Movie reviews: 'Happy Death Day' decent murder mystery turned spiritual rebirth story
HAPPY DEATH DAY: 3 STARS
“Happy Death Day’s” advertising tagline sums up the entire plot in eight words. “Get Up. Live Your Day. Get Killed. Again.”
Like “Groundhog Day” with a terrifying twist, it’s the story of Tree Gelbman (“La La Land‘s” Jessica Rothe). She’s a sharp-tongued Bayfield University mean girl who begins her birthday, Monday Oct. 18, waking up in the dorm room of a young guy named Carter (Israel Broussard). Hungover from the night before, she’s late for class and has lunch with her sorority sisters before being stabbed to death by a stranger wearing a creepy Bayfield Babies mascot mask.
Stuck in the twilight zone, she’s forced to relive the day of her murder again and again. “Maybe I’m like a cat with nine lives,” she worries, “and I’m running out.” The only way to save her life is to search for clues and solve her own murder. Trouble is, the suspects could be anyone. “It could be the tiny girl at TJ Max I got fired,” she says, “or the Uber driver I spit on last week.” She is doomed to keep dying until she figures out who her killer is.
Blumhouse, “Happy Death Day’s” production company, are known for their low-budget high concept scares. They scored earlier this year with the brilliant “Get Out” and changed b-movie horror with their “Paranormal Activity” movies. Their latest thriller isn’t likely to be remembered as anything other than a politically incorrect thriller with a strong cast whose engaging performances keep the “today is the first day of the rest of your life… and death” premise interesting.
As snarky sorority sister Danielle newcomer Rachel Matthews is a scene-stealer as she elevates condescension to an art form and Broussard is goofily charming but it is Rothe’s movie. A combo of great comic timing, charisma and running mascara, she does all the movie’s heavy lifting. Whether she’s in full-blown panic mode or on the inevitable journey of self-discovery that comes with living your life on a loop—think Jennifer Garner’s “13 Going on 30” redemption—or cracking wise, she’s the star of the show.
“Happy Death Day” morphs from time loop murder mystery to spiritual rebirth story to romance to revenge all in a tight 90 minutes. The rewound days are varied enough to keep things interesting, with each new morning more frantic than the last. The PG13 rating means it’s not a thrill-a-minute but in addition to the fun performances, it also has a few vulgar laughs, a few shocks and enough twists to be worth the price of the popcorn.
THE FOREIGNER: 3 STARS
Kids know and love martial arts legend Jackie Chan from flicks like “The LEGO Ninjago Movie” and “The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature.” With the release of the revenge drama “The Foreigner” he’s back into adult territory.
Sixty-three-year-old Chan plays London-based restaurateur Quan Ngoc Minh whose daughter Fan (Katie Leung) is an innocent victim of a bomb attack on a fancy Knightsbridge dress shop perpetrated by a group called the Authentic IRA. Stricken with grief and fuelled by anger, he embarks on a mission to track down the people responsible for killing his child. His journey of revenge takes him to Belfast where he zeros in on Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), a Martin McGuinness type politician and former IRA member.
Quan, as it turns out, while old, frail looking is no one to be trifled with. I mean, this is Jackie Chan we’re talking about here. Before he was the counter man at the Happy Peacock Restaurant, he was a special forces solider, trained in all manner of bomb laying and bone breaking. When Hennessy rebuffs Quan, denying any knowledge of the murderous events—“I realize you are angry,” he says, “but there's not much I can do.”—and kicking the desperate man out of his office, he sets into motion a series of events that will see the restaurateur show his true colours.
“The Foreigner” is an action film but when the fists aren’t flying it concentrates on the fraying edges of Hennessy’s political career.
Chan’s presence dropkicks what is otherwise a rather straightforward story of revenge, directed with simple elegance by Martin Campbell, into the realm of the enjoyable. He walks like a hunched over grandpa but packs a punch like Bruce Lee.
There’s a buzz that comes with a Jackie Chan fight scene. Who else, at an age when CARP brochures start showing up in the mail, would jump through a window, grab hold of a drainage pipe and slide 20 feet down to a rooftop. Jackie Chan, that’s who. The action feels real because it is and that authenticity gives “The Foreigner” much of its electro-charge.
Brosnan is a coiled spring, a politician with secrets and an iron will. His tale of political intrigue overshadows Quan‘s story—Chan disappears for a big chunk of the movie—but it does give him a chance to chew the scenery and have some fun.
“The Foreigner” isn’t a memorable movie but it is a welcome return to the action genre for Chan and Brosnan after too long a time away.
MARK FELT: THE MAN WHO BROUGHT DOWN THE WHITE HOUSE: 2 STARS
The name Mark Felt was one of Washington D.C.’s best-kept secrets for years. From 1972 to 2005, theories and rumours echoed through the halls of power as to the real name of Deep Throat, the pseudonym given to the secret informant who provided information to Bob Woodward that kick started the Watergate scandal. Now that it’s known that the mysterious figure was actually Mark Felt, the Deputy Associate Director of the FBI, how is it possible to make a cloak-and-dagger thriller out of the story when even the name, the lengthy, “Mark Felt – The Man Who Brought Down the White House,” gives away the plot?
The film begins as stone-faced keeper of secrets Felt, played by Liam Neeson, learns his boss of thirty years, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, has died. It is presumed that, given his years of experience and service,—he’s the G-man’s G-man—that he’ll be offered the top job. “You’re the chief dragon slayer and keeper of the American dream,” says his wife Audrey (Diane Lane).
His new case looks promising as well. He and his team are investigating a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington. It’s a case that Felt feels will have major repercussions, perhaps leading to the very top office in the land, President Richard Nixon’s Oval Office.
His dreams of running the F.B.I. and breaking the explosive Watergate case are scuttled when Hoover’s job goes to an assistant attorney general from Nixon’s Justice Department, L. Pat Gray (Marton Csokas). “Hoover is gone,” Felt is told. “You’re alone now holding the end of your own leash.” Felt, once the second in command is now the odd man out. More than that, Gray wants the Watergate investigation shut down. “You are never going to find what you were looking for,” says Gray. “End it. Shut it down.”
Felt knows the burglars are all ex-CIA and FBI with connections to the Committee to Re-Elect the President so rather than let it drop, he turns to the press and becomes the most famous—and for a time anonymous—whistleblower in American political history.
“Mark Felt – The Man Who Brought Down the White House” is a timely look at the role of the FBI versus the White House. Much of Felt’s dialogue—lines like, “No one can stop the driving force of an FBI investigation. Not even the FBI”—feel like they could have been lifted from James Comey's Congressional testimony. The story predates Presidents Ford, Jimmy Carter, two Bushes, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama but feels ripped from today’s headlines.
Déjà vu aside, there isn’t much else here of interest. Neeson is the very model of a company man, someone who gave his life to the FBI only to see outside forces—i.e. Nixon’s White House—compromise the Bureau’s effectiveness. “We don’t answer to them,” he grunts. “The White House has no authority on the FBI.” It’s a compelling reason but Neeson is so stoic, he’s barely a character and more a mound of finely sculpted grey hair with an attitude. As Felt, he has a very particular set of skills. Skills he has acquired over a very long career. Skills that include stoicism. If you don’t give him what he want,s he will hunt you down and tell you secrets.
A grafted on story about his missing, possibly radicalized daughter, does nothing to humanize the man who has spent a career as a cipher and only distracts from the intrigue.
“Mark Felt – The Man Who Brought Down the White House” is based on an explosive story and should be an engaging picture of the backrooms of power and the machinations that brought down a government. Instead it is a talky affair that relies on exposition rather than thrills.
THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED): 3 ½ STARS
Fans of Adam Sandler’s patented man-child character will be pleased to note he revives it for his newest film “The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected).” But those not enraptured with his childlike alter-ego shouldn’t write this movie off. For the most part Sandler’s new one leaves the lowest-common denominator jokes behind in favour of highbrow(ish) humour. In other words, this is more “Punch Drink Love,” less “Billy Madison.”
Dustin Hoffman is Harold Meyerowitz, embittered sculptor, former art professor and walking, talking embodiment of New York neurosis. He’s also father to Danny (Sandler), Matthew (Ben Stiller) and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel). Harold is a crusty old man, self-centered and very aware of his lack of legacy. Newly divorced Danny has moved into the Greenwich Village home Harold shares with his fourth wife, Maureen (Emma Thompson).
The film studies the strained relationships between Harold and his kids but spends much of the movie detailing the half brothers Danny and Matthew. Danny stayed home to raise his daughter, has never had a job and now feels like a failure compared to the younger Matt, a Los Angeles hot shot with his own financial management company.
When Harold takes ill, his children have to reassess their feelings for their difficult dad and each other.
“The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected)” doesn’t have the guffaws that Sandler at his best can deliver. Instead it is dusted laughs derived from the situations and characters. At its heart, it’s a story of family dysfunction populated by people who never dip into self-pity. Marvel makes the best of her few moments but it is Sandler and Stiller who deliver the goods. Both hit career highs playing toned down versions of their carefully crafted comedic characters. Adding real humanity to Danny and Matthew elevates them from caricature. By not going for the broad strokes, they are able to create tender and stinging moments that are some of the best in both their careers.
Hoffman is a hoot, perfectly complimented by Thompson who has some of the film’s best lines. Of the supporting cast Grace Van Patten, Danny’s loving daughter, is a standout.
“The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected)” could have been maudlin but when filtered through director Noah Baumbach’s sensibility is smart and heartwarming.
THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM: 3 STARS
“The Limehouse Golem” is a slice of Victorian Grand-Guignol gaslight horror that owes a debt to Jack the Ripper and to the great Hammer films of the 1960s.
London’s fog-drenched Limehouse district is in the spell of a serial killer who leaves behind mutilated bodies and cryptic messages written in his victim's blood. The ritualistic killings are so savage, so inhuman the press presume they could only be the work of an ancient evil, the Golem.
Stumped, Scotland Yard assigns Inspector Kildare (Bill Nighy) to the case. Brilliant but troubled, the veteran policeman immediately starts putting clues together even though he knows his superiors think the case is unsolvable. His first break comes with the discovery of a diary of Golem’s crimes, written in his own hand, kept in the reading room of a library. On the day of the last entry, Sept. 24, only four men where in the reading room, music hall comedian Dan Leno (Douglas Booth), German philosopher Karl Marx, novelist George Gissing and playwright John Cree (Sam Reid).
They each become suspects but high on his list is Cree, a pompous failed playwright poisoned by his wife Elizabeth (Olivia Cooke) on the night of the last Golem murder. The Inspector is convinced she knew he was the killer and poisoned him to stop the carnage. Now he must go full Sherlock to prove that, solve the case and save Elizabeth from the gallows.
“The Limehouse Golem” is a lurid piece of work. Handsomely decked out with fine period details and sumptuous production design, it lures you in with “Masterpiece Theatre” style only to make a sharp U-turn into Hammer Horror territory. Victims are sawn into pieces, beheaded and generally ripped to pieces in ways that would make Jack the Ripper envious. It’s gory and gruesome but what it isn’t is a thriller. Despite a labyrinthine story structure—there’s more flashbacks than you can throw a dismembered head at—the good Inspector seems to be the only one who doesn’t know who the killer is.
On the plus side “The Limehouse Golem” has great performances—does Nighy ever disappoint?—and paints a vivid picture of Victorian music hall, onstage and off. The bawdy nature of the shows nicely compliments the theatrical nature of the killings, helping to create an otherworldly, weird atmosphere.
“The Limehouse Golem” isn’t much of a penny dreadful thriller—there’s too many red-herrings for that—but it does spill enough of the red stuff to satisfy fans of Victorian horror.
78/52: 4 STARS
Alfred Hitchcock knew how to scare the wits out of people. The shower scene in “Psycho” for example, is a benchmark in cinematic fear. If he had any doubts about the effectiveness of that sequence, they must have been put to bed when he received an angry letter from a father whose daughter stopped bathing after seeing the bathtub murder scene in “Les Diaboliques” and then, more distressingly, refused to shower after seeing “Psycho.” Hitch’s response to the concerned dad? “Send her to the dry cleaners.”
“78/52” a new documentary from Alexandre O. Philippe spends 90 minutes exploring not only why the 52 second scene continues to terrify but also how it changed cinema. Drawing its title from the 78 shot set-ups it took to film the scene, the movie is an exhaustive but not exhausting look the shower sequence.
A mix of fan info and academia, it covers some familiar territory but more intriguingly looks to experts like filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and editor Walter Murch to dissect the nuts and bolts of the scene. Shot by shot, they get inside Hitchcock and collaborator Saul Bass’s mindset, delving into the decisions, both artistic and practical, that give the sequence its power. First hand recollections come from a new and spirited interview Janet Leigh’s nude model stand-in Marli Renfro and archival conversations with Hitchcock and Leigh.
“78/52” is likely the final word on the infamous shower scene. The level of detail will enthral film geeks and Hitchcockolytes but shouldn’t dissuade more casual viewers. The enthusiasm of several of the talking heads—most notably Elijah Wood—is infectious. We can learn how and why the scene works but their passion shows why the scene is so successful from a strictly personal point of view.