Elijah Wood is the Piano Man in a new high-concept thriller.
In the grand tradition of Phone Booth, Speed and… um Getaway, the thriller Grand Piano strands a reluctant hero (Elijah Wood) in a single setting -- in this case, in a concert hall in front of the keys of a piano -- while being taunted by an unseen baddie voiced by a slumming actor (John Cusack). Wood's Tom Selznick winds up in this pickle of a predicament after agreeing to make a grand return to professional piano-playing after a five-year absence, tickling the ivories on an instrument that belonged to his deceased mentor. Turns out that this particular piano also contains the literal key to a valuable treasure trove, one that Clem (Cusack) would like to get his hands on. To do so, he remotely threatens both Tom and Tom's loved ones (specifically his movie star wife, played by Kerry Bishé) with grievous bodily harm, first reaching out to him through a threatening note scrawled on his sheet music and then proceeding to hook him up with an earpiece that allows him to issue his warnings and commands more directly. His main instruction? That Tom play every note of the evening's performance flawlessly, as that will apparently be the trigger that spits out the piano's hidden wares. Given that premise, you can probably already tell that realism is out the window in Grand Piano and neither writer Damien Chazelle nor director Eugenio Mira struggle all that much to bring the proceedings down to Earth. But a thriller doesn't necessarily have to mirror our humdrum reality to be believable... as long as the world we're watching onscreen is consistent, even the wildest flights of fancy can be plausible. And Grand Piano effectively lays out its own rules and (mostly) sticks to them (save for a final act that disappointingly descends into generic action movie territory), with Wood in particularly doing a nice job selling the drama of Tom's potentially silly plight. Even when the movie strikes a few false notes, the star's performance remains in tune.
(Grand Piano is currently available via Magnolia on Demand and is playing in limited theatrical release.)
Nymph()maniac, Vol. 1
First things first: yes, you do catch a brief glimpse of Shia LaBeouf's lil' LaBeouf in the first installment in Lars von Trier's erotic four-hour epic detailing one woman's sexual coming-of-age. But don't think he's launching a new career in porn now that his time fighting giant transforming robots has come and gone. Whenever the proceedings take a XXX-rated turn, body doubles step in for LaBeouf and the other professional actors -- most notably newcomer Stacy Martin, who plays the titular nympho, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg has been tapped to embody the grown-up version of the character, though her role is limited to a framing device in this particular installment, which mainly covers Joe's adolescent years) -- in the cast to provide the penetrative sexual encounters that has given von Trier's latest provocation its advanced notoriety. But there's much more to the movie than explicit coupling; this is the director's spin on melodramatic erotica like Story of O and, to a lesser extent, Fifty Shades of Grey, a movie that mimics the flowery, florid tones of those widely-read tomes, but adds a graphic honesty to the emotional (and not just the sexual) life of the characters that deepens and complicates our understanding of them. Von Trier's dark-hearted humor is also in full effect, most notably in a sure-to-be-infamous scene where the spurned wife (played by Uma Thurman) of one of Joe's lovers turns up on her doorstep to see the "whoring bed" where the cheating went down. Nymph()maniac may have seemed like a stunt, but it's (one-half of) a real movie… and a damn good one.
(Nymph()maniac, Vol. 1 is currently available via Magnolia on Demand; Vol. 2 will be released to VOD on March 20)
From Anchorman to the U.S. Office, David Koechner has played plenty of creeps, but Cheap Thrills is the first time where he's been genuinely creepy. As Colin, a free-spirited, free-spending good-time guy who comes up with a unique way to celebrate his wife Violet's (Sara Paxton) birthday, Koechner enters the film with the same level of buffoonish bravado he always brings to his roles, but as the party progresses, a gleeful cruelty steadily emerges that represents a significant departure for him. That cruelty is directed at his houseguests Craig (Pat Healy) and Vince (Ethan Embry), old friends who unexpectedly re-connect at an L.A. watering hole and catch up on their respective lives. Vince has been in-and-out of jail, while Craig has a wife, a young son and too many bills to pay… a problem that's only going to get worse now that he's lost his job. In other words, both men are highly susceptible to the lure of cold, hard cash and Colin has plenty to burn, though he's gonna make his new pals work for it. At first, he challenges them to small tasks -- who'll be the first to chug a tequila shot or slap a stripper's ass. But once they accompany him home, the challenges take a darker turn -- think, who'll be the first to defecate in the neighbors' house or slice off a finger. Rather than turn away repulsed, Craig and Vince get more and more turned on by both the amount of money Colin is offering, as well as the stakes involved. Although director E.L. Katz works hard to keep escalating the situation, at a certain point, Cheap Thrills does start to spin its wheels as it strains to stretch out the characters' journey to their rather obvious final destination. Still, what a fun and unexpected piece of acting by Koechner; if they ever make a third Anchorman flick, we'd pay to see Champ Kind go all Hannibal Lecter on San Diego's finest news crew.
(Cheap Thrills is currently available via most On Demand services)
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons
At one point in the mid-aughts, Hong Kong director Stephen Chow seem poised to follow John Woo and Tsui Hark into the realm of big-budget Hollywood filmmaking, nabbing the job of directing Seth Rogen's Green Hornet revamp on the strength of his live-action cartoon, Kung Fu Hustle. But the deal fell apart and Chow flew back across the Pacific, where he directed an E.T. knock-off before going radio silent for a number of years. Now he's back with another rambunctious, deeply weird martial arts movie that shows why he was probably never cut out for Hollywood. Opening in a fishing village that bears a notable resemblance to Waterworld's atoll, the film follows the adventures of Buddhist demon hunter Tang Sanzang, who traverses the landscape of ancient China encountering all manner of supernatural foes and warding off the strenuous affections of warrior princess Miss Duan (Shu Qi, hugely appealing in a role that mostly demands her to highly annoying). It all builds up to a throwdown with the villainous Monkey King, a bout that deals our hero both a painful loss and a moment of personal transformation. Chow's comic, cartoonish approach to action is on full display throughout, from the opening battle -- which feels like the martial arts adventure that Charlie Chaplin never made -- to the grand finale, which is filled with digital effects that in no way strive to be realistic. The movie's relentless goofiness gets exhausting at times, particularly whenever the action stops and the story (such as it is) takes over, but the set-pieces are lots of fun and prove that Chow's unique skill set haven't atrophied during his temporary hiatus from filmmaking.
(Journey to the West is available via Magnolia-on-Demand and is currently playing in limited theatrical release.)
In a dark, dark house there was a deeply, deeply mediocre horror movie. Victor Salva's return to the genre roughly a decade after his Jeepers Creepers series revolves around a fatherless child with the
gift curse of seeing how those around him will meet their end. In an effort to learn more about his origins -- specifically the identity of his long-lost dad, Nick (Luke Klientank) -- returns to the homestead he only just learned existed, bringing his pregnant girlfriend and his best bud along for the ride. Once at the titular location, a decrepit backwater plantation home on the edge of a Southern town that was literally washed off the map, he meets its current occupant Seth, who is played by Tobin Bell a.k.a. Jigsaw, so you just know things are about to get bloody complicated. What they don't get, however, is especially scary, with Salva failing to generate much interest in the characters' plight or much atmosphere from this setting. Good thing the director has Jeepers Creepers III in development or this generic, half-hearted effort might mark the end of his career.
(Dark House is available on most On Demand services and is also out on DVD.)
Leaving genre fare aside for a moment, these two indies attempt to fill the adult drama void amongst March's VOD line-up. Although, to be precise, Jay Alaimo's Chlroine is aiming more for satire, specifically in the American Beauty vein. Setting us down in a generic suburb setting, the film invites us to observe estranged husband-and-wife Roger (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Georgie (Kyra Sedgwick) as they clash over their obnoxious kids, career frustrations and dreams deferred. In the hopes of kick-starting their lives, Georgie pushes Roger to invest in a too-good-to-be-true real estate scheme that predictably doesn't break their way. At least they can take comfort in knowing that everyone else's life in this enclave pretty much stinks, too. Though it thankfully lacks American Beauty's pretentiousness (there are no plastic bags blowing in the wind, for instance), that movie at least had a few genuine laughs (not always intentionally so) and superior cinematography. Chlorine, on the other hand, is visually ugly and tonally neither comic nor dramatic. In contrast, there's plenty of drama hanging in the air in Stay, which stars Orange is the New Black's Taylor Schilling as Abby, an American living in Ireland with her significantly older boyfriend, Dermot (Aidan Quinn, going full brogue). Their rock-solid relationship starts to crumble, however, when Abby learns she's pregnant and would like to keep the baby, despite Dermot making it clear that he's not interested in parenthood. Distraught, she hightails it away from home and the two resume separate lives as they try to figure out whether they're over for good or just on a time-out. Too thinly-written to really resonate, Stay does benefit from the subtle work of its two leads, who thankfully avoid scenery-chewing and outsized histrionics. Mainly though, it makes you wish that new episodes of Orange is the New Black were dropping earlier than June.
(Chlorine and Stay are both available via most On Demand services.)
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