Don’t Miss This In Theatres: CHEAP THRILLS ( **** 1/2 )
The Oscars were surprisingly great this year. But, were they so great to make me completely abandon my blog forever and ever? No. Did I watch 12 YEARS A SLAVE win, and jump up and down like Steve McQueen only to realize (mid-air) that I’ll never be able to post another article on my Grapevine ever again? Absolutely not. Be that as it may, this post – exactly one full month from my last update – isn’t an original. So, allow me to take a moment of your time and plug my contributions yes? OKAY!
While I’ll never be too far away from the Grapevine, I’m currently contributing movie reviews to two super awesome sites. IndieWire’s The Playlist is one of the comfiest havens for everything film related, so I’m stoked to be a regular contributor for them. And if that wasn’t enough, the wonderful Way Too Indie have recently accepted me into their collective and while I’m only two reviews in (here and here), I plan on sticking around for a while. If you fancy some indie, too much is never enough with these guys.
Then there’s the good folks across the pond in the ol’ UK of…(it’s not the same as US of A, damnit), WhatCulture. For these chaps, I tend to flex my mainstream muscles and dish out list articles – paying attention to the other side of me; the side that loves Batman, TV shows and ranking random movie-related factoids in order. It’s lovely. But, their editorial process has tightened up recently, which means some articles get the boot. Guess where those’ll be landing? Muahaha
Now that you’ve gotten a little taste of how busy I’ve been keeping this past month, I’m so happy we caught up. But, don’t leave just yet! I want to remind you about a film I saw last year at the Fantasia Film Festival, which ended up in my year-end festival top ten list and – after too many months – is currently in cinemas. If you haven’t seen this movie and you’re thinking about what to watch to have some fun – E.L. Katz’ CHEAP THRILLS needs to be a no-brainer decision. This is an absolute gem of a film, just demented enough to bring the dementia out in all of us. And that final shot! Ahh..superb.
Click “READ MORE” to read my review from Fantasia in case you missed it and catch Cheap Thrills in theatres before it’s too late!
(NOTE: This is a re-published review from the 2013 Fantasia Film Festival.)
Having just experienced one of the most enthusiastic nights in a theatre after a long while with Adam Wingard’s YOU’RE NEXT, I was sure of one thing going into E.L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills; it would have to do a hell of a lot to compare. When I heard that it won the SXSW ’13 Midnighters Award and then found out that Katz, Wingard, writer Simon Barrett (You’re Next), Ti West (director of THE INNKEEPERS featuring two of the actors from Cheap Thrills) and a handful of others are all creative buddies who bounce ideas off each other, things started to look promising. I was a fool. There was no way anything could have prepared me for Cheap Thrills, a debut feature that turned out to be one of the best Fantasia films I ever saw. That’s right. Ever.
In honor of the film’s Hitchcockian twisting point, the review will be based on the human hand and its five fingers. Our opposable thumbs are the evolutionary step away from the monkey and the leader of all fingers. Without thumbs, Roger Ebert wouldn’t have had the career he did. The index finger is the second-in-command; pointing, inviting, silencing, wagging and getting most of the attention. The middle finger is the shocker; one that can give the most offence or the greatest pleasure, depending on the moment. The fourth finger is the mature one; the ring bearer symbolizing family values, marriage and sacred vows. And the little finger? Well, what do you really use the pinky for anyway.
Opposable to so many first-feature indie debut narratives that spiral out of control quicker than you can ask “why’s that there?”, the biggest reason Cheap Thrills works is because writers David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga have created a perfectly paced narrative that naturally devolves to its brilliantly unnatural final shot. Craig (Pat Healy, the demented phone prankster from COMPLIANCE) is a regular shmuck whose financial woes are under the thumb of today’s blue collar wave of economic depression. He gets fired on the day he finds a final eviction notice on his door and, avoiding the shitty reality of facing his wife and baby with the news, he goes to a bar. There, he meets with an old high school buddy Vince (Ethan Embry from BROTHERHOOD) for some consolation and a desperate attempt at a solution. The two start chatting with Violet (Sara Paxton, Healy’s co-start from The Innkeepers) and Colin (David Koechner, famous for being in comedy jackpot ANCHORMAN), a wealthy couple who love to make innocent bets with Colin’s infinite wads of cash. Colin tempts the two friends into sticking with them for the night, promising opportunities to make some seriously silly money. The film truly takes off from there and delivers on its title of providing cheap thrills that become more and more expensive and thrilling.
If you can count the locations of your first feature on one hand, you better hope you have good actors because your camera won’t be pointing to much else. Luckily for Katz, his cast is nothing short of brilliant. As Craig, Healy gets the opportunity to be the star and he shows incredible range; the target of high school mockery transformed into desperate family man whose confidence only grows as he continues to break bad. Right by his side is Embry who plays Vince with a surprising amount of pathos, a performance fuelled by increasing urgency that still manages to leave room for sympathy where there wouldn’t be any. Koechner gets the chance to colour his comedy much darker and, with the support of thumbs-up dialogue, unleashes all his talents with Colin. Paxton, whose sexiness deserves its own science fiction movie, plays Violet in the background and isn’t given much to do apart from looking pretty. But it’s a cleverly deceptive performance, because her voyeuristic role is a bold statement about the fascination we have with violence. All four performances combust with chemistry and are indexed by a genuine sense of humour, much needed to lighten up the dark mood. If the diabolically crafty screenplay is the thumb of this hand, the four actors are surely its forefinger.
The editing of Cheap Thrills makes a story that’s been glimpsed in Tarantino movies and an Alfred Hitchcock episode, feel fast paced, fresh and original. It’s as important to the whole piece as having the ability to tell someone to go fuck themselves in the universal sign language. Whether it’s cutting from Craig explaining why he doesn’t want a line of coke or cutting to Vince left alone to take a shit in the neighbours house, the editing always shocks in the good (and often hilarious) way. And if the editing provides much of the visual pleasure that helps the audience climax to clapping, the themes of the dark subject matter – especially the evolution of honest family man, faithful husband Craig – linger on long after the credits and the Q&A. Katz has thematically married the human fascination with violence to the human limits of survival; symbolizing the fucked up nature of today’s world the best way he knows how and adding a layer of maturity in the process.
The hand is almost complete, and fully functional, but for one, small issue. Cheap Thrills is half a star from being a cinematic masterpiece only because the hollow feeling of something missing is undeniable. As original, expertly acted, brilliantly written, brazenly edited and heavily themed as it is, Cheap Thrills has a few flaws that are so minor they’re barely worth mentioning, just like the usefulness of the pinky can’t compare to any of the other four. The underdeveloped couple whose final words makes them into a bit of a parody and a missed opportunity to develop some motifs, play a part in making Cheap Thrills feel like an experiment that hasn’t advanced the genre it’s having so much fun with. That said, it’s hard to get it any better than this with your first movie. Clearly, E.L. Katz doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty for the sake of providing clever and original entertainment that turns out to be everything but cheap.