Movie Review ~ Pearl

The Facts:

Synopsis: Lusting for a glamorous life like she’s seen in the movies, Pearl’s ambitions, temptations, and repressions collide in the stunning, technicolor-inspired origin story of X’s iconic villain.
Stars: Mia Goth, David Corenswet, Tandi Wright, Matthew Sunderland, Emma Jenkins-Purro
Director: Ti West
Rated: R
Running Length: 102 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  With social media being so prevalent and movies screening far in advance, it can be hard to keep a surprise under wraps for long in the movie business. If you don’t want information spoiled for something as simple as a TV show, you need to stop using your social media or race to watch it before no-goodniks can reveal the secrets. No one has much respect for spoilers anymore, even if you ask nicely. (So, you’re welcome for 10+ years of non-spoiler reviews!)

**DISCLAIMER: It’s impossible to talk about Pearl without revealing key plot points about X, released earlier this year. If you prefer not to know anything about that movie, read no further. Everyone else, let’s go!**

I tend to stay for all the credits at the end of a movie (hey, the one time I skipped it was for Don’t Look Up, and I regretted it!) because you never know if there will be any additional footage of note. When the credits were nearly over for Ti West’s gonzo horror film X, I began to trek out of the theater along with the handful of remaining audience members. As the screen went black, it seemed the movie was over. Then, suddenly, a preview for Pearl appeared. Wait, what? Yes, Pearl, the wicked old killer granny from the film we watched, was getting her origin story in just a few months. West had pulled off a rare feat in Hollywood, shooting two movies back-to-back when most thought only one was coming.

To hear West tell it (like I did at a recent Q & A), coming out of the pandemic and realizing his time filming X in New Zealand might be his only chance to film for some time, he figured why not use the resources already there and create two movies while on location. Devising inspiration from star Mia Goth, West collaborated with her on the screenplay for a prequel set in 1918 that would tell the story of Pearl’s early years on the farm. Greenlit before they even filmed X allowed West (The Innkeepers) and Goth (Suspiria) to let that movie inform what they’d do on Pearl, and it shows in this new movie, a horror film that goes deeper and darker into a twisted mind.

An origin story is maybe the wrong term to use for Pearl. Call it a snapshot of a turning point in her life when Pearl moved from one stage to another. A war bride living on a Texas farm with her German immigrant mother and invalid father, Pearl dreams of a life bigger than baling hay and milking cows. Looking down on her hard-working mother, who scoffs at her daughter’s dreams of fame, the two women are constantly at odds. Even more than doubting her child, Ruth (Tandi Wright, Jack the Giant Slayer) sees a darkness that frightens her. We see it too, understanding that Pearl isn’t a figure that is turned sour; she probably always was inclined toward murderous impulses that cause her to lash out.

A local dance competition gives hope of an opportunity to get out of town and tour, something Pearl sees as the start of her suitable career. Going to the movies in town (which happens to be in a panic about the Spanish “pandemic,” hence why everyone is wearing face masks), she meets a handsome projectionist (David Corenswet) who encourages her to go after what she wants without letting anyone stand in her way. He also shows her a ‘European’ film showing an act that is “legal to do, but not legal to shoot.” (One of several gentle nods to X.)  Pearl falls for the Projectionist despite being married, but it’s not without repercussions. Tensions at the home rise to a boiling point and quickly escalate, sending Pearl on a familiar rampage.

Like X, Pearl takes its time building each character, letting them come into clear focus before allowing any of the nasty stuff to happen to them. I’d say Pearl waits even longer, which keeps it all the more of an intriguing film. It’s ultimately more of a study of the downward spiral of dreams and the way a demented mind chooses to deal with this loss. You don’t want to root for Pearl, but, in a way, you do because you’ve had those same types of disappointments. The difference is we don’t take a pitchfork to the person that didn’t live up to our expectations. The violence and make-up effects in the movie will satiate the horror hounds in the audience (and they are indeed spectacular), but the performances will resonate and frighten the most.

You can see why West has focused on Goth as such an inspiration. A fierce commitment from the English actress compels you to keep watching. She doesn’t quite fit into the period like you think she would (maybe that’s the point?), yet you can’t imagine any other person playing the role. In X, she handled the double duty of playing Maxine and the older Pearl like a champ, even fooling me for much of the movie. Here, she’s only got one role but is featured in every scene. It’s all told from her perspective, so we experience it with her. There’s a sequence near the end (confirmed by Goth as her favorite in the film) where she and actress Emma Jenkins-Purro share a conversation at a dinner table that’s as mesmerizing to watch as any haughty awards-y drama you’ll see this year. Goth gives a one-take monologue for upwards of six minutes that’s jaw-dropping. If only the Oscars had the cojones to nominate a performance like this, you’d know they take every genre seriously.

I also thought Wright, as Pearl’s emotionally withholding mother, was brilliantly executed. At first, you think she’s just a typical parent that can’t let their kids have their own lives, but Wright reveals in bits and pieces why she’s built up this wall between her and her daughter. It’s a challenging portrait to paint, but it is nicely done. Kudos to Jenkins-Purro for sharing the film’s most crucial scene with Goth, holding her own, and then staying out of her way when Goth must go big. 

Not that this is a secret, seeing that it has been all over the news, but a third film has already been announced (but not filmed), and if you stick around to the end of Pearl, you can see the teaser. MaXXXine is set in 1985’s Los Angeles, and if it continues this winning streak of West/Goth, I can’t wait to see what horrors they find in Hollywood. Until then, while you don’t need to see X to enjoy Pearl, I’d make it a double feature and catch both 2022 entries for major fun.

Movie Review ~ The Woman King

The Facts:

Synopsis: The remarkable story of the Agojie, the all-female unit of warriors who protected the African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s with skills and a fierceness unlike anything the world has ever seen.
Stars: Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, John Boyega, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Adrienne Warren, Jordan Bolger
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Rated: R
Running Length: 135 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review:  At some point, much lauded and well-seasoned actors that have paid their dues in the business get to pick whatever projects they want to without apology.  That’s my thinking, at least.  Giving their all to studio pictures and independent productions over time, these actors have been through the Hollywood wringer of press tours and galas, awards shows, and far-flung media events.  So, when an actress like Meryl Streep chose to do Mamma Mia! and people were aghast, I was thrilled because it felt like a project she wanted to do, rather than one she felt she had to. 

Initially, I felt like Streep’s co-star in Doubt, Viola Davis, was taking a page from that same playbook with The Woman King.  The movie had all the makings of a passion project that allowed Davis another prestige run at the Best Actress Oscar while telling an important piece of world history.  Surrounded by an array of up-and-coming talent and helmed by a director who has more than paid her dues in the industry, the entire package has the essence of pre-destination toward one goal.  That kind of turned me away from it.  Originally.

Once again, it shows you just how much of an impact marketing has on the viewer.  Far more commercial than expected, The Woman King is rousing entertainment that hits the ground running and barely takes a breath over the next 135 minutes.  Oscar-winner Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) disappears into the role, dedicating herself physically and emotionally to the work.  Featuring terrific supporting performances you can engage with, this could be a word-of-mouth sleeper hit if enough people get to it early on and keep it in the conversation. 

A quick history lesson at the top of the film gives audiences the backstory of the Kingdom of Dahomey and its conflicts with the neighboring Oyo Empire.  With the Kingdom guaranteeing their survival by organizing their economic income around the Atlantic slave trade with the Europeans, there was much strife as they quickly grew in power, wealth, and status.  Protecting these resources were the Dahomey Amazons, the Agojie, which grew in strength and number after the males of their population fell to wars with the Oyo.

General Nanisca (Davis) is the respected leader of the Agojie, rising to a high rank as a trusted confidant and advisor to the King (John Boyega), encouraging many successful decisions that kept them secure.  She has concerns over the increased reliance on the slave trade, hoping to redirect the King’s attention to exporting goods available on their land instead of the people with families that could harvest it.  The Agojie must maintain their numbers and have just accepted a new batch of recruits that will need to train and pass a series of tests.  Among them is Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a girl turned out of her house for refusing a pre-arranged marriage. 

Headstrong and fearless, Nawi would make a perfect Agojie if she could turn off her emotions as quickly as the others.  The more Nanisca and her two most revered second-in-commands, Izogie (Lashana Lynch, No Time to Die) and Amenza (Sheila Atim, Bruised), push Nawi to break away from the spirit that guides her, the harder she fights to retain her individuality.  With tensions rising between visiting Europeans hoping to broker better deals between Dahomey for enslaved people and the Oyo who want to move in on this business, the Agojie will band together to ward off those threatening their land as well as their family.

Bound to draw comparisons to semi-similar works such as Braveheart and Gladiator, in the end, The Woman King sits capably on a throne of its creation.  Screenwriters Maria Bello (an Oscar-nominated actress most recently seen in The Water Man) and Dana Stevens (who penned 1993 thriller Blink) did their homework, making an effort before the movie was even off the ground to ensure the film had accuracy and a valid point of view from which to speak.  They’ve partnered nicely with their star, who takes the leading role and surprises us again with the mastery of her craft.  Another transformative part she can add to her lengthy list of incredible roles, Davis charts the cracks Nanisca shows and how it begins to eat away at her ability to be the same leader she was in the past. 

Amplifying her performance is Mbedu as the headstrong newbie of the group.  Whether it was intimidating going toe-to-toe with Davis or not, it’s no small feat to swipe scenes out from under the more experienced star.  Yet Mbedu is fascinating to watch each time she’s on screen, learning internal truths about herself through her training and time with her Agojie sisters and conveying them outwardly to us in small ways.  You’d be hard-pressed to choose an MVP in The Woman King between Lynch and Atim; both offer beautifully realized different sides to the same coin flipping back and forth between Davis and Mbedu.  

If there’s one area where The Woman King struggles, it’s the male characters.  Every man is presented as an obstacle to some woman trying to get the job done.  This plot device is well-worn, and while Boyega (Breaking) fares the best, the rest are as crudely drawn as the woman finely etched.  That’s especially evident in Jordan Bolger’s storyline with Mbedu, adding a romantic subplot that feels like a concession for the studio instead of a fully realized development.  The sparks aren’t there between the actors (more Bolger’s fault than anything), and anytime they’re together, the film drags significantly.  

Prince-Bythewood is comfortable staging the movie, whether it be a large-scale action sequence or a more intimate moment shared between the women when they let their guards down.  These human passages give the film its best heart and set the stage for the battles that get more involved as you understand the Agojie better.  Once you have a warrior to root for, you track their every move and hope no harm comes to them.  A new, more realistic hero for a young generation to look up to (it’s PG-13 and astonishingly gruesome), the Agojie and The Woman King are getting ready to reign.

Movie Review ~ See How They Run

The Facts:

Synopsis: When world-weary Inspector Stoppard and eager rookie Constable Stalker take on a case of murder in London’s West End, the two find themselves thrown into a puzzling whodunit within the glamorously sordid theater underground, investigating the mysterious homicide at their peril
Stars: Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Ruth Wilson, Reece Shearsmith, Harris Dickinson, David Oyelowo
Director:  Tom George
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 98 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Never underestimate the power of a good puzzle. During the past two years, puzzle sales have increased dramatically, leveling off as more restrictions were lifted, and the world again gathered as groups. While we were all cooped up, there was fun to be had at the organization and completion of a tricky jigsaw. It certainly made the time fly by. I have a stack of puzzles in my closet that can attest to the popularity of this resurgent pastime. 

The same pull to find a solution to this game draws viewers into the mystery and thriller genre, which also was in declining output in recent years. This phenomenon is primarily due to the mid-range budgeting involved and fewer opportunities for studios to franchise future installments. It’s hard to sequel-ize a movie where the characters might not all make it to the final act. Then a film like Knives Out comes around along with streaming material like Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building, and the genre feels revitalized. Before you know it remakes of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile are getting greenlit. Rather than blood, guts, and gore found in slasher films with an unknown killer, these more prestige releases represent the classic whodunit.

As audiences await the upcoming release of the third season of Hulu’s hit show and the upcoming Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, 20th Century Studios’ See How They Run is sprinting to beat the rush, and the timing couldn’t be better. It’s a breath of fresh air, though it often plays like Only Knives Out in the Theater, just with less crisp creativity for twists in the plot. What you see is what you get in director Tom George’s period mystery that plays with real elements of history, but with a production that has a zest for the era and natty performances you want to see more of, it easily laps the lesser fare we’ve been just getting by on.

It’s 1953, and the hot ticket in London’s West End is Agatha Christie’s original play, The Mousetrap. As it celebrates its 100th performance, the film rights have recently been sold, and dodgy film director Leo Köpernick (Adrian Brody, Clean) has arrived from America to attend the festivities. While the reclusive authoress herself doesn’t make the party, plenty of the who’s who do, along with a killer that strikes before the night is over. 

The keen Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan, Little Women) and the jaded Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell, Richard Jewell) are sent in to investigate. One brings an eagerness to solve the crime quickly, while the more seasoned detective knows not to trust everything you see. As they go down the list of suspects: a penny-pinching producer (Ruth Wilson, Saving Mr. Banks), a snooty screenwriter (David Oyelowo, The Water Man), and even the show’s star Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson, Where the Crawdads Sing), they’ll find out there’s more to the murder (and the killer) that meets the eye. 

More than anything, See How They Run showcases Ronan’s ease doing droll comedy as the dutiful constable with a penchant for cringe-y one-liners. She makes a nice counterpart(ner) for Rockwell’s boozy Inspector. The two can efficiently work independently but strike the best chords playing off one another. A great cast is assembled in the ensemble, but it’s a shame Mark Chappell’s script doesn’t afford them more to do throughout. I was often left wondering why particular characters had greater pull than others. It helps to level the playing field as to who might be the next victim but when you have a company this game, let them play. If anything, See How They Run screams to be played out over several hour-long episodes instead of the brisk 98 minutes.

Due to the fact it is so straightforward, you may be tempted to concoct numerous solutions in your head before you get to the final reveal. I wouldn’t put too much time into working things out because the answer to the film’s riddle isn’t as complex as you think (hope?) it is. That doesn’t speak to lessen the quality of the film; it just goes to the plot’s inherent weakness for curveballs that could have been tweaked. It’s still marvelously witty at times and catty at others. I’d stroll to See How They Run in theaters if you’re dying for a drawing room-style murder mystery but do keep it high on your list to catch eventually. This talented team is too delicious to pass up.