Sunday, June 10, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: THOROUGHBREDS (2018); DELIRIUM (2018); and I KILL GIANTS (2018)

(US - 2018)

Though it's anchored by two of the year's top performances, the noir-inspired THOROUGHBREDS never quite gels together like you hope, or at the very least, it's never quite as clever as it thinks it is. It's the directing and screenwriting debut of playwright Cory Finley, and though its talky script contains some insight and some often lacerating dialogue, the film never seems to shake the notion that it might've been a better fit for the stage.  Lily (THE WITCH's Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (READY PLAYER ONE's Olivia Cooke) were once best friends in high school but have grown distant in the years since. Now in college, they awkwardly reconnect when Lily agrees to tutor Amanda, who's awaiting trial for animal cruelty in the killing of her horse. As they spend more time together, the dynamic of their relationship undergoes subtle shifts and Amanda, who's been "diagnosed with everything" in the DSM-V ("I don't have any feelings. Ever.") brings out the sociopath within Lily, who's grown intolerant of her boorish, asshole stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks) and doesn't need much prodding when Amanda suggests killing him. The murder plot involves securing the services of a fall guy in the form of Tim (the late Anton Yelchin in his last film; production wrapped just two weeks before his tragic death in June 2016), a none-too-bright local drug dealer and registered sex offender following a fling with a high school student ("I wasn't 25, I was 23!" he tries to explain). Amanda records Tim agreeing to the plan to kill Mark and the girls prepare their alibi, but since this is that kind of film, things don't quite go according to plan.

THOROUGHBREDS only made it to 500 or so screens during its spring 2018 release, but it was one of those films that managed to develop a cult following while it was still in theaters. Many people went for the easy description of "HEATHERS meets AMERICAN PSYCHO," which is pretty much meaningless as far as what the film is all about. It's more of a cerebral mood piece in the guise of a Hitchcockian thriller, but its strengths come not from suspense but from the outstanding performances by Cooke (also great in the recent THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM) and Taylor-Joy. They manage to create multi-dimensional characterizations even though Finley's insistence on withholding details often works against building any kind of flow or momentum. That works when the film plays more cinematically, but for a film that most often has the feel of a play, it too frequently comes off as forced and trying too hard, with characters referencing things they already know but having to stop and backtrack to shoehorn vital info in to get the audience caught up, leaving them to realize "Oh, Lily's father died?" or "Oh, she was expelled." Cooke and Taylor-Joy are terrific, and with limited screen time, Yelchin creates a memorably hapless sketchball with entrepreneurial pipe dreams that are clearly going nowhere fast, but THOROUGHBREDS is a film where the end result is a bit less than the sum of its parts. (R, 92 mins)

(US - 2018)

Hot on the heels of STEPHANIE comes another long-shelved Blumhouse production, this one from director Dennis Iliadis and screenwriter Adam Alleca, the team behind the surprisingly not-terrible 2009 LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT remake. Shot in 2015 under the title HOME and quietly dumped on DVD two weeks after its gala VOD premiere, DELIRIUM is marginally better than the obviously unfinished and abandoned STEPHANIE, but that's not exactly a glowing recommendation. Released from a mental institution where he's been held since he was 12 years old, Tom Walker (Topher Grace) is placed under house arrest and left alone for 30 days at the family mansion where his disgraced politician father (Robin Thomas) has recently committed suicide. Tom is regularly badgered by his chain-smoking, flask-swilling, bitch-on-wheels parole officer Brody (Patricia Clarkson), but things get worse when he starts hearing noises and catching glimpses of his father's decaying corpse. He finds a tentative friend in grocery delivery driver Lynn (Genesis Rodriguez), but then his psychotic older brother Alex (Callan Mulvey) shows up and periodically vanishes as Tom is no longer sure what is real and what's in his imagination. 20 years earlier, 12-year-old Tom was rejected and humiliated by a girl and Alex talked him into getting back at her with a prank. Instead, Alex forced his little brother to watch as he beat the girl to a pulp and drowned her. Alex was sent to prison and Tom to a mental institution, and their shell-shocked mother vanished, leaving their domineering and impossible-to-please father behind. As the possibly paranormal hacktivity continues, Brody isn't buying Tom's stories of the house being haunted and doesn't believe that Alex has been visiting him because he was recently killed in prison fire.

Even on a rudimentary jump-scare level, DELIRIUM is a dull, unfocused mess. Iliadis drops the ball early on by never really getting the audience acclimated with the house, so when we hear noises and see Tom exploring, we really have no clue where he is in relation to the other areas or how he gets from one place to another. There's missed opportunities with the handling of Clarkson's character, who vacillates between sympathizing with Tom and openly expressing her desire to send him back to the institution for good. She even tries to seduce him at one point in what could've been an intriguingly perverse plot development, but then it's just dropped, which is a shame because Clarkson gives this thing its biggest jolts of life. The film spends a lot of time trying to convince you that Lily and Alex are figments of Tom's imagination, which is the only way those characters can possibly make any sense. Grace is cast radically against type as Topher Grace, and the film attempts to mine some easy humor from Tom being 20 years behind on pop culture and rocking out to The Presidents of the United States of America's "Lump" while wearing a Gin Blossoms concert tee and not knowing what Wikipedia is. DELIRIUM is bad, and while it's not quite engulfed in the dumpster fire flames of STEPHANIE, it's still easy to see why Universal sat on it for three years before a borderline covert release. Co-producer Leonardo DiCaprio took his name off of the movie, probably around the time that REVENANT Oscar buzz was picking up some heat. (R, 96 mins)

(US/Belgium/China/UK - 2018)

Adapted from Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura's 2008 graphic novel and counting Chris Columbus among its boatload of producers, I KILL GIANTS is an earnest and sincere examination of a child coping with the grieving process that's frequently too heavy-handed for its own good. It's also a victim of bad timing. J.A. Bayona's A MONSTER CALLS explored very similar territory two years ago, and while the I Kill Giants graphic novel preceded both the book A Monster Calls and its eventual film version, the impact of I KILL GIANTS can't help but be diminished. In a small town on the coast of Long Island (but shot in Ireland and Belgium), young Barbara (Madison Wolfe of THE CONJURING 2) is living with her adult sister Karen (Imogen Poots) and teenage brother Dave (Art Parkinson). Karen is struggling to keep up with her own job and taking care of her siblings, and while Dave is engrossed in his video games, Barbara is acting out, seemingly spending her time with 20-sided die role-playing games but quietly prepping the town for an inevitable giant attack that she's certain she can ward off with traps and an all-powerful weapon she dubs "Covaleski," named after early 20th century Phillies pitcher Harry Covaleski. Derided as "the nerd queen" by Dave and relentlessly bullied at school by imposing mean girl Taylor (Rory Jackson), Barbara is frequently visited by "harbingers" warning of the pending attack. At the same time, she reluctantly befriends shy, lonely British transfer student Sophia (Sydney Wade) and gradually opens up to her and school psychologist Mrs. Molle (Zoe Saldana) about her plot to take on the giants.

Of course, the absence of a visible paternal figure in the house and Barbara's head-first dive into a complicated fantasy world is too big of a tip-off as to where I KILL GIANTS is ultimately headed, especially if you've seen A MONSTER CALLS. Making his feature debut, Danish director Anders Walter (an Oscar-winner for 2013's Best Live Action Short HELIUM), gets a marvelous performance out of Wolfe, who's so good that you'll wish her dedication was in service of a more consistently strong film. The ultimate reveal may result in more questions than answers--such as "How did this family situation never come up in conversation?" and "Is Dave even a member of this family?"--but it has some convincing visual effects and some genuinely heartfelt moments that may make it therapeutic for younger children coping with similar circumstances. Some strong parts but it never quite comes together as a whole. (Unrated, 106 mins)

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