‘ Thor­ough­breds’ smart, amoral com­edy

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They say there can’t be a good story with­out a good vil­lain.

In his daz­zling de­but, di­rec­tor and screen­writer Cory Fin­ley aims higher. “Thor­ough­breds,” a smart, amoral sus­pense com­edy about the high price of hav­ing it all, gives us vil­lainy in stereo.

With dou­ble the stan­dard bad­ness quota, the film isn’t just good. It’s ex­cel­lent, en route to a ra­bid cult fol­low­ing if not more. Watch­ing this is a re­minder that see­ing wicked peo­ple do wicked things can be one of cin­ema’s great­est plea­sures.

Thor­ough­bred is a term that’s used to de­scribe to both valu­able race horses and flaw­less young guys and girls. Here, it’s a clever bait and switch. Anya Tay­lor- Joy and Olivia Cooke play Lily and Amanda, two os­ten­si­ble hero­ines with fresh- faced beauty and pol­ished man­ners who would skin Dal­ma­tian pup­pies for a fur coat. The teens live in an up­per- crust sec­tion of Con­necti­cut where smaller man­sions have fewer than two dozen rooms. The old board­ing school chums re­con­nect after some years apart, spend­ing week­end af­ter­noons in­side Amanda’s per­fect home, study­ing for a col­lege prep test.

They’re to­gether in a form of week­end de­ten­tion de­signed by their over­sched­uled par­ents. Amanda has been a so­cial leper since cre­at­ing a scan­dal in­volv­ing her horse, not that she was all that pop­u­lar be­fore. Lily killed her own Ivy League dreams and was put un­der house ar­rest by her to­tally un­cool step­dad after an em­bar­rass­ing episode of pla­gia­rism. As the castaways grudg­ingly restart their old friend­ship, things get in­sid­i­ous.

We learn that icy cool Amanda isn’t just act­ing de­tached; she re­ally is. She is so blasé about the dif­fer­ence be­tween make- be­lieve and real life that she per­forms smiles in the mir­ror and prac­tices cry­ing at will by us­ing “the tech­nique” star­lets used to weep in old black and­white movies. “I have a per­fectly fine brain,” she an­nounces. “It just doesn’t con­tain feel­ings. It doesn’t mean that I’m a bad per­son— just that I have to try harder than other peo­ple to be good.”

Her am­bi­tion is to “Steve Jobs my way through life,” a sam­ple of Fin­ley’s knack for writ­ing— and his cast’s gift for de­liv­er­ing — com­i­cally ro­bust strains of cyn­i­cism.

The qui­eter of the two, but hardly the lesser char­ac­ter, Lily has lots and lots of feel­ings, and her own brand of per­for­mance art. She dresses and be­haves like a de­mure preppy debu­tante be­cause play­ing the brat is undig­ni­fied. Still, she is con­ceal­ing feral re­sent­ments against Mom’s new hus­band, Mark ( Paul Sparks, im­pres­sively un­lik­able yet far from evil).

We see a photo of him stand­ing self- im­por­tantly be­side a lion he killed and an­other pos­ing with a sa­mu­rai sword, which he keeps on the wall of his study. He wears skintight bike shorts, treats his wife like a ser­vant and makes dron­ing sounds hour after hour on his row­ing ma­chine. When prag­matic Amanda asks, “Ever think about just killing him?” Lily is aghast, un­til she’s at­in­gle. They’re hardly per­fect friends, but as co- con­spir­a­tors they com­ple­ment each other per­fectly.

Ex­e­cut­ing their task re­quires a flunky to play the hit man, and the girls find a mag­nif­i­cent sim­ple­ton in Tim ( the late An­ton Yelchin in one of his fi­nal roles). He’s a nick­e­land- dime drug dealer of hum­ble back­ground who imag­ines that with a decade of hard work and de­ter­mi­na­tion, he could take charge of the lo­cal mar­ket for dope — and move out of his dad’s home for a place of his own.

This Ho­ra­tio Al­ger hero in re­verse has fa­cial bruises where his high school clients beat him up, but he’s ever ready to put his swollen nose back to the grind­stone. Yelchin makes Tim a hi­lar­i­ous blend of am­bi­tion, anx­i­ety and ab­sur­dity, a born loser with gen­er­a­tions of dis­ap­point­ment in his DNA.

Fin­ley’ s fe­male leads, in con­trast, are larger than life, vi­brant with en­ergy, and, like sharks, al­ways mov­ing for­ward. As is the film. “Thor­ough­breds” shows howto create a pol­ished noir gem with a small cast, a hand­ful of beau­ti­fully dec­o­rated sets, glid­ing, voyeuris­tic steadicam work and su­perb sound de­sign. I don’t think the scrap­ing blades of un­seen kitchen knives has ever been so spine- chill­ing.

Some­thing wicked your way comes, and it re­ally should not be missed.

“Thor­ough­breds,” a Fo­cus Fea­tures re­lease, is rated R for dis­turb­ing be­hav­ior, bloody im­ages, lan­guage, sex­ual ref­er­ences and some drug con­tent. Run­ning time: 92 min­utes.

“A Wrin­kle in Time”

Ava DuVer­nay’s “A Wrin­kle in Time” is a land­mark film even be­fore it hits the­aters.

The adap­ta­tion of Madeleine L’En­gle’s eerie, mys­ti­cal young adult sci- fi novel from 1962 was bud­geted at more than $ 100 mil­lion, the largest bud­get a woman of color has been handed for a film. DuVer­nay is only the fourth fe­male di­rec­tor to re­ceive that kind of bud­get for a project, and in tack­ling the beloved “A Wrin­kle in Time,” she has taken an enor­mous swing. That alone is wor­thy of recog­ni­tion.

DuVer­nay mar­shalled an ar­ray of star power to in­habit L’En­gle’s tale, with Oprah Win­frey, Reese Wither­spoon and Mindy Kal­ing step­ping into the roles of the Misses; su­per­nat­u­ral, de­ity- like be­ings who guide the young Meg ( Storm Reid) on her jour­ney through space and time. It’s al­most laugh­ably ap­pro­pri­ate cast­ing for Win­frey, who em­bod­ies the wise, god­like pres­ence Mrs. Which.

Un­derneath the sci- fi and fan­tasy el­e­ments of both the book and film of “A Wrin­kle in Time,” the story is quite sim­ple: a young girl sets out to find her miss­ing fa­ther ( Chris Pine). She may travel through fan­tas­tic al worlds of space and time, guided by mys­ti­cal forces, but ul­ti­mately, this is a story about re­u­nit­ing a fam­ily.

Jen­nifer Lee and Jeff Stock­well have adapted what has been con­sid­ered an “un­filmable” book, and keep­ing the story sim­ple, and earnest, is the nec­es­sary foun­da­tion for the fan­tas­ti­cal set pieces that DuVer­nay crafts. Meg, her pre­co­cious younger brother Charles Wal­lace ( Deric McCabe), and their friend Calvin ( Levi Miller) travel through space and time, from ver­dant and vi­brant plan­ets to the dark, re­al­ity- bend­ing space of Ca­ma­zotz, where her fa­ther is be­lieved to be stranded.

DuVer­nay shoots for the stars with a highly styl­ized look and en­ergy to the film that’s both vi­sion­ary and ref­er­en­tial. It’s very much akin a chil­dren’s fan­tasy ad­ven­ture film fromthe ’ 80s or ’ 90s— the quirky Misses, es­pe­cially Wither­spoon’s Mrs. What­sit, are clearly in­debted to Zelda Ru­bin­stein’s per­for­mances from “Teen Witch” and “Poltergeist.” In cer­tain mo­ments, it feels a lot like “The Nev­erEnd­ing Story,” in oth­ers, it’s closer to the odd­ball Robin Wil­liams ve­hi­cle “Toys.”

When “Wrin­kle” is fir­ing on all cylin­ders, it’s a trans­port­ing ad­ven­ture that brings you back to the imag­i­na­tive ad­ven­ture of child­hood, when the stakes were clear, and al­ways high. The goals are straight­for­ward, and the film wears its heart plainly on its sleeve. It’s not of­ten that we see purely straight­for­ward films that are sim­ply about van­quish­ing dark­ness with the light from within us. That’s ex­actly what “Wrin­kle” is about, and it never hides or nu­ances that mes­sage.

But there are times when the film doesn’t quite flow. The tone and style is of­ten herky jerky and af­fected, es­pe­cially with the Misses. The edit isn’t smooth and lulling — in­stead it skit­ters and yanks, of­ten to alert us to shifts in the film’s re­al­ity, but it’s jar­ring and un­com­fort­able. Some of the more ac­tion- packed mo­ments de­volve into a jum­ble of gray­ish CGI, los­ing all of the care­fully honed world- build­ing. Even worse, the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Calvin and Meg is un­com­fort­ably ro­man­tic and dis­tract­ing.

DuVer­nay has set out to make an am­bi­tious fan­tasy epic, and in many ways, she suc­ceeds. Pine is won­der­ful as the reck­less but in­spi­ra­tional dad Dr. Murry, and McCabe is a break­out star, steal­ing the film from his co- stars as the odd lit­tle brother. Many mo­ments are beau­ti­ful and sur­real, while oth­ers are just plain weird ( and not al­ways in a good way). If it doesn’t al­ways work, well, at least DuVer­nay went for it, and her ver­sion of “A Wrin­kle in Time” is just as gor­geous and strange as can be ex­pected.

“A Wrin­kle In Time,” a Dis­ney re­lease, is rated PG for the­matic el­e­ments and some peril. Run­ning time: 109 min­utes. ½

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Reese Wither­spoon, left, and Storm Reid star in the Dis­ney film “A Wrin­kle In Time.”

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