Category Archives: Now Showing

THE RENTAL

Producers: Dave Franco, Elizabeth Haggard, Teddy Schwarzman, Ben Stillman, Joe Swanberg and Christopher Storer   Director: Dave Franco   Screenplay: Dave Franco and Joe Swanberg   Cast: Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White, Toby Huss and Anthony Molinari   Distributor: IFC Films

Grade: B

In “You Should Have Left” a few weeks back, Kevin Bacon leased a house in Wales for a family vacation, and things did not turn out well.  More recently in “The Beach House,” Liana Liberato joined her boyfriend for a vacation at his family’s home-away-from-home on the Massachusetts coast, and their idyll went very badly.  Now Dan Stevens rents a lovely Oregon place on a cliff high above the churning Pacific for a weekend getaway with his wife, brother and the latter’s girlfriend, and—you guessed it—matters go decidedly south.  Is nowhere safe?

“The Rental” represents a filmmaking debut for actor Dave Franco, James’s brother, who co-wrote the script with mini-budget indie auteur Joe Swanberg (“Drinking Buddies”) and is directing a feature for the first time.  It shows no sign of the goofiness he’s often exhibited in front of the camera.  Instead it’s a tidy little thriller that, while not eschewing some humorous asides, mixes relationship drama with old-fashioned horror movie elements, the latter thankfully in comparatively restrained terms.

The story begins in an office where Charlie (Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand), his partner in some undefined start-up operation, are celebrating their recent success.  Charlie checks out weekend rental properties and finds a great place overlooking the ocean, and though when Mina, who’s Iranian-American, tries to book it, her application is rejected, Charlie’s goes through without a hitch.  Charlie’s brother (and Mina’s significant other) Josh (Jeremy Allen White), a semi-slacker who’s served time for a college assault, arrives to learn that he’ll be going off with his girlfriend, his brother and Charlie’s wife Michelle (Alison Brie) for two days of fun.

There are some initial glitches.  Josh insists on bringing along his pug Reggie, despite a “no pets” policy on the rental agreement.  And Mina is still stewing over the fact that the owner discriminated against her by rejecting her application, Charlie’s oblivious assurances to the contrary notwithstanding.  When the caretaker, the owner’s gruff bother Taylor (Toby Huss), shows up to hand over the keys and give a tour of the place, she pointedly challenges him on the matter, and his response is not at all reassuring.

Still, the place is lovely and the four settle in for a good time.  There’s dancing all around, drinking (especially by Josh), and roughhousing between the brothers, as well as food and some drugs.  An there’s a hot tub, to which Charlie and Mina repair while Josh passes out and Michelle goes off to sleep.  There it’s not just the water that’s simmering, and soon the two are engaged in something more passionate—although both agree that it can never happen again.

Unfortunately Mina makes a discovery that threatens to put their plan to keep their infidelity a secret in jeopardy.  She finds a camera in the shower head that would have caught their bathroom clinch on film.  She marks Taylor as the culprit, and intends to confront him when Michelle calls him in to repair the now-malfunctioning hot tub.  Meanwhile one of the party disappears, and before long there’s a corpse to contend with.  More secret cameras are uncovered, and it becomes apparent that there might be somebody other than Taylor involved.

It wouldn’t be fair, either to the filmmakers of the viewers, to be overly specific about the details; suffice it to say that while the screenplay requires a rigorous suspension of disbelief at a few points, overall it’s a taut piece of work, and Franco’s canny direction, along with strong work from the excellent cast, put it across.  The characters are somewhat more than the sketches that so often fill such genre pieces, and the four stars manage to add shadings to the ensemble interaction that make them fairly credible as real human beings, while Huss, while suitably nasty, is nuanced enough to make one wonder whether he’s the guilty party.  Even Chunk, who plays Reggie, is less irritating than movie dogs often are.

The film also satisfies visually, with the striking locations—and Meredith Lippincott’s effective production design—well caught in Christian Sprenger’s widescreen lensing.  Kyle Reiter’s crisp editing keeps things moving—and clear in the potentially confusing last act—while the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans captures the mood changes effectively, adding juice to the action moments and a note of menace where needed.

All told, this “Rental” is an assured, if not highly original, mash-up of domestic drama and horror movie, well worth plunking down some cash for on a streaming service.  It represents an auspicious debut for Franco, and closes with an invitation to a sequel so blatant that it almost seems prefabricated.   

RADIOACTIVE

Producers: Eric Fellner, Tim Bevan and Paul Webster   Director: Marjane Satrapi   Screenplay: Jack Thorne   Cast:  Rosamund Pike, Sam Riley, Anya Taylor-Joy, Aneurin Barnard, Simon Russell Beale, Katherine Parkinson, Sian Brooke, Harriet Turnbull, Indica Watson, Cara Bossom, Ariella Glaser, Isabella Miles, Georgina Rich and Richard Pepple   Distributor:  Amazon Studios 

Grade:  B

Marie Curie and her husband and scientific partner Pierre, the discoverers of radioactivity (a neologism she coined), received plush, inspirational biographical treatment in Mervin LeRoy’s 1943 MGM movie starring Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon, and one might have expected something more daring from Marjane Satrapi’s adaptation of Lauren Redniss’ 2010 graphic novel about them. In the event, however, this new biodrama is, a few stylistic flourishes apart, in a similarly conventional mode, though it points out the negative as well as positive results of their breakthrough.

It also adds a strongly feminist slant to the narrative, while including a subject that the earlier picture studiously avoided—the scandal that enmeshed Marie when she became involved with a married man after her husband’s death.  It also concludes with a segment portraying her work, alongside her daughter Irène (Anya Taylor-Joy), in developing mobile radiography units for use in field hospitals on the battlefields of World War I.

One might imagine oneself back on the MGM lot with LeRoy as Satrapi’s film begins with a cute meeting between Marie (Rosamund Pike) and Pierre (Sam Riley) on a Paris street in 1894.  He bumps into her and retrieves the book she’s dropped, commenting on its scientific subject.  He’s gracious and considerate, while she’s brusque and dismissive.

His attitude is explicable in light of the fact that ever since she’s arrived in France from her native Poland in 1891, her research has been stymied by the hostility of the aged faculty of the University, especially snooty Professor Lippmann (Simon Russell Beale).  When she’s in danger of losing laboratory space entirely, Pierre—a paragon, it seems, of progressivism in his day (and infatuated with Marie from the start) invites her to share his team’s space, and before long the two have become close collaborators.

Their work, shown in typical montages of clanking test tubes  and flasks, as well as the crushing of tons of pitchblende to provide material for their experiments and the employment of Pierre’s electrometer, culminates in the discovery of uranium radiation and two new elements, radium and polonium, along with proof that contrary to contemporary belief, atoms are not indivisible.  After announcing their revolutionary findings, they are awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903. 

By this time, Marie has given birth to Irène (played successively by Indica Watson, Ariella Glaser and Taylor-Joy) and is pregnant with their second child Ève (played first by Isabella Miles, then by Cara Bossom).  As a result, she is unable to go to Sweden for the ceremony, but is deeply hurt that Pierre has received the award alone, considering her own absence a sexist insult.  The two overcome the rough patch, however, and continue their work.  Unfortunately, Pierre, already ill, it appears from radiation poisoning, is killed in a road accident in 1906.

In the aftermath of her husband’s death, Marie enters an affair with supportive  Paul Langevin (Aneurin Barnard), which his wife Jeanne (Katherine Parkinson) publicizes, provoking a scandal that even threatens the ceremony at which Marie is to receive her second Nobel in 1911, this time for Chemistry.  As portrayed here, however, the event has a celebratory feminist air; and a few years later, Marie overcomes her aversion to hospitals—occasioned by memories of visiting her dying mother (Georgina Rich) as a child (Harriet Turnbull), an episode shown repeatedly in flashback—to join with Irène in developing the mobile radiography units for use at the front.

Satrapi and screenwriter Jack Thorne present Curie’s biography in generally staid, straightforward terms, made visually attractive by Michael Carlin’s production design, Consolata Boyle’s costumes, Robert Wischhusen-Hayes’ set decoration, and Anthony Dad Mantle’s cinematography.  Stéphane Roche’s astute editing and the score by Evgueni Galperine and Sacha Galperine add to an elegant feel. 

There are, as noted, some artistic touches that break the generally conventional storytelling mode.  Some visual effects and animation segments are employed to illustrate the atomic and sub-atomic findings of Curie’s research, for example.  But more importantly, the film occasionally breaks with chronology to foretell the impact—good and bad—the discovery of radioactivity will have—all connected to the pious hope Pierre expresses in his Nobel speech that the benefits will outweigh the drawbacks.  There are scenes of a young boy whose tumor will be treated with radiation.  But these are juxtaposed with an episode in which Pierre discusses the use that the faddish concept of radiation is put in commercial products like cigarettes and toothpaste. 

More importantly, there are periodic flash-forwards to such events as the testing of the atomic bomb in the Nevada desert, and to its use at Hiroshima.  Another episode briefly dramatizes the nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl and its effect on firefighters responding to the disaster, in which Marie herself enters into the surrealistic scene. That, and its emphasis the impact Curie’s groundbreaking accomplishments had on the recognition of what women could contribute to scientific and medical research if only their capabilities were recognized, are what set “Radioactive” apart from a simple period drama.

But so do the performances, especially that of Pike, who gives Marie a depth of feeling and nuance that makes one feel the pain she feels at not being treated in the fashion her talent deserves—and over the death of her beloved mother and husband.  No one else matches her—Pierre is so perfect a gentleman that he has little room to maneuver, and both Taylor-Joy and Barnard are similarly stuck with largely one-note characters.  But it’s always a joy to watch Beale, even in a fairly stock part, while Sian Brooke does a nice job as Marie’s supportive sister Bronia.

So while a generally conventional treatment of its extraordinary subject, Satrapi’s polished film serves as a solid celebration of a remarkable life.