Movie Review ~ Bodies Bodies Bodies

The Facts:

Synopsis: A party game leads to murder when young and wealthy friends gather at a remote family mansion during a hurricane.
Stars: Amandla Stenberg, Maria Bakalova, Myha’la Herrold, Chase Sui Wonders, Rachel Sennott, Lee Pace, Pete Davidson
Director: Halina Reijn
Rated: R
Running Length: 95 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review:  While I’m trying to enjoy these last weeks of Summer proper and the cool-ish weather they are bringing us up here in MN, I can’t help but look ahead to the fall. It’s my favorite season, and it also means the arrival of 31 Days to Scare, my yearly dive into familiar and unknown titles, designed to give you some alternate options as Halloween draws near. I thought about some of the movies I’d looked at in the past because A24’s new hip horror film Bodies Bodies Bodies would have fit in nicely into that mix. Strip all its modern cultural analysis, timely references, and forgive me, jokey wokeness, and you have the makings of a slumber party-ready scare flick you could have rented on VHS back in the day.   

Making her English-language debut, celebrated Dutch director & actress Halina Reijn brings bold confidence to Bodies Bodies Bodies from the start, opening the film with an intimate moment between Sophie (Amandla Stenberg, Dear Evan Hansen) and Bee (Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm). It’s a bracing image but important in setting a mood for the journey we’re about to take. Recently out of rehab, Sophie is taking her new girlfriend to a weekend party at the secluded home of her childhood friend, David (Pete Davidson, The Suicide Squad). With a hurricane planned to pass over the mansion, the guests are stocked up and prepared for a crazy party, but none of them will expect what happens when the lights go out later that evening.

The fun in Bodies Bodies Bodies is not merely in playing “Guess the Murderer” as it is in many of these stalk and slash films that populated many a drive-in, video store, and, more recently, streaming service. While the eventual mayhem that ensues is enticing and keeps you guessing until the end (good luck trying to put it together), the entertainment Reijn and screenwriter Sarah DeLappe provide is through careful understanding of the temperament of its audience. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a genre title pivot so well with an audience, almost like it was reading the room for the specific screening I was attending.

This near-second-sight talent allows the film to often be wildly funny through its performances and its brutal shakedown of the elite types the actors are playing. While Stenberg and Bakalova continue to demonstrate significant signs their stars are about to go supernova, Reijn surrounds them with others that may join their ranks. Standouts include Myha’la Herrold (Premature) as Jordan, one of the few friends in attendance not outright happy to see Sophie that suspects trouble from the new girl she’s brought along with her. Herrold’s playing the ‘mean girl’ trope at the outset but peels back new layers each time the film takes a twisted turn. Expect much talk about Rachel Sennott’s (Shiva Baby) Alice, a new breed of WASP who gives some of DeLappe’s best lines the most extraordinary readings.

As much as he bothered me on Saturday Night Live, when Davidson is contained in an acting role, he manages to be consistently impressive, and that’s true here as well. A brief fight with his girlfriend (Chase Sui Wonders, On the Rocks) is an intense scene for both. Like many, I’ve loved Lee Pace (Captain Marvel) for some time and wish he’d land that role to kick him up a notch in Hollywood. He’s well-used here in a small but pivotal part but always feels off a, ahem, pace from the others.   Though obviously made on a budget, the film has a nice look to it, with production designer April Lasky (The Greatest Showman) providing a house that’s easy to get turned around in, Jasper Wolf (carried over from Reijn’s first film, Instinct) working wonders helping us see in a house supposedly without electricity and composer Disasterpeace (It Follows) adding to the tension with a score that only intrudes when Reijn shifts things into a higher gear.

Running an absolute perfect length, Bodies Bodies Bodies is a tightly packed film that wisely doesn’t aim to cover a ton of ground outside of its claustrophobic setting. With the hurricane in full swing outside, the guests are trapped in the house with a dwindling number of people they can trust. As friendships are tested and secrets revealed, it becomes harder to believe even your closest bestie, and no one is safe before long.   I kept waiting for the film to cheat us or pull the rug to yank us in a direction we didn’t need to go, but blessedly the filmmakers stayed the course and stuck the ending beautifully. Grab a friend, hunker down, and get ready to play.

Movie Review ~ Wifelike

The Facts:

Synopsis: In the fight to end AI exploitation, an underground resistance attempts to infiltrate a grieving detective by sabotaging the programming of the artificial human assigned as his companion to behave like his late wife.
Stars: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Elena Kampouris, Doron Bell, Agam Darshi, Sara Sampaio, Alix Villaret, Fletcher Donovan, CJ Perry, Stephen Lobo
Director: James Bird
Rated: R
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review:  Here’s some trivia for you.  Often in movies, when actors are in a scene at a club where music is playing, and the background extras are dancing around and gyrating, they are usually doing it to no music.  All of that is edited in later to save on any additional sound being picked up by microphones.  (Same goes for clapping – watch the extras next time and spot the ones not making complete contact with their applause…)  I’ve been on sets for these ‘silent’ dance parties, and it’s weird to watch.  Now imagine you are watching a film where this is happening, but all the extras are in lingerie. 

Perhaps someone forgot to put the music back into WifeLike.  There are a lot of scenes where scantily clad women are in the background of scenes randomly doing the same step-step-hip-hip-shoulder-shoulder sway while running their hands up their sides to no music.  It may go along somewhat with the futuristic film about the proliferation of beautiful “Companions” being manufactured and sold. Still, it doesn’t always explain why these glorified Fembots are always rarin’ to dance like nobody’s watching…or turned the music to defiant jazz.

It’s clear WifeLike was made by a specific team for a particular audience, though I thought Twitter canceled all of them over the past few years.  Despite the appearance of it being a sci-fi mystery concerning a Blade Runner-esque hunter (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Albert Nobbs) tracking down a criminal who has been making off with expensive Companions to ‘free’ them, the abundance of sex, nudity, and a general seediness makes the film more like a 1 am Skinamax offering with a slightly larger budget.  The production values are high, and director James Bird introduces a few good ideas along the way, but it’s all so misogynistic and male gaze-y that it begins to feel exploitative within the first ten minutes.

That’s how long it takes for Rhys Meyers to get Elena Kampouris (My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2) out of her dress and into bed for the first of several aggressively uncomfortable rolls in the hay.  The two actors are beautiful in and out of clothes, but the way the camera is choreographed and the intimacy of the scene comes across as overly intrusive and stops the movie dead in its tracks before it can even get started.  Thankfully, Bird gets that crud out of the way within the first hour of his too-long film and gradually moves the action from the dirty to the dark.

Through the WifeLike process, a human being can be reprogrammed as a Companion even after passing on.  It’s how Meredith (Kampouris) was programmed to behave like William’s (Rhys-Meyers) late wife.  She needs time to adjust to being Meredith again, which involves learning Meredith’s hobbies and dreams and going through several tutorials.  She gets one out of the way the first night (naturally) and moves on to cooking, knitting, and cleaning the toilet.  (That last one is fake, but you get the picture.)  Her dreams have been infiltrated, though, and she begins to receive messages from a mysterious figure urging her to ‘remember.’  Soon, there’s real-life danger as the perfect life Meredith thinks she was living starts to crumble around her, and her expiration date might arrive sooner than expected.

Filmed in British Columbia, there’s an oddly sterile look to WifeLike, not just in that futuristic sanitized way.  Maybe it’s the costumes that seem to be accentuated strangely to reshape Kampouris, or perhaps the sets that are so crisp and defined you can see what’s CGI and what’s particle board.  Divert your eyes from the computer screens, which often show the same information no matter where you are.  As seems to be typical, there are more glass windows in the future, keeping privacy to a minimum…get ready for all of you that like to vacuum in the nude!

I feel the film and its supporters will attempt to defend itself from its clear misogynistic underpinnings by pointing to the way Kampouris gradually becomes the heroine of the piece, but that doesn’t account for the entire conceit of WifeLike in the first place.  An alarming number of women appear in their underwear to do nothing but stand there without autonomy.  If that’s the way this business is run, so be it.  How much more interesting would it have been if the company was run by a woman and not some greased-haired sleazeball?  If the filmmakers had thought through the optics of their piece instead of how everything looked, they might have found ways to upgrade a low-end sci-fi thriller.

Movie Review ~ Summering

The Facts

Synopsis: As their last summer before middle school comes to a close, four best friends face the uncertainties of growing up and embark on their biggest adventure.
Stars: Lia Barnett, Madalen Mills, Eden Grace Redfield, Sanai Victoria, Lake Bell, Sarah Cooper, Ashley Madekwe, Megan Mullally
Director: James Ponsoldt
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 85 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review:  On one of my social media accounts last week, I saw a friend posting pictures of their kids in full school attire with the caption, “First day of school!”. I checked the early August date and blinked a little in shock. August? What happened to kids having June, July, and August to…be kids? No more pencils, no more books, and all that jazz?   It just seemed too early for me, and I can only imagine what those kids must be feeling (or their parents!), and it made me remember my childhood. I thought about what it was like in those final weeks of summer and getting ready to say goodbye to the friends you made and/or got closer to as you had many adventures around your neighborhood.

Your enjoyment of Summering may rise or fall on how precious you hold your memories about that time in your life. Likely, your tolerance over its shortcomings will also play a factor. That’s the struggle with a movie as earnest and ready to do good as Summering. Some aspects of the film written by Benjamin Percy and James Ponsoldt (who also directs) are substantial, but too often, there’s a shapeless maudlin gauziness that overtakes it and can make it an unbearable film to get through. The film runs 85 minutes, but it might as well have been 185 minutes for how slow it creeps by when it should be soaring.

There’s early promise in the opening act when Ponsoldt and Percy introduce us to the four young girls enjoying a typical end-of-summer day. They’ve done almost everything there is to do around town (twice) and have made many ceremonial trips to their “Terabithia,” a tree where they place favored objects found on their escapades. On their latest Terabithia trek, Daisy (Lia Barnett) finds something else nearby…the body of a man that has likely fallen from the bridge several stories up. The corpse doesn’t scare the girls as much as it makes them curious to find out who the man was. With no wallet and few clues found on his person, they set out to find his identity but wind-up learning more about their individual differences that continue to develop.

What ultimately scuttles the movie is that these four intelligent girls (one with police officer Lake Bell as their mother) wouldn’t report this right away to the authorities. Examining the body, moving it, taking pictures of it, showing these pictures to people and asking if they know the man in the picture seems so out of touch with the sensitive and sensible kids we meet at the outset. True, Mari (Eden Grace Redfield, Home Again) was hesitant and even had the most trouble keeping it from her mom (Megan Mullally, Where’d You Go, Bernadette), but Dina (Madalen Mills, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey) and Lola (Sanai Victoria) aren’t putting up a fight when Daisy sets them out on this quest.

Obvious comparisons to Stand by Me are unavoidable, and you have to wonder why the screenwriters would even position their film in the vicinity of that beloved classic. Four friends finding a body during the summer and exploring how it affects their lives is the thinnest of plot descriptions for both Summering and that 1986 Rob Reiner film. I spent far too much time trying to figure out if this was a reimagining of the original Stephen King novella or truly an original story. Aside from an extra layer of having the mothers featured as prominent characters, there’s little to suggest a viewing of Summering should replace Stand by Me.

Ponsoldt gained great acclaim directing 2013’s The Spectacular Now, which contained lovely performances and sincerity, but Summering is rarely spectacular ever. It’s hard to knock a movie aimed at pre-teen girls because so few movies (or studios, or directors) show interest in them, to begin with. Admirable though it is for Percy and Ponsoldt to spotlight four young actresses and surround them with a cast of conservatively familiar faces (Mullally does best, amiably pitching her role without feeling phony), I wish they had found a more powerful story to support them.