ORPHAN: FIRST KILL
A prequel to the 2009 horror yarn whose moderate success didn't suggest the likelihood of follow-ups, Orphan: First Kill is an extremely unlikely movie in more ways than one: It's unrepentant, obscene, even laughable trash, and about as much fun as I've had at the cineplex all month.
Even though the original came out so long ago that no current pre-teen was alive for its debut, I'm guessing that First Kill's simultaneous debut on Paramount+ was responsible for the film failing to crack the weekend's box-office top 10. (That and the $20-million-plus earned by the fourth sequel in the Dragon Ball Super anime series, which I'm way too behind on to start with now; as a friend recently, correctly opined, “You don't have to review everything.”) But the paucity of crowds for director William Brent Bell's powerfully nutty escaped-lunatic thriller is a shame, because like its titular weirdo, I would kill to see this with a big audience, relishing the patrons' vocal shock at the sublime mid-point plot pivot and adding to the giggly confusion once we'd lost all notion of whom to root for. Not since the arrival of the parasitic twin in last fall's Malignant has a scare flick so effectively turned the narrative tables. And while, of course, I won't reveal The Big Twist in Bell's prequel, I will say that it manages to top the one that made the first, largely underwhelming Orphan memorable – and that twist, for those who remember it, was a doozy.
For those who don't, forgive the 13-year-old spoiler, but it turned out that the nine-year-old Russian girl adopted by Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard was, in truth, a 33-year-old woman with a rare hormonal disorder who had previously escaped from an Estonian mental hospital. (Because of course she was.) As big-screen switcheroos go, this one was a classic, and what kept it from being utterly ludicrous was the preternaturally mature performance of 12-year-old Isabelle Fuhrman. Playing the stone-faced, surface-sweet émigreé Esther (real name Leena Klammer), Fuhrman was just poised and scary enough to be believable as a fledgling sociopath. Yet when the truth of Leena's dwarfism came out, you maybe chuckled at the conceit, but you didn't at the casting, given that Fuhrman's exceptional creepiness and completely adult bearing wouldn't let you. There are perhaps other actors who could've pulled off the stunt this successfully: Jodie Foster in the mid-'70s; Kirsten Dunst and Anna Paquin and Natalie Portman in the mid-'90s; Julia Butters nowadays. But the list is short.
Consequently, and despite Leena's 2009 fate making a direct sequel problematic at best, bringing Furhman back for another Orphan would seem like a no-brainer. Once I learned the initial setup to First Kill, however, the term that came most readily to mind was “brainless.” It was one thing for 12-year-old Fuhrman to play a 33-year-old. It's quite another for 25-year-old Fuhrman, for most of the movie, to be asked to effectively play seven. In the manner of many mediocre-or-worse fright films (and Bell, director of The Boy and Separation and The Devil Inside, certainly knows his way around mediocre-or-worse), the movie opens with a prelude to the eventual horrors, positioning Leena in that Estonian asylum from which she escaped in 2007. Now that 13 years have passed between Orphan movies, Fuhrman looks more fully convincing as the grown-up (if hormonally imbalanced) Leena. She does not, however, look remotely convincing as the child that a visiting art therapist initially mistakes her for, not even with the trickery of camera angles and stunt doubles making her appear significantly shorter than the hospital's other adults. So even though the opener had its share of predictably contrived escape plans and dully grisly deaths, it was all I could do to not cackle my way through the Estonian segment. Pre-teen Furhman looked grave; mid-20s Fuhrman looks seasoned.
She somehow looks even older when, hair tied in a pert bow, Leena disguises herself as Esther Albright, the long-missing, presumed-dead child of parents Tricia and Allen (Julia Stiles and Rossif Sutherland). Inventing a story about being kidnapped from her Connecticut home and taken overseas for four years, Leena/Esther “re”-enters domestic life with Mom, Dad, and teen brother Gunnar (Matthew Finlan), the family who casually writes off her acquired Russian accent and potential need for an AARP card. Because we've presumably seen the first Orphan, we have an inkling of what to look for in this prequel-ized Esther: violent behavior toward kids who look at her funny; an open mind about animal cruelty; longing stares suggesting queasy “Daddy's little girl” fantasties. But because Tricia has perhaps seen the first Orphan, too, Mom's defenses are up almost from the start, and she seems to know in her gut that something about this situation just ain't right.
That, folks, is where I have to stop with the synopsis – and I might as well, considering the rest of my review would merely be two paragraphs worth of “Hahahahahaha!!!” Let's just say that Leena/Esther may have picked the wrong family for her American debut. She absolutely picked the right project, though, because First Kill winds up a total hoot – never believable for an instant, yet so relentless in its over-the-top ridiculousness that the movie's 99 minutes were over long before I wanted them to be. Unfortunately, as a prequel, there's not much mystery; obviously, Leena has to survive, or Esther Albright would never become Esther Coleman. That deficiency, however, is more than made up for in storyline surprise and unmitigated nastiness, and even though the film goes damagingly off the rails in its final 15 minutes, plenty of earlier jolts help keep your slasher-flick spirits high: the late-night encounter with dogged Inspector Donnan (Hiro Kanagawa); Esther's planned offing of Mom and Bro at a train station; the breakfast smoothie with an added dash of rodent.
Plus, beginning with Fuhrman's reprise of her role, this thing is fu-u-u-unny. If we can accept Stockard Channing as a high-schooler in Grease, I suppose Fuhrman as a grade-schooler isn't out of the realm of possibility, and to the other actors' credit, they don't visibly blanch in their scenes with her. (The entertainment this prequel most brought to mind was the fabulous, recently departed comedy series PEN15, which found 30-somethings Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, with complete sincerity, playing tweens opposite actual tweens.) Yet while I could be wrong about this, it seemed pretty evident that Fuhrman knew her casting was silly, and Stiles, at least, knew it was silly, and both of them decided to just go for it regardless, resulting in nearly operatic levels of actual and implied menace that were as brazenly hysterical as they were ballsy. There were all of two people joining me for our Orphan: First Kill screening, and I had absolutely no qualms about laughing with an intensity I'd usually reserve for a packed house. I sincerely doubt that this near-franchise will inspire another entry. In light of the sort of guilty-pleasure perfection achieved here, it doesn't need one.
For spoiler-ific reasons, I can't adequately detail the Orphan: First Kill narrative, but the entire plot for director Baltasar Kormákur's Beast fits snugly into a six-word phrase: “Family on safari pisses off lion.” Not just any lion, mind you, but an enormous (CGI) predator with a grievance, convinced as he is that all humans are poachers, and dammit, he's gonna poach first. So it's Jaws on land; The Edge without Anthony Hopkins; Cujo with a sturdier vehicle. It's also pretty decent. There may not be much to the film, but it's compact enough (93 minutes!) that there doesn't have to be, and the performers and director make screenwriter Ryan Engle's material play more elegantly than it should. Yes, as the trailer indicated, it's a movie in which Idris Elba punches a lion in the face. But the lead-up to that mano a pata is surprisingly strong, and besides – the lion kinda deserves it.
Elba, meanwhile, deserves better roles, yet it's a kick watching him play Dr. Nate Samuels, the recently estranged father to two daughters (Iyana Halley's Mere and Leah Sava Jeffries' Norah) who blame him for his absence during their late mother's final days. Soap-opera diversions are common in films of Beast's type – characters gotta talk about something after the animal finally goes to sleep – and the internal family dysfunction during this clan's South African vacation is a tad bland. Still, as ever, Elba is a forceful, thoughtful presence, and Halley and Jeffries are touching and naturalistic, and Kormákur even elicits a portrayal from Sharlto Copley, as a family friend and wildlife biologist, that's more purely likable than any this chronic ham has offered since 2009's District 9. Solid as they are, though, we're not really here for the actors. We're here for the pretend lion, and he and Kormákur's staging of his stalking, marauding threat absolutely deliver the goods.
Blessedly, CGI has come a long way since the tiger from Gladiator unaccountably scored that movie a visual-effects Oscar, and I completely bought this film's titular villain as a legitimate, flesh-and-blood creature. (To be fair, in a point made not at all subtly, the lion is less of an adversary than the poachers who enter the proceedings after the halfway mark.) Even more happily, I bought the danger surrounding his arrival. For much of the running length, Kormákur employs long, uncut tracking shots that follow our heroes as they walk through unfamiliar terrain, the camera staying close to their heels in a suggestion that this family is being closely followed long before they're aware of it. This technique, though, is on display even after the lion appears, when the tracking serves a different purpose by revealing the nightmarish speed of this feline; it moves so fast that even Kormákur's camera can't keep up with it. The half-dozen-or-so jump scares with the lion exploding into view are legitimately terrifying because we should have been prepared for them, and I applaud Kormákur for earning our fear honestly, without reverting to traditionally cheap scare-flick methods. Although I enjoyed both of this weekend's premiering thrillers, Beast is like the presentational flip side to Orphan: First Kill – pleasure without any of the guilt.
There's nothing terribly wrong with director Ron Howard's new survival drama Thirteen Lives aside from the mere fact of its deeply unnecessary existence. Taking as its subject the 2018 rescue of 12 young soccer players and their coach from a flooded section of Thailand's Tham Luang caves, Howard's film (which recently began streaming on Prime Video) is admirably straightforward. While the level of peril is high, the focus is on the professionalism of those attempting the saving – principally amateur cave divers Richard Stanton and John Volanthen – rather than easy/cheesy disaster-spectacle thrills. William Nicholson's spare script is discreetly lacking in show-offy speechifying; composer Benjamin Walifisch's lightly edgy score is employed subtly when employed at all; Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell assume British accents but rid themselves of all star charisma to respectively play Stanton and Volanthen. But with Howard's direction so low-key and everyone involved appearing to do everything in their power to not turn this story into a sensationalist experience, why, you may ask, make a Hollywood movie about it at all? Why not simply give us a documentary?
Oh wait. We already got one. The Rescue. It came out 10 months ago.
If you were unaware of Elizabeth Chai Vararhelyl's and Jimmy Chin's superb doc, especially if you're also unfamiliar with the particulars behind the Tham Luang expedition, I suppose you could find Thirteen Lives moderately effective. It's far too long (at nearly 150 minutes, more than a half-hour longer than the more exhaustively detailed Rescue), the cave's geography isn't always clear even with accompanying diagrams, and you may wonder why Howard bothered to employ two presumably expensive lead actors when they don't appear much interested in acting. (There's fidelity to character, and then there's fidelity to character at the expense of drama.) The cave sets, however, are great, as are the rain and water effects, and this true-life saga is so inherently moving that you can't help but be occasionally affected; the sweet, Zen-like calm on the lost boys' faces is somehow more wrenching than the sight of them shaking and weeping would likely be.
For viewers who are acquainted with The Rescue, though – you know, we've been here. Recently. Very recently. And while there's significant professionalism on display, nothing in Howard's unimaginative, strangely lethargic film is as fascinating, horrifying, tragic, hopeful, or exciting as similar scenes in Vararhelyl's and Chin's achievement, give or take a momentary cave implosion or Tom Bateman's lovely portrayal of a diver who suffers a minor panic attack. Watching Thirteen Lives is like reading a particularly un-illuminating chapter from a history book – a slice of the past that you're positive would have been a lot more engaging as a movie. The movie version was engaging. It just wasn't Ron Howard's movie.