Thursday, June 21, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: IN DARKNESS (2018) and FLOWER (2018)

(US/UK - 2018)

IN DARKNESS might be of interest to GAME OF THRONES superfans, as it stars three series alumni--Natalie Dormer, Ed Skrein, and James Cosmo--and is co-written by Dormer with her fiance, veteran British TV director Anthony Byrne (RIPPER STREET, PEAKY BLINDERS). It begins as an intriguing throwback to "blind woman in peril" standard-bearer WAIT UNTIL DARK, but Dormer and Byrne's script starts trying too hard by throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. Dormer is Sofia McKendrick, a London-based pianist who's been blind since she was five. Self-reliant and a bit of a quiet loner, Sofia's world is turned upside down when she hears some loud thuds above, followed by upstairs neighbor Veronique (Emily Ratajkowski) taking a dive out of her window to her death. Only with the resulting media attention does Sofia learn that Veronique is the estranged daughter of Zoran Radic (Jan Bijvoet as Rade Serbedzija), a powerful Serbian businessman and reputed Bosnian War criminal with a shady charity foundation and ties to (of course) the Russian mob. Radic has a sibling henchmen duo--Marc (Skrein) and Alex (Joely Richardson)--tasked not only with killing Veronique but also with getting an incriminating USB stick out of her apartment. The cops rule Veronique's death a suicide, but Marc was in the building and in her apartment with her and came face to face with Sofia while she was getting on an elevator. Believing Sofia to be a witness, he attempts to befriend her with the intent of killing her, but backs off when he realizes she's blind and couldn't have seen him. That's not good enough for Alex or for Radic, who wants all loose ends tied up and needs whatever vital info is on the USB, with all parties are unaware that Veronique secretly stashed it with Sofia before her death.

The basic set-up of IN DARKNESS might've made for an old-fashioned nailbiter, but then it decides to get "tricky." It's fairly early in the film when it's revealed that Sofia is the only survivor of a Bosnian family brutally slaughtered by Radic 25 years earlier. We also learn that she's spent her entire life plotting to kill Radic and she intentionally sought out Veronique and got an apartment in the same building in the hopes that it would get her closer to her target, all under the watchful eye of caring and now-terminally ill adoptive father figure Niall (Cosmo). But that's just the beginning of IN DARKNESS' wildly improbable twists and turns. It gets more contrived with each passing scene, with some details left frustratingly vague--the film never does establish exactly what Marc and Alex do for Radic, nor does it adequately explore their strange relationship, where it's at least hinted that Alex is jealous when she finds out her brother has slept with Veronique. That's a shame because, while Skrein is bland and forgettable, an invested Richardson seems game for some perverse weirdness that never comes to fruition. Neil Maskell does an alright job as the rumpled, perpetually stubbled detective investigating Veronique's death, getting his inevitable wide-eyed Chazz Palminteri-in-THE USUAL SUSPECTS moment of realization when he finally pieces everything together. And it's a lot to piece together, as Dormer and Byrne can't stop piling up the surprise reveals with reckless abandon in the third act. One is so thuddingly obvious that you'll call it long before Sofia figures it out, and other is one of those that pretty much negates the entire movie and convincingly makes its case for the dumbest twist ending of 2018. (Unrated, 101 mins)

(US - 2018)

You know a movie's trying way too hard to be edgy when it opens with its 17-year-old heroine blowing the local sheriff, who asks "Where'd you learn to give a hummer like that?" and her reply is "Middle school." FIGHT CLUB already did a similarly tacky joke exponentially better (Helena Bonham Carter's immortal "I haven't been fucked like that since grade school"), but everything about FLOWER feels like you've seen and heard it years ago. If you can imagine Gregg Araki making a belated JUNO knockoff, then you'll have an idea what this has to offer. Directed and co-written by Max Winkler (Henry's son) and produced by the EASTBOUND AND DOWN and OBSERVE AND REPORT team of David Gordon Green, Danny McBride, and Jody Hill, FLOWER stars 23-year-old Zoey Deutch (Lea Thompson's lookalike daughter) as Erica Vandross, a teenage sociopath in a small California suburb who has a lucrative secret gig blackmailing local guys by giving them blowjobs in parked cars while her best friends Kayla (Dylan Gelula) and Claudine (Maya Eshet) sneak up and record her finishing them off. Kayla and Claudine spend their cut of the take on clothes, but Erica is stashing hers away to bail her father out of jail, where he's been sitting awaiting trial after trying to rob a casino. Erica's mother Laurie (Kathryn Hahn) has moved on and is dating doofus nice guy Bob, aka "The Sherm" (Tim Heidecker), who's about to move in, much to Erica's disapproval. Coming along as part of the "Sherm" package is his troubled son Luke (Joey Morgan), a withdrawn, overweight outcast who's been in rehab for a year trying to kick an oxy addiction. He has a panic attack his first night out of the facility but rejects Erica's offer for a blowjob to help calm him down. The two later grab a burger at the bowling alley, where Luke has another anxiety attack after spotting Will (Adam Scott), a regular at the lanes who's dubbed "Hot Old Guy" by chronic daddy issues case Erica. It turns out that Will used to be a high school teacher who lost his job three years earlier after allegations that he fondled a 15-year-old boy. The accuser? Luke.

This sets in motion a half-assed scheme to blackmail Will but Erica finds herself falling for him. Unforeseen problems ensue in ways that recall both HARD CANDY and the forgotten PRETTY PERSUASION, and those comparisons, combined with the obvious JUNO influence, end up making FLOWER feel like a 15-year-old Sundance offering that was found frozen in the mountains surrounding Park City and just now thawed. From the various transgressions and would-be shock tactics that fall flat ("If we don't act now, then other little kids might get butt-raped!" Erica says when everyone else wants to back out of their plan to extort Will) to the casting of the appealing Deutch, everything about FLOWER feels forced and affected, and by the time things pan out in a predictably tragic way that culminates in Erica and Luke donning cheap wigs and fleeing to the Mexican border, it's clear that FLOWER doesn't have much to say. Deutch is a tremendously appealing actress, but Winkler tries to make Erica similarly appealing when she's really not, and a film that really wanted to explore the kind of darkness inherent in the story would recognize that turning her into the white trash version of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (© Nathan Rabin) is the wrong approach. As a result, nothing feels real or believable for a second, not even when Laurie--who's historically been more interested in being Erica's buddy than her mother--finally melts down and tears into Erica for chasing away all of her potential boyfriends and calling her a "selfish twat." There is one legitimately funny line when Erica is asked what she plans to do with her life and boasts "I'm goin' to DeVry, bitch! 98% acceptance rate!" but no film that imagines itself to be an edgy and shocking dark comedy would actually have Erica look at Luke with tears in her eyes and say "I don't wanna run...I don't wanna spend the rest of our lives looking over our shoulders." (R, 94 mins)

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