REVIEW: Happy Death Day 2U

I watched Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2U in somewhat close conjunction with one another, which made for a somewhat bizarre and disorienting (or weirdly orienting?) viewing experience. A large part of this is due to the eerie, albeit absolutely deliberate, similarities between the structures of the two movies. At their very heart, the central problem is almost the same: Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe, La La Land) is stuck reliving the same day.

Anyone who has seen Happy Death Day (2017) is familiar with this conceit and with the problems it spells for Tree, a college student. There are the typical Groundhog’s Day-style frustrations of retaining her memories of previous days — falling in love, for instance — while everyone around her forgets. And then there’s the somewhat more distressing problem of the killer in a baby mask, who stalks Tree and murders her every time on the night of her birthday.

The sequel, Happy Death Day 2U, directed by Christopher Landon and released recently through Blumhouse Productions, presents a new complication. Not only is Tree stuck reliving the same day—it’s now the wrong day. In the completely wrong universe.

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The film sets itself up in an interesting way, holding a close focus on Ryan Phan (Phi Vu), who had a marginal role in the first movie as the roommate of Tree’s love interest, Carter Davis (Israel Broussard, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before). It seems at the beginning like the focus of this movie is going to be on Ryan, but this remains the case just long enough to explain to the viewers that Ryan and his science friends are responsible for the strange time-looping that Tree has experienced. After a strange altercation involving multiple Ryan’s and the panicked pressing of Ryan’s student-made quantum reactor, Tree wakes up back at the beginning of the previous day. Only this time, she’s been thrown into another dimension, and things are a little different: The original Babyface culprit, Tree’s roommate Lori Spengler (Ruby Modine, Shameless), is no longer the killer, and Carter is now dating Tree’s sorority nemesis, Danielle Bouseman (Rachel Matthews). Perhaps most significantly, while Tree’s mother (Missy Yager) was dead in her original timeline, she is now alive and well.

Tree’s transplantation into this new world kicks off a wild journey, as she is confronted by the simultaneous problems of learning how to navigate the changes to her life in this new world and the implications of those changes, figuring out how to get back to her home dimension (and indeed, whether she even wants to), and solving the Babyface killer mystery all over again. Although interestingly, the latter of these winds up taking something of a backseat. While the original Happy Death Day was a black comedy slasher film, working largely within the sphere of horror, its sequel ditches the horror almost entirely in favor of comedy, emotional drama, and adventurous science fiction. The segues into hallway-creeping and killer-unmasking don’t feel out of place at all, but they also don’t feel particularly haunting or scary, especially not in comparison to some of the emotional scares that Tree must deal with instead.

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On the whole, Happy Death Day 2U is a success not because it delivers scares, but because it recognizes and builds on the elements that worked so well in its predecessor: comedy, irony, and a real sense of heart that carries emotional resonance. A great deal of this is concentrated in Tree’s character, actualized by Rothe’s wonderful acting; we spend almost the entire movie in Tree’s head, and we’re along for the ride as she finds herself forced to tackle conflict after conflict, eventually having to choose between a life that’s not hers that would mean reuniting with her mother (albeit under somewhat false pretenses) and the world she knows, where her real friends and loved ones are back waiting for her, but her mother is not. The implication that her choice is as simple as her mother versus her boyfriend is a bit of a red herring, and the film tries to stay attentive to this, stressing how the memories everyone else has of Tree in this new dimension don’t align at all with her own. Ultimately, Happy Death Day 2U is an adventurous and captivating success, demonstrating how the continuation of Tree’s story can again have more profound and intriguing implications — not only for her, but, in the end, for the people around her as well.

PREVIEW: Happy Death Day 2U

Directed by Christopher Landon, Happy Death Day 2U is a follow-up to 2017’s slasher hit, Happy Death DayHappy Death Day told the story of Theresa “Tree” Gelbman, a college girl who is murdered by a masked killer on the night of her birthday — and then wakes up and finds herself reliving the same day over and over. Happy Death Day 2U takes place immediately after (or, in a way, concurrently with?) its predecessor, as it follows Tree after she is transported to a different dimension, where she must again relive that same Monday while figuring out a way back to her home dimension.

Jessica Roth (La La Land) reprises her starring role as Tree, with Israel Broussard, Phi Vu, Rachel Matthews and Ruby Modine also returning. Happy Death Day 2U is currently showing at local theaters such as the Quality 16 and the Ann Arbor 20 IMAX.

REVIEW: If Beale Street Could Talk

The Oscar nominations came out today, and as always, such an occurrence is bound to spark a fire of controversy about such-and-such films being snubbed while other films enjoyed perhaps more than their due of appreciation. Yet it does not feel like a reaching statement to say that If Beale Street Could Talk was indeed snubbed. The romantic drama, directed by Moonlight‘s Barry Jenkins and based on the 1974 novel of the same name by James Baldwin, received only three nominations: Best Supporting Actress (for Regina King), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score. Three is a startling dearth of recognition for a film that succeeds in terms of acting, visual efficacy, and overall emotional impact.

If Beale Street Could Talk tells the love story of Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne, Chicago Med) and Fonny Hunt (Stephan James, Race), a young couple in New York City who are falling in love while also dealing with racism and racial tension. This culminates in Fonny’s wrongful arrest for rape, which coincides with Tish’s learning that she is pregnant. Much of the movie is concerned with the ripple effect that Fonny’s arrest produces throughout both their lives, as individuals and as a couple, and the lives of their families and friends. Tish and her mother, Sharon (King, Seven Seconds), fight for Fonny’s freedom, while Fonny struggles through the experience of incarceration and tries to retain both his sense of self and his relationship with Tish. The storytelling is accomplished in part through alternating timelines, which switch between the development of Tish and Fonny’s relationship prior to Fonny’s arrest and the fallout that occurs afterward.

One of the film’s most masterful accomplishments lies in its very careful attention to each character as an individual. A particularly telling scene occurs when Tish first visits Fonny in jail and they get into an argument; it is clear that the argument is borne not from anything lacking in their relationship itself, but from their own individual frustrations and respective inabilities to completely understand the other’s situation. Tish feels helpless and scared because she cannot help Fonny and is facing the prospect of pregnancy while he is in jail; Fonny is frustrated because he has been wrongfully imprisoned and is unable to be there for Tish. The fact that even in this scene, they come around from their respective frustrations and reaffirm their love and support for each other, only strengthens the sense of the gravity and wholeness of their love. Another standout is of course Regina King’s performance as Sharon, whose visit to Puerto Rico in order to plead with the rape survivor Victoria (Emily Rios, Breaking Bad) to admit Fonny’s innocence is perhaps the most finely crafted and emotionally resonant scene of the entire film.

If Beale Street Could Talk is a masterpiece on a visual and tonal level, echoing much of the slow-burn pacing and colorful cohesion that Jenkins trademarked two years ago with Moonlight. From the brief and bemusing appearance of Dave Franco as a Jewish realtor to the haunting, wholly incredible monologue of Fonny’s friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry, Widows), it is a film packed with rich feeling and timeliness. It speaks to the careful attentiveness and thought of everyone involved in creating it, and one can only hope that audiences respond to it with similar attention.

REVIEW: The Favourite

I don’t know quite what I was expecting when I walked into a screening of The Favourite at The Michigan Theatre. I had heard it described as a dark comedy, while other people had told me definitively that it wasn’t a comedy. I knew it involved queer relationships, but people had also told me not to think of it as a gay love story. Emma Stone was the only actress with whom I was very familiar, and her own past filmography has been so varied that it was hard to predict what type of role she was going to play.

As a result, it’s saying something that even throughout the length of The Favourite, I still struggled to pinpoint exactly what type of a movie it was. This isn’t meant as a slight. The movie is of course a historical drama, set during the reign of Queen Anne in Britain during the early 18th century. The comedic elements, although dry and often subtle, were often at the forefront of the screen, from the petty arguments and witty bickering between Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz, The Lobster) and Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult, Mad Max: Fury Road) to visual jokes, like Robert Harley pushing Abigail Masham (Stone) into a muddy ditch. The romance took a backseat to the drama, to be sure, and The Favourite could not quite be classified as a romance film. However, a major element of the emotional weight of the end of the film was the factor of Queen Anne’s (Olivia Colman) discarding of Sarah, which only landed in the way that it did due to these characters’ romantic history.

The Favourite is a difficult film to characterize, but this lack of definitiveness is done purposefully and well. At its core, The Favourite is about manipulation, which is why it feels fitting that even as the three central characters — primarily Sarah and Abigail — manipulate each other, the film is also manipulating its viewers. It is tempting to side with Abigail for much of the first half of the movie, as she is constantly undercut and underestimated by the other characters. Abigail seems kind and relatable, bringing Anne medicine for her pained legs and shrugging off the advances of Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk). She is also in competition with Sarah for Anne’s attention, and Sarah, while at times genuinely funny and surprisingly endearing, can also come across as intimidating (especially to a new servant like Abigail), vindictive, and callous.

In the end, though, the film makes a point about the tremendous bearing that wealth and stature can have upon the way that a person acts. When Abigail ultimately succeeds in becoming Anne’s “favourite” and edging Sarah out of the queen’s inner circle, it becomes clear that she was truly the vindictive one all along, motivated by material gain and greed rather than by any real attraction to or interest in Anne. When Sarah is distanced from the queen and then exiled, she comes across as emotionally closer and more attached to Anne than ever before. Anne herself, as the queen, is in a position to take her wealth and status more for granted than the other characters, and therefore exerts the bulk of her emotional energy on her own profound loneliness and despair.

The Favourite ends with an incredibly sad, grave, loneliness-oriented scene, far from the comedic and more lighthearted elements that punctuated the film earlier on. And yet, despite some of the seeming tonal shifts, it feels apparent that this gravity was what characterized the film from the very beginning. On the one end, this movie is about three women possessing varying degrees of power, each able and willing to do various things — some of them outrageous things — in order to gain and maintain this power. On the other hand, it simultaneously perfectly captures the notion of desperation, of seeking all of the material promises of a good life — wealth, power, beautiful objects, political sway — only to be crestfallen upon the realization that these gains have come at the cost of forsaking true and meaningful companionship. Each of the three characters embodies some angle of this concept by the end of the film, completing a trifecta of powerful acting and storytelling. The Favourite is currently playing at local theaters such as the Quality 16 and the Ann Arbor 20 IMAX.

PREVIEW: The Favourite

The Favourite has become one of the most talked-about films of late 2018 and early 2019, receiving no less than five nominations at the Golden Globes (including a win for Olivia Colman as Best Actress — Motion Picture Comedy or Musical). Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, the film stars Emma Stone (Maniac) and Rachel Weisz (My Cousin Rachel) as two cousins competing to be the “favourite” of Queen Anne (Colman) in 18th century Britain. The Favourite is showing this week at the State Theatre as well as at Ann Arbor’s Quality 16.

PREVIEW: If Beale Street Could Talk

If Beale Street Could Talk only hit local theaters recently, but it is already garnering an impressive reputation. An adaptation of the 1974 novel of the same name by James Baldwin, the film has accrued several award nominations, including three at the Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture — Drama, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Screenplay. Directed by Barry Jenkins of Moonlight fame, the film stars KiKi Layne and Stephan James as Tish and Fonny, a young couple whose romance is derailed and tested when Fonny is falsely accused of rape and Tish discovers that she is pregnant. If Beale Street Could Talk is currently playing at the State Theatre, as well as other local Ann Arbor theaters such as the Ann Arbor 20 IMAX and the Quality 16.