Movie Review ~ You Won’t Be Alone

The Facts:

Synopsis: In an isolated mountain village in 19th century Macedonia, a young girl is kidnapped and then transformed into a witch by an ancient spirit.
Stars:  Sara Klimoska, Anamaria Marinca, Alice Englert, Noomi Rapace, Carloto Cotta, Félix Maritaud
Director: Goran Stolevski
Rated: R
Running Length: 108 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review:  A number of the light and airy-fairy tales that populate the Disney canon of animated films originate from much darker versions of German writers in the 18th century. While they maintained much of the original work’s outline and general moral intent, these sanitized versions essentially drained the bedtime stories of their cautionary messages for children and adults alike. In recent years, the restoration of, or modern twists on, these classics for audiences have been hailed as bold or brave and, in many cases, have earned those high marks with distinction. What interests me even more than these films is the storytelling going on from scribes creating original pieces with strong parallels with the types of spooky tales handed down from generation to generation.

A strong sense of storytelling is just one of the chief reasons why You Won’t Be Alone, from Macedonian director Goran Stolevski, is such a treat. Set in the 19th century in a remote hamlet on the broad side of an imposing mountain range, there’s a relaxed, naturalistic aesthetic that could easily classify it in the much-studied folk-horror genre. The isolation of the period and place are felt quite effectively from the start by the filmmaker’s dramatically impressive use of the gorgeous elements of the location surroundings. Throughout its run time, Stolevski’s film covers more ground than is typical or expected, asking striking questions about life, death, and our humanity even as we are gripped by not knowing what may happen next.

At first, you might think you’re watching some version of a tale as old as time. An overwrought mother turns her back on her newborn for a moment, and when she looks again, a horrific figure looms over the child. It’s Old Maid Maria (the excellent Anamaria Marinca, Europa Report), a witch cursed to roam the area, shapeshifting into various creatures she kills or comes upon. (How she does this is a process not for the faint of heart…) Maria’s curdled flesh and sharp fingernails crave the child’s blood, but the mother makes a bargain to spare the baby until she’s 16, after which Maria may return and take her as her own. After all, Maria can’t go through life alone. Requiring some sacrifice, the witch takes the baby’s tongue to stop her crying and from ever speaking. Though the mother tries to hide her child on holy ground, a witch’s bond will out, and after 16 years, Nevena (Sara Klimoska) joins her new guardian in a vagabond life, ostracized from the community.

Already isolated her entire life (ala Rapunzel), Nevena uses her shapeshifting abilities to infiltrate another community to learn how to be human first, a witch second. These experiences, as both genders, give her insight into the different feelings going on inside the bodies of men and women, children and adults. Nearly all her thoughts are communicated to us in voiceover, often in simple terms but gradually growing into whole ideas that encapsulate her complete understanding of a lived life. Conveying all of these discoveries is challenging enough for one person, and while Klimoska handles the bulk of it with wide-eyed amazement, she “shares” the role with Alice Englert (Beautiful Creatures), Noomi Rapace (The Secrets We Keep), and Carloto Cotta (Frankie), each is striking a somber balance in their cycles with the witch.

It could be that others come to You Won’t Be Alone thinking it’s an all-out horror film, and they’ll likely be disappointed it’s not some witch in the woods scare-fest. I still found elements of the movie quite frightening, but not for reasons you might think. There’s a lot of sadness here, like Rapace’s rather devastating but finely tuned performance, which starts feral but becomes more controlled as she’s taken under the wing of a kindly older woman. Cotta is strong too as the male the witch inhabits, first to find out what it’s like to experience pleasure but then to discover the more private and tender moments. 

I’ve been thinking about You Won’t Be Alone ever since I saw it; the rich characters (Marinca’s sinister witch has, like most witches, a tragic backstory) and invested performances coupled with the picturesque setting push this one far ahead of most of the other movies I’ve seen so far this year. You have to give it some space to get moving, but only slightly. Stolevski’s feature film debut is assured, and a can’t miss effort for filmgoers apt to enjoy a scary story before turning the lights off at night.

Movie Review ~ All the Old Knives

The Facts:

Synopsis: Two CIA operatives, and former lovers, reunite at idyllic Carmel-by-the-Sea to re-examine a mission six years ago in Vienna where a fellow agent might have been compromised.
Stars: Chris Pine, Thandiwe Newton, Laurence Fishburne, Jonathan Pryce, Ahd, Corey Johnson, David Dawson, Orli Shuka, Jonjo O’Neill
Director: Janus Metz
Rated: R
Running Length: 101 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: Right now, on Broadway, ex-James Bond Daniel Craig and Oscar-nominee Ruth Negga have just started previews for their new production of Macbeth. Down the street, married couple Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick appear in a revival of Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite. These are just two examples of famous names in the industry that find themselves on the Great White Way in a play that’s often based mainly on scenes featuring just two people onstage, talking. That’s how some films start too, live on stage and then adapted into films. Some can easily break the bonds of being stage-bound, and others are enterally trapped in that theatrical flourish that can’t so handily be swept to the side.

In hindsight, I wasn’t surprised to learn All the Old Knives had been originally announced as a project for Chris Pine back in 2017. I was astonished to discover that the film wasn’t the product of a stage-to-screen adaptation but was instead written by Olen Steinhauer from his 2015 novel of the same name. So much of the movie involves characters (usually two) sitting across from one another talking that I could have imagined it being plucked from some short-lived Broadway run and expanded for the silver screen. Either way, All the Old Knives features several old tricks that will justifiably get the knives out for Steinhauer and a cast of likable, if bland, actors.

It’s been years since colleagues Harry Pelham (Pine, Wonder Woman 1984) and Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton, Solo: A Star Wars Story) have seen one another, not since she left him the day after their CIA office was involved with a mission that led to the deaths of hundreds of people on a hijacked aircraft. Recent intel has indicated a leak within their agency tipped off the hijackers, and Harry has been tasked by his boss (Laurence Fishburne, Where’d You Go, Bernadette) to suss out the mole. A phone call traced to one of the offices narrows it down to two people, so Harry pays them a visit. 

The nightmares of that day still plague Celia. Agreeing to meet Harry seems like a good way to close that chapter of her life. While their meeting at a coastal restaurant in wine country begins as benign reminiscing, it quickly evolves into a relitigating of the days leading up to the event and its immediate aftermath. As the evening stretches on and the bottles of wine keep coming, more truths are exposed between former flames who thought the other had been honest throughout their time together. By the end of the night, who is interrogating whom? 

Steinhauer keeps our heads spinning by having multiple people tell their version of the story, each with slightly different perspectives. I don’t think Steinhauer deliberately tries to confuse the audience or pull a fast one. Still, the effect of the repetition without consistency winds up creating a mind jumble anyway. Danish director Janus Metz teams with cinematographer (and fellow Dane) Charlotte Bruus Christensen (A Quiet Place) to give the past a steely blue hue and the present a shiny, almost waxy, glow. Also waxy, Pine in several bad wigs as we travel through distinct time periods. The worst is a longer one that gets more unruly as the film wears on, but Pine has competition from other cast members in the lousy wig department. Newton has several questionable fitted coifs as well.

There’s a problem with the film staring us straight in the face, and it’s a big one. The two stars have next to no chemistry. Now I know that Michelle Williams was initially set to star opposite Pine but dropped out when this was delayed, so maybe that combo would have worked better. Newton’s movie could have been better with a more exciting co-star, and Pine’s performance might have leveled off a bit sooner had he acted opposite someone who wasn’t so far ahead of him. Newtown is just too good of an actress to operate in the same hemisphere Pine (a pleasant actor that’s never going to win an Oscar) is living.

With a home stretch that drags out interminably long after providing a half-hearted attempt at a cop-out ending, any way you slice it, All the Old Knives is a bit of a lumbering mess. That being said, I would have paid a top price to see the same stars (yes, even Pine) on stage doing the same piece. I could readily see this operating as a slick piece of live theater that employs a small cast enjoying some juicy roles. It’s overstuffed as a film but sized right for the stage. Watch it (if you must) and see if you agree.

Movie Review ~ The Contractor

The Facts:

Synopsis: After being involuntarily discharged from the Army, James Harper joins a paramilitary organization to support his family in the only way he knows how.
Stars: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gillian Jacobs, Eddie Marsan, Florian Munteanu, Kiefer Sutherland, Nina Hoss, Amira Casar, Fares Fares, J. D. Pardo
Director: Tarik Saleh
Rated: R
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
ReviewThe ContractorThe Contractor?  Really?  Will they ever learn?  Here we go again with a more than decent film saddled with the most cardboard brown-colored title you can imagine, though it was filmed under one that had a little more flair.  When actors Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Gillian Jacobs signed on to Tarik Saleh’s muscle-y military film, it was for a script named Violence of Action.  Still, it was not entirely descriptive or exemplary enough to set it far apart from the direct to video junk starring a washed-up fourth-billed actor from a late ‘90s cop show, but…at least it had some movement to it.  The Contractor could be any movie.

Title qualms aside, and I had to put them aside, this is a surprisingly brisk and engaging action thriller that deservedly was bumped from a wide theatrical release in favor of a streaming debut.  It doesn’t have the full-bodiness to warrant that trip to the cinema but fits nicely with the new niche carved out for starry vehicles that need a home.  Orphaned by its original studio, Paramount snapped this one up, and they’ve made a wise purchase.  While it won’t ever be high on the resume for anyone involved, it acquits itself nicely as an otherwise engaging action thriller that keeps moving and doesn’t sag under easy-to-spot oncoming twists.

Sidelined from service due to a bum knee, Special Forces Sergeant James Harper (Pine, A Wrinkle in Time) struggles to provide for his family and is watching the bills pile up.  When he meets up with old army bud Mike (Foster, The Finest Hours), who appears to be living beyond his means, he finds out about Mike’s side work running covert jobs for Rusty Jennings (Kiefer Sutherland, Flatliners).  Bringing his friend into the fold, Mike leaves out a few key details. James figures these out quickly as he’s thrown into a dangerous mission exposing shady alliances that put his life and the well-being of his wife (Jacobs, Life of the Party) and child in jeopardy.

Six years after their runaway hit Hell or High Water, Pine and Foster have skilled onscreen chemistry, making them an ideal pair.  Director Saleh doesn’t have to spend much time establishing their history because both actors play their roles so convincingly that we don’t need a lot of backstories to understand their relationship.  That takes The Contractor only so far, though, and eventually, audiences will have only the standard plot mechanics of J.P. Davis’ script to carry them forward.  It’s not that Davis hasn’t crafted a strong three-act action-thriller; it’s just that nothing you can’t see coming a mile down the road happens. 

Compelling enough to not feel like a waste of time but routine in overall execution, The Contractor is best when it’s letting Pine and Foster continue to develop their non-action dramatics.  Once the mission takes over, interest starts to wane, and you’re in overly familiar territory.  The upside? You’re likely watching it for free (or far less than usual prices) at home, so you haven’t sunk movie theater prices on the watch.

Movie Review ~ Infinite Storm

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When a climber gets caught in a blizzard on Mount Washington, she encounters a stranded stranger and must get them both down the mountain before nightfall.
Stars: Naomi Watts, Billy Howle, Denis O’Hare, Parker Sawyers
Director: Malgorzata Szumowska, Michal Englert
Rated: R
Running Length: 104 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: Over time, I’ve found certain actresses that I gravitate toward because they have a quality, a spirit, that you can’t help wanting to get behind. Australian actress Naomi Watts is on that shortlist for me. Perhaps it’s because she’s a dedicated veteran that’s given it her all in films that haven’t allowed her to be painted into a corner. Most of the time, it’s yielded successful results, but it hasn’t brought her a golden trophy named Oscar she can rest on her mantle. It’s a goal I feel Watts tries to aim for, often blatantly, and the newest effort is the survival drama Infinite Storm. Whereas her traumatic performance in the pulverizing tsunami film 2012’s The Impossible last brought her to The Academy Awards, Infinite Storm will leave her (and audiences) out in the cold.

Not that Watts doesn’t, as usual, go for broke playing an experienced climber who works as a volunteer search and rescue operator that finds herself caught in an unexpected storm. Polish directors Malgorzata Szumowska & Michal Englert take their time getting Watts to her mountain, taking audiences through her morning routine, and chit-chat with a shop owner (Denis O’Hare, Dallas Buyers Club) before she zips up and heads out. It’s an otherwise ordinary journey up Mount Washington until the weather suddenly turns, and her instincts send her down to safety. She’s not faster than the storm, though, and she gets caught up in it, along with another mystery man (Billy Howle, Dunkirk) she runs into on her way down. Without the proper equipment, she has to do the work for both of them if either is to survive.

Without giving too much away, I’ll say that there’s more to the film than what you see in the trailers, but I wish I could hint that it’s worth checking out. Even the first half, which should see pulses race as Watts kicks into survival mode, fail to quicken much, and it’s primarily due to a curious lack of connection between the actors with each other or the viewer. There’s not much to grab onto, so you’re left to flail around aimlessly. That makes for a tiring experience, made more exhausting by the screenplay from Josh Rollins that consists primarily of Watts saying her companion’s name ad infinitum. She says his name (John) so much that you almost start to hope one doesn’t make it down alive…almost.

Based on a true story drawn from Ty Gagne’s article, “High Places: Footprints in the Snow Lead to an Emotional Rescue”, I wanted Infinite Storm to operate on a scale as impressive as some of Englert’s gorgeous cinematography. Too much is lost to a blizzard of histrionics that again keep Watts from finding a prime role of which she’s been deserving. Scale this mountain at your own risk.

INFINITE STORM will be available on demand starting April 12th

Rent or buy on all major platforms including Apple TV, Prime Video, Google Play & Vudu.

SXSW ~ Capsule Reviews, Vol. 5

SXSW Review ~ Hypochondriac

Synopsis: A young potter’s life devolves into chaos as he loses the function of his body while being haunted by the physical manifestation of his childhood trauma.
Director: Addison Heimann
Running Length: 96 minutes
Review: Though they’ve been getting more screen time within the last decade, most of the queer characters in horror films have been more coded than center stage throughout the genre’s history. They haven’t had much of an opportunity for prominence. I’m not sure if writer/director Addison Heimann had that consciously on his mind when making Hypochondriac, based in part on his journey through a nervous breakdown. Still, that real-life experience gives his onscreen proxy an opening to pave the way for future LGBTQ+ representation. Zach Villa takes us through a significant emotional arc as a man forced to confront his mentally unstable mother who returns to his life just as he has settled into a competitive job and comfortable relationship. Memories of the past shatter the calm waters of the present, plunging him into a psychological spiral he cannot escape. Is it his mother exerting some power over him, his mental illness emerging, or something darker still out to destroy everything he loves? Some aspects of Hypochondriac are easily comparable to 2001’s Donnie Darko, but writing it off as a gay version of that cult classic is giving short shrift to this well-done and emotionally vulnerable piece. Working with a smaller budget means the film sometimes looks a little dingy, but otherwise, it impressively manages its metaphors.

SXSW Review ~ Pretty Problems

Synopsis: Jack and Lindsay are invited on a getaway trip with affluent strangers: down the rabbit hole and into the most unhinged weekend of their lives. Can their relationship survive?
Director: Kestrin Pantera
Running Length: 103 minutes
Review: This far into the SXSW experience, it’s easy for the movies to begin to blend together at times. In a way, they can be indistinguishable from one another because all have similar aesthetics and an overall vibe, clearly a focus by the festival curators. Those that stick out from the fray are such welcome surprises, and in a year of enjoyably strong offerings, Pretty Problems was a leader of the pack in laughs and consistency. A new friend invites a middle-class California couple to a posh weekend gathering in wine country that stirs up buttoned-down emotions in their stagnant marriage as they attempt to enjoy the life of luxury. The wife wants more of life and thinks marriage holds her back; the husband feels the opposite. Their hosts provide an attractive mirror to their relationship, not to mention a second couple, a himbo and his ditzy girlfriend so dim they think the ice in Antarctica is made out of penguin urine. 

Reading up on the film after, I learned that two couples are married in real life, but not to each other, and one of them wrote the movie. With all that involvement, you might expect the material to be slanted in one direction, but there’s a spreading of the wealth that gives everyone more than a few spotlight moments. I laughed out loud multiple times and rewound a few scenes to watch them again. I especially liked J.J. Nolan’s eccentric hostess because you never quite know whether she invited this random couple along for the friendship potential or merely her entertainment. Thankfully, there’s little of the mean-spiritedness that often creeps into these types of films. Any of the problems in Pretty Problems aren’t solved by taking others down a peg. Keep your eyes out for this one.

SXSW Review ~ It Is in Us All

Synopsis: A formidable man who cares for nothing is forced to confront his self-destructive core when a violent car crash challenges him to face his truth.
Director: Antonia Campbell-Hughes
Running Length: 92 minutes
Review: Ooo… doesn’t the logline for this film sound dark and mysterious? That’s all I had to go off of, and with my choice of titles dwindling at SXSW, I’ll admit this was a selection born out of a need to watch whatever wasn’t a documentary (I had watched several in a row at that point) so, this Irish thriller got the green light. Knowing little about the film was the way to go because writer/director Antonia Campbell-Hughes (who also has a small but pivotal role) is good about doling out tiny bits of info, never letting us get too far ahead or revealing more than necessary. Opening with the arrival of Hamish (a stunning Cosmo Jarvis, The Shadow of Violence) in Ireland, he’s headed back to his mother’s hometown when he’s involved in a horrible car crash that leaves him badly injured and a young boy dead. Recuperating in the home of his recently deceased aunt and refusing much care from anyone trying to help, he does find a local teenager’s (Rhys Mannion) acute interest in him strangely intriguing. Campbell-Hughes does well in bringing everyone (including the viewer) right to the edge but struggles during the latter half of It Is in Us All with committing to decision and definition. That frustrated me at times, especially when it feels like there are only two options available in any given situation for these haunted people. One thing is for sure, Jarvis is a star on the rise. 

SXSW Review ~ B**ch A*s

Synopsis: A gang initiation goes wrong when a group of four recruits break into a house of horror, as they’re all forced to play deadly games for their lives.
Director: Bill Posley
Running Length: 83 minutes
Review: There’s always one. The one film you see and wonder how it managed to make it past the adjudicators of a festival selection staff. Of all the movies I saw at SXSW, Bitch Ass sounded the most interesting, not just because it was a headliner in the horror-themed Midnighters series, but because Bill Posley’s urban Saw-ish set-up presented itself as if it might offer a bit of fun with the frights. That illusion went out the door when this cheap-o, sloppy endeavor began. Attempting to emulate the analog experience by having Candyman himself, Tony Todd introducing the film as an old VHS discovery, the foolish choice of having the movie framed in a way that cuts off key parts of the screen (and therefore much of the credits) just made me think there was something wrong with my TV. The ramshackle, public access look continues for the next 80 punishing minutes. Whatever fraction of decent acting there is gets undone by poorly conceived dialogue and pacing that will try even the most forgiving horror fans. Undoubtedly the worst film to be shown at SXSW.

SXSW Review ~ Spaz

Synopsis: Steve ‘Spaz’ Williams is a pioneer in computer animation, but an appetite for anarchy and reckless disregard for authority may have cost him the recognition he deserved.
Director: Scott Leberecht
Running Length: 86 minutes
Review: I passed up this documentary a few times because of the title. Rookie error! Once I had time to read about it, I realized that Spaz (an outdated term the movie acknowledges at the top) should have sat at the top of my list from the beginning. Scott Lebrecht’s look at the life of legendary computer animator Steve Williams is an honest examination of the artist’s landmark achievements and the fall from grace and alcohol issues that were his ultimate downfall. Interviewing Williams now, while there’s still a sparkle in his eye, the image we get is a far cry from the maverick pioneer that was behind the first of their kind effects in The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and Jurassic Park. Through interviews with family, friends, and former co-workers, the viewer is taken through each step of the journey, and it’s clear how much respect Williams has from his peers. The personal demons won out, though, and he begins the film as a loud, beer-swilling storyteller that looks back with some regret…but it’s not where things wind up. Movie fans will love the behind-the-scenes info Lebrecht digs up and the slick way the 86 minute film is assembled. Very entertaining.

SXSW Review ~ The Thief Collector

Synopsis: In 1985, Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre,” one of the most valuable paintings of the 20th century, was cut from its frame at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. 32 years later, the painting was found hanging in a New Mexico home.
Director: Allison Otto
Running Length: 93 minutes
Review: This was one of the stretch assignments I tasked myself with to expand my horizons. I’m all for a good heist documentary, but at first, I thought The Thief Collector, about a New Mexico couple found to have stolen a priceless painting by Willem de Kooning, was speaking a different language to me. Not being from the art world (hence why I also watched The Art of Making It), I’m not acutely familiar with de Kooning’s work and certainly never heard of “Woman-Ochre” before watching Allison Otto’s colorful detective piece. After reading some good notices about Otto’s film, I gave this one a go, and the results were mixed. While I appreciated hearing about this strange, uncovered mystery and how the case developed into more than just an investigation of a stolen painting, an overreliance on dramatic recreations always tips me off that there was a lack of material necessary for a complete film. I think these filmed segments with actors held the movie back and brought in a faux reality that took me out of the film too much. Much more successful were the quirky characters Otto located to chat with and a few of the crazy theories tossed out along the way regarding motive. I can easily see this one turning up on Netflix.

SXSW Review ~ Bad Axe

Synopsis: A real-time portrait of 2020 unfolds as an Asian-American family in Trump’s rural America fights to keep their restaurant and American dream alive in the face of a pandemic, Neo-Nazis, and generational scars from the Killing Fields.
Director: David Siev
Running Length: 100 minutes
Review: One of the last movies I saw at SXSW was unquestionably the best. I’d been trying to actively stay away from anything that has to deal directly with the pandemic that has been gripping the world for the last two years, so I was ready to grit my teeth for the good of David Siev’s film. Involving one family living in the same house through much of the 2020 pandemic, Siev has used his family and family business as the subjects of Bad Axe, his look into what it was like to be a minority business owner trying to stay afloat during uncertain times. Along with his siblings, Siev worked at his family’s restaurant and visited there often to observe how things changed over time, from navigating take-out orders to dealing with annoyed customers that refused to wear masks indoors. It’s not just the arguing at restaurants; the siblings themselves all have individual reckonings of their own that we watch unfold. At the head of all this are Siev’s strong-willed parents, a Cambodian immigrant father and a Mexican mother, who have different approaches to adjusting to life with new protocols. When the Black Lives Matter movement comes to town, new troubles arise when the mostly Republican community gets wind of Siev’s potential documentary and participation from particular Siev family and their employees in the cause. While I often watched the movie riveted into silence, Siev captures many humorous moments as well, all aching with a sincerity we can relate to. As much as we want to forget the last two years, consider Bad Axe a fulfilling catch-all that reflects an experience many either witnessed firsthand or should be more aware of.

SXSW Review ~ Cha Cha Real Smooth

Synopsis: A young man who works as a Bar Mitzvah party host strikes up a friendship with a mother and her autistic daughter.
Director: Cooper Raiff
Running Length: 107 minutes
Review: Ask anyone that attended SXSW to name the one film on the programming schedule that will likely wind up making the most money, and everyone will point to writer/director/star Cooper Raiff’s Cha Cha Real Smooth. And with good reason. The film is extremely entertaining; honest, and moving on a level we don’t get that often in movies. Raiff plays Andrew, an aimless recent college grad living at home who finds some small wins when he becomes an in-demand party host on the Bar Mitzvah circuit in his hometown. At one such event, he meets Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). Bonding quickly with mother and daughter, Andrew’s plans for the future get thrown into turmoil when his feelings for Domino get complicated after the arrival of her fiancée. Raiff’s insightful screenplay affords a fantastic arc for Johnson to deliver her best performance to date, not to mention introducing Burghardt as a delightful talent and the engaging Raiff. From beginning to end, the movie is an absolute joy. After being bought by Apple out of its premiere at Sundance, expect this one to get the royal treatment as it premiers in a prime spot and gets positioned as a major awards contender. 

SXSW Review ~ Jethica

Synopsis: When Jessica’s stalker surprises her in New Mexico, she must seek help from beyond the grave to get rid of him for good.
Director: Pete Ohs
Running Length: 70 minutes
Review: At the outset, I see the 70-minute length for Jethica, and I get excited because, after a long week of movies, I’m up for a film that is all meat, no fat. While it winds up having some gristle around the edges, some interesting things are going on in this odd duck effort from Pete Ohs that I grew to like even more after it was over and I had time to sit with it. Not for those looking for a polished product but perfect for patrons of ultra-indie shoestring and popsicle stick-made treasures, it takes a while for Jethica to reveal its intentions, but once it gets started, you can’t quite get it to slow down. Framed as a post-coital ghost story, Elena sees her old friend Jessica at a gas station and asks her out for coffee. Over a cup, Jessica lets Elena know why she’s back in town and eventually all about a man stalking her. When the man (Will Madden) shows up in town, Jessica realizes just how deep his devotion is; at the same time, she understands the trouble she’s brought home. Ohs packs Jethica with several large twists, some obvious, one not so much, that come in quick order, so stay with it and pay attention to some of the hysterical dialogue given to Jessica’s stalker. Yes, there are horror elements to this, but horror doesn’t always have to involve blood and gore; sometimes, relationships and annoying partners are hell.

SXSW Review ~ We Feed People

Synopsis: A chronicle of how José Andrés and his nonprofit rebuilds nations in the wake of a disaster, providing healthy food to those affected.
Director: Ron Howard
Running Length: 89 minutes
Review: Oscar-winning director Ron Howard has put aside the Hollywood game for a bit and turned his lens on stories impacting the real world. Over the past six years, he’s directed more documentaries than feature films, many of which have spoken to various crises facing parts of our country and abroad. His latest, We Feed People, looks at one man’s mission to form a coalition that ensures food is available to all in need during disasters. Like his previous documentary, 2020’s Rebuilding Paradise, about the California wildfires and the devastation they caused to one community, the footage Howard and his crew can get is extraordinary. The interviews with those involved/affected are great advertisements to fundraise, and eventually, that’s precisely what We Feed People starts to feel like: an 89-minute fundraising advertisement. I appreciated learning about Chef José Andrés (he prefers cook) and his work. Still, by the end, it started to feel like it was leaning toward a pitch for our business rather than a presentation to be informative. 

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.   

Movie Review ~ Deep Water

The Facts:

Synopsis: A well-to-do husband who allows his wife to have affairs to avoid a divorce becomes a prime suspect in the disappearance of her lovers.
Stars: Ben Affleck, Ana de Armas, Tracy Letts, Dash Mihok, Lil Rel Howery, Jacob Elordi, Finn Wittrock, Kristen Connolly, Rachel Blanchard
Director: Adrian Lyne
Rated: R
Running Length: 115 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: The gossip-grabbing headlines that have followed Deep Water from its filming during the later months of 2019 through its numerous release delays have been the stuff that set the tongues wagging of both viewers and critics alike.  Audiences with their home screens set to Page Six are keen to know if the relationship between the stars of the film, Ben Affleck (The Last Duel) and Ana de Armas (Knives Out), equated to erotic chemistry in this adaptation of a 1957 Patricia Highsmith novel.  On the flip side, critics were increasingly desperate to watch the return of director Adrian Lyne after what would turn out to be a twenty-year gap between films.  When the film was announced to debut on Hulu in March of 2022, Affleck was back with Jennifer Lopez, and de Armas is doing just fine on the cusp of A-list stardom.  On the other hand, Deep Water should have been submerged at the bottom of a shallow creek.

I actually went into Lyne’s first film since 2002’s Unfaithful with hope all the early lousy buzz was wrong, the result of too many eager beavers ready to tear the movie to shreds.  We’ve certainly had those films before.  Unfortunately, this is not one of those cases.  Highsmith’s novel is about a husband and wife in a loveless marriage stained with adultery who use the men the wife sleeps with as pawns in their psychological torment of one another.  When one of these games goes too far, it creates a fissure in their routine that changes the rules they’ve seemingly agreed to and ups the ante for unpredictable danger.  While Highsmith’s novel isn’t as overt as the screenplay from Zach Helm and Sam Levinson (Malcolm & Marie), its framework would have made for a sophisticated (and, sure, sexy) adult drama that Lyne could have molded to his style.  It’s absolutely in line with the films he has overseen before, like 9 ½ Weeks, Indecent Proposal, and Fatal Attraction

So why is Deep Water so shallow and dull?  Perhaps it’s because there’s no chemistry between the leads, a strange occurrence for the actors who found romance offscreen.  You don’t once buy for a second that de Armas would choose the lean and lanky boys she flounces around with over Affleck’s more mature and handsome frame.  Even if she’s trying to provoke him into what eventually happens, the character de Armas is playing is supposedly repulsed by the thought of being with her husband. It just doesn’t come across as believable.  In that same vein, Affleck is tasked with having to act like he’s above all of the flirting de Armas does in front of him and his friends (more on that later), but the most addled he gets is contorting his face as if he has a piece of rice stuck in a back molar. 

More than anything, Deep Water has no erotic edge to it.  Lush lust might have saved the film from its rather bland exchanges between husband and wife, and let’s face it, some of Lyne’s previous films were significantly assisted by the suggestive content.  Instead, we get several large dinner parties where the most exciting thing that occurs is de Armas playing the piano badly at one and de Armas asking her newest boy toy (Jacob Elordi) to tinkle the ivories at another.  At that particular party, when he starts playing, you would have thought Amadeus himself was playing Elvis Presley the way the guests begin to jive to the melody.  Also, Lyne films each of these gatherings so gauzy and dimly lit that I swear it felt like it would erupt into a key party at any moment. All of their friends seemed a little…too friendly.

If I told you there was a murder mystery at the core of Deep Water, would it excite you any more to see it?  It shouldn’t because it’s barely part of the plot, though previews might make you think otherwise.  No, most of the movie is focused on Affleck looking jealous of de Armas and de Armas apparently hating her life with Affleck and their young daughter.  It’s hard to feel much sympathy with anyone involved; even the people that are intended to be helpful are pretty abysmal.  Lyne also includes one of the most bizarre scenes to show over a closing credit in some time.  It’s almost entirely a miss, recommended only for the curious that don’t mind giving away two hours of their time to have nothing to show for it.