her reaction behind pricey sunglasses. Amanda picks up giant stone chess pieces and drags them across a marble board, nonchalantly playing a game against herself as she describes drugging, paralyzing, and slitting her horse’s neck. Her voice is lifeless, and her expression reads as disinterested at best, but her monologue is hypnotic nonetheless.

With Cooke as a lymphatic foil, Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Split) plays opposite her with an impressive range. At first, Lily is bewildered by the upsetting things her old friend spouts, but she quickly drops the perky act of perfection that was groomed into her by her parents. Relieved to talk bluntly to Amanda — and have a pithy response handed immediately back — Lily continues to shed her glossy exterior and tap into a well of grief and anger that began with her father’s death, and reignited when her mother remarried a douchebag named Mark (portrayed with cutting animosity by Paul Sparks). The result sees her backpedal so far from her former self that she not only mirrors Amanda, but could take that young woman’s place as the reigning sociopath of suburban Connecticut.

Unfortunately, one element that feels lacking is the limited inclusion of Anton Yelchin (Star Trek, Odd Thomas, Like Crazy) in his last released performance following his sudden death in July 2016. Portraying a drug dealing low-life named Tim, Yelchin is in top form, and manages to produce a complex mixture of disgust, alarm, and sympathy in the fifteen or so minutes of screen time he shares with the female leads. While Thoroughbreds is not an outright comedy, the scenes featuring Taylor-Joy, Cooke, and Yelchin lead to the most laughs, and shine with chemistry. Sadly, his death bears an unavoidable weight on this film, one can’t help but wish he had been utilized more. 

One of the more notable aspects of Thoroughbreds is its exceptional sound mixing and design. The film is hurried along by a compelling score from composer Erik Friedlander, who combines cello, piano, and percussion to unsettling ends. Jarring tones lurking underneath shots of luxury and beauty keep the viewer on edge throughout the entirety. It’s a score more at home in a Victorian horror film, but nevertheless manages to match Thoroughbreds’ more sinister undertones to a thrilling degree.

The soundtrack weaves in and out in brief snippets throughout the film, relying on anachronistic humor as discussion of murder fades into the gleeful tones of King Harvest’s “Dancing in the Moonlight,” and swerving into heart-pounding paranoia as Lily wanders on the edges of a party to A Tribe Called Red’s throaty, feverish “Sila.” Even simple sound effects produce a measure of anxiety, like the nauseating thrum of Mark’s indoor rowing machine cranking away above Lily’s head.

Interestingly, Thoroughbreds was originally conceived as a stage play, and it often reads that way with its sparse list of settings, sharp dialogue, and small, dynamic cast. The knowledge that this could have easily been performed on stage speaks not only to Finley’s strength as a writer, but also the visual skills he’s still refining as a director. Nonetheless, it is incredibly impressive as a first effort, and remarkable projects no doubt await Finley, Cooke, and Taylor-Joy in the future.

Meghan Cook is a comedy writer currently residing in North Carolina with one cat and fifty shows in her Netflix queue (that she will get to eventually).

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‘The Gentlemen’ is Familiar, Grungy Territory for Guy Ritchie

The director of ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes’ returns to his roots to craft a flashy, intricate web of crime, held back by old-fashioned sensibilities.

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The Gentlemen

Suave and grungy, Guy Ritchie’s popularity rose very quickly with the one-two punch of his seedy, gangster films, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Since then, he did a couple more gangster films, but after 2008’s RocknRolla, everything audiences have seen from the director may have been a Guy Ritchie film in style and execution, but not in setting or plot. Twelve years later, and the director has come back to the British gangster movie with The Gentlemen. While not wholly successful in its execution, there’s an undeniable charm to the return to form that’s aided by a strong ensemble and razor-sharp dialogue.

Most painful to endure in The Gentlemen is how its story is framed, which is through the eyes of a sleazy, racist private investigator named Fletcher (played devilishly by Hugh Grant, who comes the closest he’s come to his Phoenix Buchanan character in Paddington 2). Arriving at Raymond’s (Charlie Hunnam) house unannounced, he attempts to hustle him out of 20 million pounds by recounting a story that implicates Raymond in a very intricately wound net of corruption and criminal activity. At the heart of it is a strife between Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) and Dry Eye (Henry Golding), as Mickey attempts to get out of the marijuana business by selling his company to Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong), a businessman who is ready to buy the company and let Mickey take an early retirement. Nothing goes as planned, of course, and Fletcher plans to unravel the entire criminal enterprise by providing his intel to the Daily Print tabloid, which is helmed by Big Dave (Eddie Marsan), assuming Raymond doesn’t pay to keep Fletcher silent.

The Gentlemen

Complicated at first, Ritchie has always done a decent job simplifying the complex narrative with a single narrator explaining things along the way. The Gentlemen is not complicated, though it is intricately woven. The mistake Ritchie makes is putting the entire story in the hands of a racist who makes other characters in the story spew racist remarks as he takes liberties with the story he’s telling Raymond (and the audience). It’s the kind of character who, put to the background of a movie like this, would be a reminder that Ritchie still has difficulty writing his characters without being a major blemish on the film. Instead, Fletcher serves as the audience’s only frame-of-reference for the majority of the story, as Raymond nods and allows him to continue his ramblings unless they become a bit too sensationalist. Other characters end up seeming racist because the story is told from Fletcher’s perspective, making it almost unbearable to get through The Gentlemen’s extensive, dialogue-heavy scenes.

There are a lot of other facets of identity that Ritchie confronts in his screenplay, whether it’s Fletcher’s constant advances on Raymond (the sexual innuendo never ends), Matthew’s effeminate gangster, or the way people make fun of others’ ethnic names. The problem is that almost none of these remarks are new for him, and almost all are handled with the gracefulness of a bull in a china shop. It’s hard not to come out wondering if Ritchie is aware he’s being offensive, but he often struggles to show any self-awareness. When his characters do acknowledge problematic things people say, it’s a punch-line that makes light of actual concerning dialogue.

The Gentlemen

Yet, despite the racism and homophobia, The Gentlemen is a slick gangster movie that has plenty of laughs and wit. All of it is brought to life by the stellar cast that revel in the opportunity to bring Ritchie’s trademark dialogue to the screen. Colin Farrell in particular comes in with some of the best comedic timing in recent memory. Grant, despite his dialogue being often infuriating, dives head-first into the material and comes out of it appropriately sleazy. His character’s obsession with film — including a reference to Coppola’s The Conversation that feels fitting given the dialogue-heavy screenplay — goes even further than one would have expected with the film. It even opens with a screenplay written by Fletcher that he is overly excited to share. McConaughey plays it cool, calm, and very McConaughey as his character tries to keep everything under control. The same can be said about Hunnam’s performance, though he gets a little more screen time and a lot more opportunities to be the witty protagonist. Other notable actors include a baffling Jeremy Strong, whose performance feels so out of place, an eccentric and wild Eddie Marsan and Henry Golding, and Michelle Dockery acting like the coolest person in the boy’s club.

Bolstered by trademark smash cuts, doodling on the screen, and other flashy editing techniques, The Gentlemen goes down like a nice scotch — a little burn, but familiar and smooth. Seeing this cast work together in one of Guy Ritchie’s well-concocted webs of crime is a delight. It ultimately falls into place nicely with Ritchie’s prior films. Even the ending hearkens back to 2000’s Snatch with the way everything comes together in the messiest fashion possible. The line between dumb luck and carefully-executed plan is so finely walked that, like with his other films, it feels justifiably placed among characters that are often blindsided. It’s just a shame that The Gentlemen feels more like a time capsule than a fresh, innovative film.

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Sundance Film Festival

Sundance 2020: ‘Vitalina Varela’ Is a Love Letter to Faces

Pedro Costa’s fascinating metafictional work tells one woman’s story of loss and abandonment, but her face is the true star.

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Vitalina Varela

I become an obsessive note scribbler when I review a film. I try to write down everything that pops into my head, whether it’s a profound insight or, more commonly, a banal observation. At the end of Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela, I had written only two words: “Her face!” (with double underlines). Costa’s slow yet engrossing metafictional work is filled with sumptuous textures and overwhelming emotions, but the film’s star, Vitalina Varela, is its most fascinating component. She has a face that cries out to be painted, one that makes her emotions seem almost Olympian, and Costa is perhaps the only filmmaker who could do her justice.

The Portuguese filmmaker has almost exclusively relied on non-professional actors over the past decade-and-a-half, and Vitalina Varela is no different. His lead actress previously appeared in a small role in 2014’s Horse Money after he discovered her while scouting locations. After hearing or story of loss and abandonment, Costa created a film based around her experiences. Vitalina Varela features his signature style and expressionistic visuals, but it might as well be a documentary for how closely it follows the contours of her life. The real-life Vitalina was a Cape Verdean native whose husband left over 25 years before the events of the film for Portugal in hopes of making a better life for them. But their life back home calls that motive into question. The two built a stunning 10-bedroom home for themselves back home, which was a luxury compared to the decrepit shack that he lived in in the shantytown Fontainhas, just outside of Lisbon. Vitalina was meant to join him, but the money for a plane ticket never materialized for over 25 years, and when she finally makes the journey to Portugal it’s three days after he has died under mysterious circumstances, and she’s too late to even make the funeral. As she talks to her husband’s neighbors she learns unsavory details about his life abroad, yet she’s determined to stay in this new country.

Vitalina Varela

Costa film’s Vitalina’s acclimation to Fontainhas in achingly slow scenes which will test the patience of many viewers. But those who get on his wavelength (and have a coffee beforehand) will be absorbed in his painterly compositions. He and his cinematographer Leonardo Simões photograph the slum interiors (none of which seem to have electrical lighting) in bursts of faux sunlight and moonlight almost exclusively, giving the events a ghostly character. It’s only in the last few scenes that we see Vitalina outside in the daylight, and the camera is allowed to expand beyond the claustrophobic confines of her building. The stunning lighting also directs our attention squarely on her face, which shimmers with loss and regret. Like Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), she has a face that conveys everything we would ever need to know of her story. Luckily, Costa understands that and lets it do the talking.

The Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 23 – Feb. 2, 2020. Visit the official website for more information.

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Sundance Film Festival

Sundance 2020: ‘Shirley’ Is Another Triumph for Josephine Decker

Josephine Decker’s film dramatizes a turbulent period in Shirley Jackson’s creative life to startling effect.

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Shirley

Something is amiss from the opening moments of Josephine Decker’s newest feature, Shirley. A young couple, Fred and Rose Nemser (Logan Lerner and Odessa Young) are taking a train to Bennington College, where he’ll be teaching. Rose reads a recent issue of The New Yorker featuring Shirley Jackson’s now-classic short story “The Lottery,” dating the scene to 1948 or ’49. The story, about a (spoiler alert) woman who is stoned to death as part of a community ritual, doesn’t arouse the expected response in Rose. Rather than being horrified, she’s excited, even turned on by the tale, and she initiates a quick tryst with Fred out of sight of the other passengers. Like Rose, Decker seems thrilled by the most sordid and disturbing interpersonal relations — and by the film’s end, much of the audience will be too.

Though the film opens with Rose and Fred, Shirley is most concerned with the eponymous Jackson (Elisabeth Moss). Despite being a critically and commercially successful writer, she’s not considered much more than a faculty wife to her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor at Bennington and a respected literary critic. The Nemsers are set to move in with Jackson and Hyman for a short period until they’re able to find a place of their own in town. Stanley will mentor Fred, who will deliver some of his lectures in hopes of getting his own course load and, eventually, tenure. But from the start, Shirley has an unhealthy fascination with the couple, especially Rose. As she begins to plot out what will be her second published novel, Hangsaman, she begins to spy on the young woman, intruding on the most intimate moments of her life. At the same time, she absorbs herself in news articles about Paula Jean Weldon, a Bennington student who disappeared in 1946, and her interests begin to coalesce in a clear nod to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966).

Shirley

Decker’s disorienting style, which animated much of Madeline’s Madeline, makes occasional appearances, but she’s more restrained in how she films her characters. In her earlier films, which she wrote by herself, her eye-catching and disorienting style was a way of making up for long sections with little dialogue, but that’s not necessary with Sarah Gubbins’ more traditional screenplay. Gubbins sensitively portrays Shirley’s life as an underappreciated artist and delves into the ways her work tears away at her personal life and her mental health. Her husband’s dalliances with his students and other faculty wives don’t help.

Moss and Stuhlbarg’s repartee and bouts of sadistic marital games will surely draw comparisons to the couple in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but they have a more tender relationship than those famous bickerers. Stanley is condescending and even tyrannical at times when it comes to their personal lives, but he’s Shirley’s biggest champion and a believer in her literary greatness. Stuhlbarg makes it clear that the character has great affection for his wife, even if he chooses to have sex with anyone but her. Moss delivers another in a series of great performances that seem to be in dialog with her work for Alex Ross Perry in Queen of Earth (2015) and Her Smell (2018). Decker, Gubbins, and Moss all work together to create a portrait of an artist’s creative process, and we see how Shirley absorbs Rose and Paula Jean’s lives to inspire her fiction. So often, movies about artists merely gloss over the act of creation to focus on the most dramatic elements of their personal lives, which makes the art seem as if it miraculously came into being. In Shirley, we see the heartbreak and conflict required to create great art, or at least required to create Shirley Jackson’s art. Decker may have calmed down her frenetic style this time around, but it was only in service of her most compelling story to date.

The Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 23 – Feb. 2, 2020. Visit the official website for more information.

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