Orphan: first murder (15) ***
Scottish director Jono McLeod’s stranger-than-fiction documentary My old school unfolds the fascinating and deeply bizarre story of a former student whose enrollment at his school made headlines after it was revealed he was not who he claimed to be. You probably remember the main twist in the story of Brandon Lee, the supposedly academically gifted Canadian teenager who attended Bearsden Academy for two years in the mid-1990s, not the son of Bruce Lee who was killed on the set of The Crow around the same time (the two stories intersect in the film). Revealed as a man in his thirties, this Brandon’s story caused a stir, the cheekiness of his prank as fascinating as his reasons for pulling it off. McLeod’s film delves into these reasons and tells a story that is funny, sad, sometimes a little scary, sometimes oddly heartwarming. As someone who was there, McLeod’s intimacy with the story helps the film provide a relaxed, bewildered perspective that downplays sensationalism and instead provides an empathetic portrayal of his impostor classmate and the effect he had on those with whom he came into contact.
Rather than singling himself out to tell this insider story, McLeod includes himself in a larger group of his former classmates (a nice bunch), whom he interviews mostly in pairs, seated at school desks in the old fashioned way (it also uses 1990s style animation to help tell the story visually). Their individual accounts of the person they knew as Brandon are funny without being mean, and in fact largely positive given that they were the ones who were duped. There’s also a tongue-in-cheek inquiry into the reliability of everyone’s memory, courtesy of a story about the school musical, a detail McLeod expertly delves into to create dramatic tension.
But My Old School also has a long interview with “Brandon”. Although he refused to appear on camera (for reasons the film is amused to speculate on), he agreed to have his voice heard and, in the film’s boldest creative move, McLeod asks Alan Cumming to play Brandon, perfectly synchronizing his testimony, a move that functions both as a distancing device reinforcing the mystery and as a way to further unravel the performative aspect of his life. The real “Brandon” is a slippery character, a little bitter about the hand life has dealt him, but My Old School isn’t a hit; rather, it’s a cleverly crafted tale of deception that delivers its twists with a playfulness that’s eminently watchable.
One of the best jokes of the recent Scream reboot was its sly dismissal of the current “high horror” trend – films that strive to root their genre elements in supposedly complex and serious issues instead. than simply inciting the public to gore and jump is scary. “That sounds a bit boring,” jokes the crazed killer maniac on the other end of the phone to the Gen Z horror fan providing this little introduction. It’s hard not to think of this exchange while watching a horror film in Welsh Celebration, the latest tedious example of a movie that prioritizes art direction over fear and a suggested subtext thesis (this one is about class) over a decent story. Revolving around a dinner party held at the sleek, modernist home of a local politician, the film’s main character is Cadi (Annes Elwy), a brooding young woman who shows up to host the party. Although Cadi shows no culinary or waitressing skills – even running out of the house when the Gwyn family patriarch (Julian Lewis Jones) arrives with two freshly slaughtered rabbits to skin – she is allowed to stay, observing gleefully spooks the adult sons of the family (one a heroin addict who hates everyone, the other a triathlete who appears to be training to become a serial killer) and engages in sinister acts of culinary sabotage. First director Lee Haven Jones breaks the film up into chapters with ominous headers and uses many painfully slow cart shots to signify that something bad is happening on screen without really delivering anything scary or even shocking. interesting. As the tastefully arty bloodshed intensifies, so does the boredom, with a last-minute addition of folk-tinged mythology unable to salvage this undercooked mess.
Next to The Feast, it’s almost a relief to be faced with a trashy, belated horror prequel like Orphan: first murder. It’s not exactly the same as saying it’s good, but it’s at least fun. The first Orphan movie, from 2009, was a better-than-needed genre effort with a delightful twist: Esther, its 11-year-old psychopathic protagonist was actually a woman in her thirties with a rare form of dwarfism. Since the new film, which revolves around the same character (again played by Isabelle Furhman), can’t reproduce the exact same twist, it goes for something almost as crazy by integrating him with a wealthy family with dark secrets of owning them. Although the idea of Furhman playing a character who was supposed to be two years younger than she was the first time – so nine years old – makes little sense given that she is now a proper adult in the 20s (she was a teenager when she first played the character), the presence of Julia Stiles as the matriarch of the family Esther is trying to swindle adds a wonderfully camp edge when things are going a little Mommie Dearest.
All films in general release from August 19.