Movie Review ~ X

The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1979, a group of young filmmakers set out to make an adult film in rural Texas, but when their reclusive, elderly hosts catch them in the act, the cast finds themselves fighting for their lives.
Stars: Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Brittany Snow, Scott Mescudi, Martin Henderson, Owen Campbell, Stephen Ure
Director: Ti West
Rated: R
Running Length: 115 minutes
SXSW Review: Here
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: We’re all about honesty here at The MN Movie Man, so I can share with you that as excited as everyone was when A24 and Ti West dropped the trailer for X a few months back to announce its impending arrival, I wasn’t drooling like most.  Don’t get me wrong, the release of any modestly budgeted horror film is a cause for celebration because it continues to give clout to a genre often overlooked or dismissed entirely.  There was something about how the preview presented itself, as this extreme answer to our humble prayers for blood, guts, boobs, and gore that rubbed me the wrong way.  Even going as old-school as you want, that’s not what defined the best movies in the genre – intelligent construction and creative ideas pushed the film into the history books.

I had to search through my closet to find a hat I didn’t mind chewing on because after seeing the completed film, I’m finding that I need to eat my words a little.  As crazy f***ed up as the previews for West’s movie have been so far, A24 has saved the best stuff for audiences waiting to see stars Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Brittany Snow, Martin Henderson, & more in this gore-gy of old-school bloody scares.  Set in 1979 and enjoying every second of it, it’s raunchy and randy more than anything, with the actual violence erupting in spurts.  Spending his time directing television for the last six years, West is back on the big screen with what is sure to be a high-water mark for his career.

Forgiving the film for starting at the end, with a Texan sheriff arriving at the scene of a bloody massacre and then jumping back 24 hours to where it all began, you’re instantly back in that transitional time between the carefree pre-AIDS period of the late ‘70s before the ‘80s welcomed in a new reality.  Young Maxine (Goth, Suspiria) stares at herself in the mirror, delivering the kind of “You’re going to be a star” pep talk many young women likely did before entering a world from which there is no looking back.  Here it’s the universe of adult entertainment, a business her boyfriend Wayne (Henderson, Everest) is hoping to break into by making a cheap XXX-rated film with a few friends over the weekend.

Loaded into a van with co-stars Jackson (Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi, Don’t Look Up) and bottle-blonde Bobby-Lynn (Brittany Snow, Pitch Perfect), along with crew members Lorraine (Jenna Ortega, Scream) and RJ (Owen Campbell, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), the group is headed for a secluded farm Wayne rented cheaply for the weekend.  Arriving at their location shoot, they find old-timer Howard (Stephen Ure, Mortal Engines) and his wife Pearl (both under layers of well-designed latex to age them) not exactly offering a warm greeting.  Paying little attention to several red flags, including a nearby lake that’s got an alligator problem, the gang commences their shoot…and stirs up the murderous instincts of their hosts in the process.

The beauty of the horror in West’s film is how what we’ve come to associate as traditional horror almost takes a significant backseat to the horrific realities of the time and place the movie is set.  Through signage and television programming, we’re constantly being shown images of religious revivals that feel oppressive.  There’s a feeling from all that they might be able to do something different with other talents (Bobby-Lynn sings, accompanied by Jackson in one well-orchestrated sequence), but it’s their place in the pecking order that has left them choosing porn as a ticket out of town.  That most pay with their lives for that ambition is the real tragedy of the story.

Please make no mistake; it’s terrifically gruesome as well.  Always creative in the way he offs characters, West (The Innkeepers) spares no one an easy death.  Like Tarantino so expertly does, your mind fills in many of the blanks, so he only has to suggest what is happening, and the grisliest violence happens off the frame, but it’s so visceral you’ll swear you actually saw it.  It’s all well designed by a crack team of visual artists, with the effects in that department and the overall prosthetic make-up being a star attraction.  One character is so utterly dependent on that make-up design, and I won’t say who, that a large part of the success of the performance is due to our not being able to see the rubbery creases when they move their head.

Speaking of performances, while horror traditionally isn’t known for its strength in this area, West has a full cast of dependable talent, and no one disappoints.  Snow takes on a decidedly adult role for, I think, the first time in her long career.  Campbell and Ortega (having a whopper of a 2022 already) make for an intriguing couple as we watch their romance crack under the production of the adult film. Henderson is a hoot as the producer with stars in his eyes; watching the 48-year-old run around in a thong for an extended period shows he is game for fun.  It’s all about Goth though, playing a tricky role that I have to be careful revealing too much.  Most reviewers will go the distance and tell you, but I’m going to hold back and let you discover it as I did.   Anchoring the movie with a confidence that is more than just Final Girl bravura, Goth has created a one-of-a-kind leading lady, and it will be her calling card role for quite some time.

I tell you often to wait for the credits to roll to see what happens at the end, but with X, I can’t stress enough how important it is to wait until the end.  There is something at the tail end of the movie that you absolutely, positively, must not miss.  It’s worth those extra minutes, and you won’t be sorry you stayed.  By that point, you’ll be riding such positive adrenaline waves courtesy of West and his crew that you won’t mind. 

Movie Review ~ Master

The Facts:

Synopsis: Two African American women begin to share disturbing experiences at a predominantly white college in New England.
Stars: Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, Talia Ryder, Talia Balsam, Amber Gray
Director: Mariama Diallo
Rated: NR
Running Length: 91 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  Working in the business for the last twenty-two years, I’d say it’s high time that a star like Regina Hall began to get her due. With a little over a week to go before she joins Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes as the host of the 94th Academy Awards, Hall is staying busy with the release of her new movie for Amazon Studios on Prime Video, Master. It’s the kind of role that several actresses could have played and done quite well with, but there’s something about how Hall approaches the character that helps her stand out from the crowd. It helps the movie too.

Full disclosure time. I had heard about Master after it premiered at Sundance to some enthusiasm and from naysayers that found problems with writer/director Mariama Diallo’s resolution to an otherwise entertaining blend of real-life horror based on the currently charged racial climate and standard genre tropes. I shrug off these festival notices as foul-moods from the un-showered and those waiting in endless lines only to watch one movie and then race to another. I watched Master at home and, without any pressure, absorbed the film, its timely observances on culture, privilege, and the way we masquerade our societal prejudice.

Hall plays Gail Bishop, recently promoted to new housemaster at the upstate NYC college where she teaches. With its primarily white student population, the college is attempting to be progressive but hides a dark past of systemic racism that’s never been appropriately dealt with. As Gail dives into her new role and feels its limitations, Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee) begins her first year alongside a white roommate (Talia Ryder, West Side Story) and peer group. Informed on the first day she’s staying in the same room that one of the college’s first black students hung herself in years earlier, it isn’t long before Jasmine is having visions of something coming for her. First when she sleeps, then when she begins an old habit of sleepwalking, then while she’s awake.

As if dealing with ghostly business isn’t enough, Jasmine crosses paths with Gail when she files a complaint against a black teacher (Broadway star Amber Gray) she feels has graded her unfairly. This complaint coincides with the teacher’s evaluation for tenure, putting Gail in a difficult position having to choose between securing her friend’s future or siding with her colleagues who feel she’s not qualified. The college and its hallowed halls are full of many secrets, though. Eventually, Jasmine’s investigation into her nightmarish visitor and Gail’s escalating oddities around her own house will intensify into a series of reveals that will open their eyes to a more insidious evil they hadn’t prepared for.

I recently watched one of Diallo’s short films and can already tell she’s a director with a voice we will be hearing from for a long time. She possesses a way not only with composing beautifully shot scenes but in capturing a more profound emotion out of her actors. Hall, Renee, and Gray have such razor-sharp snap to their scenes, and while some can be attributed to the talent all three possess, much of that credit has to go to Diallo’s observant script. Any supernatural element introduced is accounted for somehow, driving home the message that sometimes the fear we manifest and spread is often very much of our creation.

A lot is going on in Master, and you almost wish the old days of AOL chat rooms were available or the Twitter feeds weren’t such a cesspool of dreck. Otherwise, you could get on these resources and engage with others who have a similar experience with the movie and have trouble articulating it to those who haven’t seen it. Yes, the ending might be too on the nose for some and could bite off more than its prepared to swallow. I found that it ended right about when it needed to, answering the right questions and asking even better ones.

Movie Review ~ Windfall

The Facts:

Synopsis: A man breaks into a tech billionaire’s empty vacation home, but things go sideways when the arrogant mogul and his wife arrive for a last-minute getaway.
Stars: Jason Segal, Lily Collins, Jesse Plemons
Director: Charlie McDowell
Rated: R
Running Length: 92 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: I’m honestly surprised we haven’t had many more movies like Windfall by this point. Get a script, gather a crew, and find some actors that are friends and have a few weeks between projects. The smaller, the better. Streaming services and studios indie to major would likely bite at the right type of completed project if the price tag were right because these are often easy to produce and promote, earning back the investment quickly. Best of all, if it’s a hit, then everyone’s a winner, and coffers will get full. Should it nosedive out of the gate, it would be easy to brush it under the table as a blip of an experiment that didn’t exactly work out as planned.

I will be in the camp that files Windfall in that “close but no cigar” folder that is chock full of well-intentioned projects (most bearing names like Soderbergh, Marshall, and Howard) that don’t pan out by the time the credits roll. Based on a story idea from star Jason Segal and written as a screenplay by Justin Lader and Andrew Kevin Walker, it’s a four-character thriller from director Charlie McDowell set in Ojai, California. Thriller may be the wrong word because it’s more terse than anything, rarely moving at an escalated pace and often struggling to justify its minimal run time. 

Shot at a pleasant modern home that juts up against an orange grove, if you had told me Windfall started as a play, I would have believed it wholly. As the film begins over an effective Bernard Hermann-ish score from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans that is meant to evoke memories of classic Hitchcock, a Nobody (Segal, Our Friend) has made himself comfortable at this home on a sunny day. He’s just about to head out when the owners, a CEO (Jesse Plemons, Game Night), and his Wife (Lily Collins, Inheritance) arrive back unexpectedly. Unable to sneak away before they find him, he holds them hostage while the CEO ransoms himself to pay for the man to go away.

With Plemons and Segal particularly intense, the three actors are excellent at handling Lader and Walker’s mouthfuls of expositional dialogue that steers the characters in the same direction you expect. Never even giving the trio individual names, Lader and Walker blessedly find ways to move them around now and then for a change of scenery, but this is essential a three-hander stage show played out on a larger scale. Though they’re only one year apart in age, Collins and Plemons feel like an oddly matched pair, but then again, no one exactly gels with one another, and perhaps that is the point.

Developments start to pick up when we begin to close in on the final thirty minutes and more of the Nobody’s original reasons for being there emerge. However, by that time, we’re so used to the staleness in the air that these tiny explosions of action come off as corrections instead of natural action. It’s easy to see how strong of a filmmaker McDowell is (he’s also the real-life husband of Collins), but for it to keep the attention it wants from the audience, there needed to be more air let out of the overly talking Windfall.

Movie Review ~ The Outfit

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An expert tailor must outwit a dangerous group of mobsters to survive a fateful night.
Stars: Mark Rylance, Zoey Deutch, Johnny Flynn, Dylan O’Brien, Nikki Amuka-Bird, and Simon Russell Beale
Director: Graham Moore
Rated: R
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review:  Though movie theaters have been open for many months now, live theater is still an unsure thing for some people. Being in an enclosed space with a few hundred people for a 90-minute movie is one thing, but what about a 2,500 seat theater with a capacity crowd? Or how about a concert venue seeing a pop star and finding yourself shoulder to shoulder with someone sneezing their way through the opening act? It definitely gives you pause. I do miss live theater, and while my season tickets to the Broadway touring shows have been getting used regularly now that more protocols are in place, the smaller venues that house plays are struggling. I find myself craving these intimate shows with unamplified actors speaking so that you have to lean forward in your seat and tilt your head a bit to hear each word. That’s theater, to me.

I thought of that kind of theater I’d been missing while watching director Graham Moore’s The Outfit, which he co-wrote with Johnathan McClain. Taking place on a snowy winter night in 1956 within several rooms of a shop in Chicago owned and operated by Leonard Burling, this is one of those tight and taut mystery/thrillers that could easily have been adapted from (or, later, into) a stage play. The dialogue is so specific and focused that you must always pay attention to catch what’s being said. It all makes a difference in what happens as the night continues. Requiring the audience to be an active participant in The Outfit leads to the skilled movie being the first sign that spring moviegoing is revving its engines, breaking the silence of this strange period in movies released as awards season wraps up. 

Moore and McClain’s script involves Burling, a cutter (“I’m not a tailor.”) who worked on the famed Saville Row in London before he lost his family due to circumstances that will come to light soon enough. Now quietly making his sharp suits and wares alongside his secretary/would-be apprentice Mable (Zoey Deutch, Vampire Academy), Burling is a man that observes more than he speaks. Turning a blind eye to the organized crime dealings secretly exchanged via a mailbox at the back of his shop, he holds his head down, which keeps him in the good graces of the important families and surely secures his safety for his silence.

On this night, the son of the most powerful gangster in Chicago has arrived for his late-night pick-up with news that a mole has been discovered, and he has possession of a recording that will reveal information about the rat. Together with right-hand man Francis (Johnny Flynn, Clouds of Sils Maria), Richie (Dylan O’Brien, Bumblebee) plans to expose the snitch and allow his business to flourish with the assistance of The Outfit. A syndicate of crime families from all over the country, The Outfit has operatives everywhere and is the one that reported the mole. Who is the mole? What (or who?) is The Outfit? And is the mild-mannered cutter more involved than he claims to be? 

Having seen Rylance onstage playing Shakespeare, I’m aware of the kind of rapt attention he can command from an audience, and in all sincerity, that hasn’t been fully achieved yet on film. If anything, his roles tend toward the absurd, culminating with a nearly unwatchable turn in 2021’s Don’t Look Up. I was worried we’d be getting the same Rylance runaround here, but The Outfit represents maybe his best work on film so far, even better than his Oscar-winning role in 2015’s Bridge of Spies. The layers Rylance brings to the part, peeling them back at varied paces throughout so that you can’t get too comfortable, are brilliantly done. Once you’ve figured out the solution, Rylance sheds another veneer to reveal a sheen we never considered. 

The rest of the cast works hard to get to the same level of Rylance and uniformly succeeds, starting with Deutch as a woman Burling acts with some fatherly care toward but has more to offer than simply sitting behind a desk. O’Brien and Flynn are swell as the glorified henchman for the Big Boss, Roy (Simon Russell Beale, Into the Woods), who shares some wonderfully understated scenes with Rylance. Even those that make a minor pass through the film, like Nikki Amuka-Bird (Old), leave a pleasant waft of mystery in their wake. 

The Outfit is the kind of Sunday movie you’d have liked to see when it was a tad colder out, one with which you can hunker down. There’s not anything extra that doesn’t need to be there, with Moore making great use of the expertise of cinematographer Dick Pope (Supernova) and production designer Gemma Jackson (Aladdin). They’re both Oscar-nominated and well regarded in the industry for a reason. From head to toe, tie to laces, it’s just about a perfect corker of a film that keeps you surprised on the edge of your seat right up until the end.