Thoroughbreds

(USA 2017)

Newcomer Cory Finley’s nihilistic dark comedy Thoroughbreds tells the story, as one of its promotional posters puts it, of good breeding gone bad. Two suburban Connecticut high school girls, misfit Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and go getter Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), reconnect under the guise of tutoring. They were friends in grade school until Lily’s father died; now Amanda’s mother (Kaili Vernoff) is paying Lily to hang out with her daughter, who has a mystery mental disorder that renders her incapable of feeling emotion.

Amanda meets Lily’s stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks), a rich, domineering, and caustic control freak. Lily hates him but gets upset at Amanda’s suggestion that maybe he should die. She has a change of heart when Mark convinces Lily’s mother (Francie Swift) to send her away to a boarding school for “problem” girls. The two teens devise a plan to kill him. Enter slacker drug dealer Tim (Anton Yelchin) to execute the plan.

Thoroughbreds has all the elements of a winner. Finley’s script tells a good, dark story. Cooke channels Cristina Ricci, playing Amanda with all the macabre emptiness of Wednesday Addams. Ultimately, though, this is no Heathers. I found Thoroughbreds a bit rambling. It’s an okay film, but just okay — it’s probably not something I’m going to view again. Aaron enjoyed it more than I did.

With Svetlana Orlova, Alyssa Fishenden, Jackson Damon, James Haddad, Nolan Ball, Celeste Oliva

Production: June Pictures, B Story, Big Indie Pictures

Distribution: Focus Features (USA), Universal Pictures International (UPI) (international)

92 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) C+

http://focusfeatures.com/thoroughbreds

Raw [Grave]

(France/Belgium 2016)

“An animal that has tasted human flesh is not safe.”

—Father

To borrow a phrase from Morrissey, meat is murder, which is a lesson that goody-two-shoes strict vegan Justine (Garance Marillier) learns the hard way when she goes away to join her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), at veterinary college. Like a lot of young people away from home for the first time, Justine is lost and wants to fit in. She’s she’s got her work cut out for her: she’s nerdy, sheltered, and a total virgin.

Like a lot of other schools, the upperclassmen at this one have a hazing ritual to break in newbies. It’s pretty aggressive. Prompted by her sister, Justine goes along with it without objection—that is, until she’s pushed to eat raw rabbit kidney (never mind the blood splattered all over her and her “fresh meat” first year classmates). Alexia is the one who ultimately cajoles her to eat it; it’s nasty and it makes Justine sick. Not long after, she develops a gross and severely itchy rash brought on from food poisoning.

Soon, Justine finds herself craving meat. Her impulses are irresistible. First, she eats raw chicken. Then her own hair. Eventually, she works up to human flesh—after developing a fetish for car crashes, of course. As she gives in to her carnivorous urges, her lust for her cute and easygoing gay roommate, Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella), gets stronger—and Alexia appears to be turning into a greater and greater adversary.

Screenwriter/director Julia Ducournau has a lot on her mind here: peer pressure, body image, sexuality, sibling rivalry, the food we eat. She’s gutsy, and for the most part her risks pay off. It’s not the same story, but Raw has something in common with Goat (https://moviebloke.com/2016/09/24/goat/), another histrionic college drama that gets at kids, tribalism, and cruelty. Raw is very Lord of the Flies. Ducournau paces the story well and picks interesting things—a bikini wax, a horse being sedated—to make us squirm.

I love Ducournau’s sense of humor: it’s dry, icky, and sadistic. The indignation of Justine’s parents over a piece of sausage in her mashed potatoes when they’re eating in a cafeteria as the film begins brilliantly sets up what follows. Marillier seems to have some fun with her role, playing Justine as a creepy, awkward junkie who maybe bites off more than she can chew. Rumpf has fun with her role, too, playing Alexia as a Heathers-like mean girl. They do a nice job working the love and the hate in their relationship. Smartly, they’re both restrained, carefully steering clear of camp.

Visually, Raw reminds me a lot of David Cronenberg and David Lynch, but it still has its own unique look and feel. There are a lot well done scenes here—one under Justine’s sheets, another on a campus plaza with a horde of students moving like zombies, and another at a rave in a morgue all stand out in my mind. Cinematographer Ruben Impens uses lots of bright colors that work nicely with all the dim light to make the school look like a nightmare or a drug trip. There’s a definite sense of this not being real.

Raw is bloody and gory, but nothing here made me want to pass out or call an ambulance  (http://www.indiewire.com/2016/09/raw-tiff-2016-toronto-film-festival-pass-out-cannibal-julia-ducournau-1201726575/). I liked it, but I have one beef: I wish it was a little less predictable.

With Laurent Lucas, Joana Preiss, Bouli Lanners, Marion Vernoux, Thomas Mustin, Jean-Louis Sbille

Production: Frakas Productions, Petit Film, Rouge International, Wild Bunch, Canal+, Ciné+, Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), La Wallonie, Bruxelles Capitale, Centre du Cinéma et de l’Audiovisuel de la Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles, Radio Télévision Belge Francophone (RTBF), VOO, BE TV, Arte/Cofinova 12, Torino Film Lab

Distribution: Wild Bunch (France), O’Brother Distribution (Belgium), Focus World (international), Canibal Networks (Mexico), Cinemien (Netherlands), Seven Films (Greece), United International Pictures (UIP) (Singapore), Universal Pictures International (UPI) (UK), Monster Pictures (Australia)

99 Minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) B-

http://focusfeatures.com/raw

http://www.rawthefilm.co.uk

Clueless

(USA 1995)

“Searching for a boy in high school is as useless as searching for meaning in a Pauly Shore movie.”

—Cher Horowitz

The first screening of Chicago International Film Festival’s Totally ’90s series is Clueless, a sort of link between ’80s classics like Valley Girl and Heathers and later films like Election, 10 Things I Hate About You, Mean Girls, and even Fox’s current television series Scream Queens. Adapted from Jane Austen’s Emma, which I haven’t read and probably never will, Clueless transmits the novel’s heroine across time and space from outside London in the early Nineteenth Century to Beverly Hills in the late Twentieth. It’s a cute idea that works—I didn’t know until this screening that the story is 200 years old. As if!

“Hymenally challenged” (i.e., virgin) 16 year old California girl Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) is vain, popular, and rich. Perhaps not surprisingly, she’s incredibly superficial, even if she means well. Her mother died in “a freak accident during a routine liposuction,” leaving her father, brass-balled Type A litigator Mel (Dan Hedaya), to raise her. When Cher gets a bad report card, she enlists her bestie Dionne (Stacey Dash), a hip black version of herself, to help fix up two nerdy tough-grading teachers, Mr. Hall (Wallace Shawn) and Miss Geist (Twink Caplan). Her plan is simple: she wants to get them laid so they’ll chill out and be receptive to negotiating her grades. Meanwhile, Cher adopts a new student, “tragically unhip” druggie tomboy Tai (Brittany Murphy) as a pet project: Cher plans to make Tai more like Cher. Duh. Semi-crunchy, socially conscious stepbrother Josh (Paul Rudd) does not approve of Cher’s antics.

Written and directed by Fast Times at Ridgemont High‘s Amy Heckerling, Clueless feels like an ’80s throwback, but it’s still a lot of fun. Loaded with great zingers and one-liners, I laughed a lot. It also has a ton of references to ’90s pop culture that clearly date the film (Luke Perry? Snapple? A Cranberries CD?! Egads!). Clueless lacks a ceratin bite that makes “mean girl” flicks so, well, biting. I guess a large part is because Cher and Dionne aren’t really mean girls; they’re actually pretty naive. After all, it takes Cher awhile to figure out that Christian (Justin Walker), the guy she lusts after, is a friend of Dorothy. Hello?

With Julie Brown, Jeremy Sisto, Breckin Meyer, Donald Faison, Elisa Donovan

Production: Paramount Pictures

Distribution: Paramount Pictures (USA)

97 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Public Chicago) B-

Chicago International Film Festival

https://www.facebook.com/CluelessMovie

Mean Girls

(USA 2004)

“What’s so great about Caesar? Hmm? Brutus is just as cute as Caesar. Brutus is just as smart as Caesar. People totally like Brutus just as much as they like Caesar. And when did it become okay for one person to be the boss of everybody, huh? Because that’s not what Rome is about. We should totally just stab CAESAR!

—Gretchen Wieners

 

“How many of you have ever felt personally victimized by Regina George?”

—Ms. Norbury

I have no idea why Mean Girls played at a theater near me at this particular point in time, but I jumped at the chance to see it on the big screen. I’m a sucker for a good teen movie—the snarkier and more wicked, the better. Very much in the spirit of Heathers, Clueless, and Election—but with a little John Hughes heart thrown in—Mean Girls is snarky and wicked, but so much more: it’s got a knockout cast, exceptional characters, an entertaining story, smart plot twists, unforgettable quotes galore, and a message that any grownup can get behind. It’s fetch, it’s grool, and it’s loaded with awesomeness to sit around and soak up.

Cady Heron (Lindsey Lohan) relocates from Africa to Evanston, Illinois, where her academic parents (Ana Gasteyer and Neil Flynn) have taken teaching jobs at Northwestern University. They enroll her at North Shore High School. Having been home schooled for her whole life, Cady’s transition to public school in the States proves confusing and awkward to say the least—particularly the rules of “girl world.” Fringy classmates Janis Ian (Lizzy Caplan) and Damian (Daniel Franzese) take her on as something of a project and help her navigate high school society: “freshmen, ROTC guys, preps, J.V. jocks, Asian nerds, cool Asians, varsity jocks, unfriendly black hotties, girls who eat their feelings, girls who don’t eat anything, desperate wannabes, burnouts, sexually active band geeks, the greatest people you will ever meet, and the worst.” The worst, of course, are the Plastics, a pink posse headed by alpha female Regina George (Rachel McAdams) and her backup girls, insecure Gretchen Wieners (Lacey Chabert) and rattlebrained Karen Smith (Amanda Seyfried).

Cady intrigues Regina, who invites her to sit with them at lunch. She’s a surprise hit. The Plastics let her into their world. They gripe about their physical flaws to each other in the mirror. They use the phone to set each other up. They have what they call “the burn book,” a journal where they scribble bitchy, mean comments about other girls. Janis sees an opportunity for revenge and convinces Cady to act as a double agent, exposing the secrets of the Plastics to bring them down. This is where things get interesting—and trouble starts.

Loosely based on Rosalind Wiseman’s lengthy-titled self-help book Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence, Tina Fey’s brilliant screenplay is sharp, insightful, and full of accurate, detailed, universal observations. We’ve all known people like these characters. Gretchen’s meltdown is flawless. Regina’s passive-aggressiveness is impeccable, and her descent is actually kind of sad. Ms. Norbury (Fey) is the perfect voice of reason. The acting is great all-around—this is Lohan’s finest hour. Even minor characters like Kevin G. (Rajiv Surendra), Coach Carr (Dwayne Hill), Trang Pak (Ky Pham), Jason (Daniel Desanto), and the girl with the wide-set vagina (Stefanie Drummond).

Mean Girls transcends adolescence: I have seen it a number of times in my 30s and my 40s, and I totally relate to it. I probably will in my 50s and 60s, too. It doesn’t get old. The Donnas covering Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself” is the perfect ending.

97 minutes
Rated PG

(ArcLight) A-