Random Movies: Best to Worst

Thoroughbreds

Thoroughbreds is a 90-minute movie about two rich teenage girls planning a murder. One of them claims not to have any emotions, but the one who does have emotions is scarier because she’s acting out of rage. The dialogue is really frank and direct in a way that’s funny but also insightful, the clothes are amazing, and there’s some really cool mise en scène with lawn chess and stuff. There’s even a scene where nobody knows how to hug, which is what’s always missing from films about the teenage experience, for me.

There’s also a really careful management of where our sympathies lie throughout the film – something that’s important in a black comedy where we’re supposed to side with murderers. The rage girl’s stepfather – who is their would-be murder victim – is a really, really awful person in a way that’s cuttingly real and doesn’t rely on stereotypes or shorthand explanations for his grossness. The girl with no feelings is pretty likeable because “having no feelings,” for once, isn’t treated as the same thing as “wanting to kill everyone.”

It’s a movie that knows exactly what it’s trying to do and does it economically, but with some style. I’ve been really looking forward to it ever since I saw the trailers, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Red Sparrow

Red Sparrow is the Jennifer Lawrence Russian spy movie that everyone keeps describing as “sexy” even though it’s not at all sexy and is instead a deeply disturbing, graphically violent meditation on whether women ever have sovereignty over their own bodies. I plan to write more about it later, but basically: this film is super interesting, but very unpleasant to watch.

The accents are also really bad. Most of the cast are speaking English with a Russian accent as a stand-in for speaking Russian (this is a weird convention, but it is a convention, and I get it). The problem is that they don’t sound Russian, to the point that, for a while, I was honestly unsure of whether they were trying to. It’s weird and distracting, but it also confuses me to read that Jennifer Lawrence did four months of ballet training for one scene, but the dialect coaching was listening to a couple of people talk and hoping for the best.

That sucks, because the actual substance of this movie is really worthwhile, but it’s harder to take seriously when people keep mumbling their dialogue in weird, wavering accents.

I Kill Giants

I Kill Giants is a very, very painful story about a weird teenage girl who wears fake rabbit ears, sets elaborate traps in the woods to catch giants, and deliberately gets herself in trouble at school to avoid situations she doesn’t want to deal with. There’s a magic realist quality to some of the story where there’s at least some question – because this is fiction – of whether the giants are real, but there’s a dark undercurrent to the whole thing that tells us something really traumatic must be going on. The climax reveals what the secret trauma is, and it was genuinely surprising to me, though it may not be to everyone.

The ending gets a little bit muddled and tries to retroactively cram too many lessons into the story – the symbolism falls apart a little bit, and the characters react to the situation in a way that doesn’t always feel organic. But it’s still a weird, sad movie, about a weird, sad kid, and I like that.

The Tale

The Tale is a direct-to-HBO movie with a tragically generic name. It’s a fictionalized version of the director’s real-life experience of looking back on her time in middle school and suddenly realizing it seems weird that she had sex with her athletics coach. It’s not about sexual abuse or predators, exactly – it’s about the way that we explain our own experiences to ourselves – the stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening to us and why and what our agency is, and how those stories change over time.

The film looks a little bit inexpensive in the way that might be put people off, but it does some interesting, sophisticated things. Probably the most powerful one is that the flashbacks to the narrator’s past initially show us an actress who looks to be about sixteen years old – the way the narrator remembers herself looking at the time events took place. A few scenes later, she’s looking through old photos and realizes that she’s aged herself up considerably – in reality, she was thirteen years old and looked like a small child. We see the same flashbacks again, with a new actress, and it looks way creepier.

As the movie goes on, the narrator keeps digging into the story, asking other people who were there what they remember form that summer, and discovering more and more details she’s sifted out of her memory. And, we, the audience, continue to watch a small child placed in situations that seem wildly inappropriate, even as we understand why she believes it’s normal (to, for instance, sit across from two adults she barely knows in a diner and listen to them tell her about their sex lives because the three of them are “equals” and shouldn’t have secrets).

Based on the title and the way it was advertised, I was expecting something a lot less specific and deep and complicated than this. This is not a movie of the week about a woman dredging up repressed memories or something – it’s a very complex picture of the way that kids are vulnerable because they don’t see their own vulnerability, and the way that someone can “consent” to a situation that they do not understand. I’ve never seen the topic approached in this way before except briefly on In Treatment (also HBO).

It’s a really important, interesting film, and I wish it had a different name.

A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time is based on a really popular book that I’ve never read about some kids who travel with some fairies to try to find their father after he figures out how to fold space-time and gets lost. The main kid is played by Storm Reid, who’s only fourteen years old, and holds down the movie as well as an adult actor.

The overall arc of the movie is solid and all of the major building blocks that need to be there are there, but there were a lot of moments where I was taken aback by the details. Things like how the main girl’s classmates decide to bully her over her father’s disappearance by “celebrating” the anniversary every year and… the school doesn’t notice that, and she doesn’t explain it to them, so she gets in trouble for having a bad attitude? Or the part where one of the (adult) fairies is just randomly mean to her for no reason? Or the part where suddenly all the rules we’ve been taught about how the fairies work are suspended so that we can have a stilted scene where the fairies give the main girl three gifts to help her with her quest and then peace out and leave the kids alone? Or the part where they find their dad and he abandons them again? Or the part where the main girl’s brother is, like, possessed by a tree or something?

It’s not a bad movie, but it’s also not super focussed and, based on what I was able to discover from Wikipedia, it seems like some of the weird decisions in the latter half come from trying to compress the narrative in the novel.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is loosely based on a series of graphic novels, and follows the futuristic space cop, Valerian, and his companion, Laureline, as they uncover massive war crimes and save the City of a Thousand Planets from itself. The movie has mad style, and parts of it work really well, but the climax hinges on the characters having personality traits that have not been communicated to us at all.

Like, Valerian is presented to us exactly the way every action hero for the past ten years has been presented to us – he plays by his own rules, he doesn’t read the mission briefing before he hits the ground, he’s a womanizer, he’s kind of too cool to care about anything – and then, at the climax, we’re told his whole deal is that he does play by the rules and tries to be a good soldier, and that’s why [what happens in the climax happens]. And, I don’t know. I feel like a good soldier who plays by the rules would read the missing briefing, yeah? And take the mission more seriously? And not flop around getting his arm stuck in an invisible box that he needs cool-headed Laureline to get him out of?

Meanwhile, cool-headed Laureline is way more reserved – even considering what seems like a directorial choice to have the actors display little outward emotion – indifferent to Valerian’s inappropriate sexual advances (he’s her boss), and indifferent, in fact, to almost everything that’s happening. Until the climax, where she’s suddenly a really emotional person who leads with her heart and can’t imagine being with Valerian because he’s so unfeeling and by-the-book – WHAT IS THIS MOVIE?

On top of that, they’ve got Rihanna in a supporting role where her character is mostly CGI, which means she likely recorded most of her dialogue alone in a studio – and it doesn’t work great. She sounds like she’s in a different movie from everyone else.

In conclusion, the parts that weren’t characterization were really cool. This song was cool. Also, this is the first time I became aware of Cara Delevingne (whom I did not recognise in Suicide Squad), and Cara Delevingne seems cool. The characterization was less cool.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

How to Talk to Girls at Parties is about a teen punk (like, literally, he’s a punk in the 70s) who accidentally falls in love with an alien after he mistakes her culture for a social movement or a cult. It’s based on a short story by Neil Gaimen, and Nicole Kidman is in it, playing some kind of punk matriarch/fashion designer.

The biggest obstacle for me was that I didn’t really care about the punks. The alien stuff was weird and surreal and funny and scary – the punk rock stuff was just kind of loud. But, if you were alive for punk culture in the 70s, maybe it would resonate more with you.

Don’t Talk to Irene

Don’t Talk to Irene is a feel-good movie about an unpopular teen who’s sent to work in a retirement home and ends up convincing a bunch of retired people to enter a talent show with her. Spoilers, but the moral of the story is that having heart wins out over being cool.

This movie is a lot more cohesive than others on the list, but it’s not showing us anything all that different from stuff we’ve already seen. Also, there’s a conceit where Irene talks to a poster of Geena Davis because she doesn’t have friends to bounce her ideas off of (valid), and Geena Davis talks back through a strangely-inflected voiceover that doesn’t really fit the rest of the movie’s tone. I’m not sure if that’s a deliberate attempt to imitate her famous characters or just a weird artefact of how it was recorded, but it’s distracting.

The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower is an adaptation of a Stephen King novel that is part of a massive Stephen King series that I haven’t read. The movie is about a character called The Gunslinger who’s on a quest to kill a wizard and takes some random kid with him. The very best scene is when The Gunslinger, Roland, played by Idris Elba, stands back to back with his father, reciting a creepy, mysterious speech called The Gunslinger’s Creed (“He who aims with his hand has forgotten the face of his father,” etc, etc). The second best scene is immediately after, when the wizard, played by Matthew McConaughey,  unceremoniously kills Roland’s father in front of him.

The kernel of that idea – that the two of them are ancient arch nemeses, locked in an eternal battle because, for unknown reasons, Roland is uniquely impervious to the wizard’s magic – is really interesting. So is the idea that Roland and the wizard are operating on a separate level as archetypes, unable to care about practical, human concerns, as they attempt to fulfill their destinies and defeat each other.

Unfortunately, that’s not really what the movie is about. For some reason, after those cool early scenes, it tries to pitch itself as a family film about a kid who has the same magic powers from The Shining and gets adopted by a cowboy. From what I’ve read, that’s maybe more in line with where the book series ultimately goes, but also a huge departure from the very first book.

On top of that, the film, seemingly recognizing that Idris Elba saying a creepy speech is the best thing it has going for it, leans on repeating that speech for all of its emotional impact after that, including its only real joke. It takes the coolest thing about it and determinedly makes it less cool through overuse.

Apparently the idea was to spin this into a TV show, but I can’t say I’m very excited to watch it.

Image: Thoroughbreds; Focus Features | June 9, 2018