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 ~ 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 ~ Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

The Facts:

Synopsis: When struggling filmmaker Dean moves into an Airbnb, he quickly discovers that he is not alone. Marcel, an adorable one-inch-tall shell, already lives there with his grandmother Connie and their pet lint, Alan.
Stars: Jenny Slate, Rosa Salazar, Thomas Mann, Isabelle Rossellini, Andy Richter, Nathan Fielder, Peter Bonerz, Jessi Klein, Lesley Stahl
Director: Dean Fleischer-Camp
Rated: PG
Running Length: 90 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review:  A decade ago, we were at the peak of the viral video heyday. Who didn’t get that email from a friend/co-worker with a link to some funny YouTube clip that was either ROTFL in its hilarity or a goofy eye roll on its way to the recycling bin? Like most nine-to-fivers working a corporate cubicle job, sometimes I needed a good laugh to make it through the workday and often thrived on these. That’s why I’m a little amazed Marcel the Shell with Shoes On never made it across my virtual desktop when it appeared on the streaming site in October 2010.

The creation of (then) husband and wife Dean Fleischer-Camp and Jenny Slate, the three shorts released in 2010, 2011, and 2014 featured a squeaky-voiced mollusk filmed talking about himself and spreading small amounts of joy in the process. Marcel (voiced by Slate, Zootopia) was childlike at times but deeply wise in others, pondering the mysteries of life and putting into off-the-cuff perspective the big picture we sometimes lose sight of. The stop motion animation of Marcel in various scenarios wasn’t groundbreaking from a technical perspective. Still, something in the way it presented itself without guile or pretense spoke to all ages. Unsurprisingly, the tiny guy became a huge hit, spawning a book and now a feature film adaptation.

For total transparency, I watched the three shorts after I saw the film. I’m glad I did because the movie recreates/incorporates several of the same jokes/lines/scenarios featured before. This full-length movie isn’t just a greatest hits collection, though. Fleischer-Camp and Slate brought Elisabeth Holm (a frequent Slate collaborator) and Nick Paley to formalize and expand the story, giving Marcel a backstory and purpose above and beyond the philosophical musings that put him on the map. In doing so, they’ve made an inanimate object more human and relatable than most films in 2022 with flesh and blood actors. 

Marcel is small but mighty, no bigger than a grape, with one expressive eye and two pink accented shoes. Though he doesn’t possess hands, somehow he’s managed to create an endless playground of discarded/found items in a home he shares with Connie (Isabella Rossellini, Enemy), another shell starting to show her advanced age. The last of their “community” left behind after the owners of the house (Thomas Mann, Lady and the Tramp, and Rosa Salazar, Alita: Battle Angel) broke up and put their shared home as a rental on Airbnb, the two shells have forged a happy, if at times, lonely, existence. The newest tenant, Dean (the director himself), discovers Marcel one day and decides to make a film out of the esoteric eccentric.

Getting to know Marcel more through their interactions, Dean learns of Marcel’s wish to find his lost community and, in a meta twist, puts a collection of their filmed interviews on YouTube. Echoing that first video which took off like a rocket, Marcel becomes an overnight sensation and even attracts the attention of Marcel and Connie’s favorite news anchor, Lesley Stahl from 60 Minutes. Can Stahl help them locate the couple that left them behind and reunite them? How will Marcel react to his newfound fame, and does he even want his easy-going existence to change? 

Coming in blind to Marcel the Shell with Shoes On required a bit of an adjustment to not just the punchline style delivery of everything Marcel says but in that same rapid-fire changing of scenes as we are introduced to Marcel and Connie’s world. The writers all have a talent for sharp wit and improv comedy that result in some hilarious passages; once you move past the material that feels like it’s all set-up and punchline, the real plot kicks in, and that’s when something special develops. Fleischer-Camp and a talented array of filmmakers give the shells real personality, and the animation blends seamlessly with the live-action, creating a believable diorama. It’s a sharp improvement over the YouTube videos (obviously with a studio like A24 involved) and I wouldn’t doubt this could get some end-of-the-year recognition in technical categories.

The voices are also an essential part of this puzzle. Adding in Rossellini’s character shows a high emotional maturity rarely found in movies that viewers could otherwise think of as simplistic. (It also gives the film one of its best jokes, capitalizing on Rossellini’s thick accent.)  Already a talented voice-over actress, Slate again delivers grand work voicing Marcel with a pitch that could have quickly gone into the annoying realm if handled differently. The softness in the lilt and execution tells an emotional story without the words to express it. The creativity in the writing matches that in the voice work, creating a harmony that feels both well thought out and true to the characters.

I saw several kids at my showing of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On and can see why the film would look like it appeals to them. I’m not sure the movie is made for them, though, if that makes sense. The enormity of emotions (it hits you good right when you think you’re out of the woods) and life-size scaled questions are admirable to introduce, but it feels more like a kid’s movie made by adults for adults. A big screen theatrical showing feels almost too big for a character that began life as a YouTube creation, so delaying for at viewing home would be fine when you can wonder if there’s a Marcel-like object in your house waiting to start a conversation.

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 ~ Red Rocket

The Facts:

Synopsis: Finding himself down and out in Los Angeles, ex porn star Mikey Saber decides to crawl back to his hometown of Texas City, Texas, where his estranged wife and mother-in-law are living.

Stars: Simon Rex, Bree Elrod, Suzanna Son, Brenda Deiss, Judy Hill, Brittany Rodriguez, Ethan Darbone, Marlon Lambert

Director: Sean Baker

Rated: R

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Of all the former MTV VJs that would be thought of to get a big comeback story, I never would have considered Simon Rex would be the name that would be on the top of the list for many.  I mean, I’m someone that would be interested in seeing a late career revamp for the likes of Daisy Fuentes, Karen Duffy, Mark Goodman, Ananda Lewis, or my personal favorite…Julie Brown (not the Downtown one).  Yet here we are, talking once again about Rex almost 25 years after his stint on MTV came to an end and a number of years after his short stint in feature films fizzled out.  Though Rex was never a top tier talent, he skated by largely on his good looks and that extreme likability factor which made him such a prime choice for the music video channel that even then was sparking onto profiting off of the engagement to specific demographics.

Of course, what many people instantly think of (at least from the generation that were teenagers/young adults around 1996/1997 and paid attention) when they hear the name Simon Rex is the infamy he achieved when it was discovered that before he landed the MTV gig he had a brief fling in the adult film industry.  Appearing in a handful of solo videos, Rex was one of the first “celebrity” adult videos that could be found on the new World Wide Web and believe me, it didn’t matter what your orientation was, at some point you encountered it. (Don’t deny it!)  Miraculously, it didn’t derail his career like it certainly would have years earlier.  Oddly, Rex perhaps got a bit of a boost from it, albeit briefly, and if it had happened ten years later he might have been able to pivot it into some kind of business deal if he had wanted to.  Instead, he’s largely been showing up in low-budget junk films (Halloweed, anyone?) and, shudder, performing as the rapper Dirt Nasty with the rap group he formed, Dyslexic Speedreaders.

Thank goodness for Sean Baker, the ultra-indie writer/director of 2015’s breakthrough, filmed on an iPhone, Tangerine and 2017’s Oscar-lauded The Florida Project.  Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch thought of Rex when drafting Red Rocket, their new film about a washed-up porn star that high tails it out of Los Angeles and heads home to a small town in Texas.  It’s not based on Rex’s life (this isn’t a Magic Mike-ish story like Channing Tatum), but it feels tailor-made to one Rex could have easily had if he hadn’t found his way to sets that didn’t require him to take his clothes off.  Typical of Baker is a gleaming essence of small-town life, the feeling of an endless parade of days with the same schedule and no plans for anything but more of the same.  Pair that unflinching honesty with Rex’s central performance as one of the unlikeliest leading men in all of 2021 and Red Rocket becomes a fascinating, if not entirely endorse-able watch.

Mikey Saber (Rex) hops off the bus from Los Angeles with a bruised face, body, and ego.  Charming his way back into the tiny home of his mother-in-law Lil (Brenda Deiss) and a wife (Bree Elrod) he’s been separated from for years, he convinces them to let him crash on the couch while he finds work and helps with their rent.  Unable to find a job in the dying town (Texas City, TX) due to his adult entertainment past, he turns to the local pot dealer (Judy Hill) and her daughter June (Brittney Rodriguez) to sell for them on the side.  His ability to market ice to a penguin makes him a perfect candidate to move their product and it’s not long before he’s bringing in decent money through sales to strippers in neighboring towns and construction workers that frequent the donut shop he hangs out at.

Also at the donut shop is seventeen year old Strawberry (Suzanna Son), a beautiful redhead that catches Mikey’s eye.  While the two grow closer and his estrangement with his chain-smoking wife disintegrates further, he strikes up a friendship with the oddball next door who has an weird habit of being arrested for stolen valor (look it up) and being heavily influenced by peer pressure.  Convinced Strawberry could be the next big thing in the business and sensing an opportunity to start life again and revitalize his career, Mikey makes plans to once again leave Texas behind…but the town that initially didn’t want him may not let him leave quite so easily.

What I continue to admire about Baker’s work is that it’s in your face cinema without feeling like it’s shoving things down your throat.  Sure, Red Rocket is tremendously raunchy and contains numerous sex scenes featuring Rex and either Elrod and Son humping like jack rabbits and leaving little to the imagination but so much work has been done leading up to these scenes to instill a sense of realism to these people that they come across like humans and not just tools being moved around for the pleasure of the audience.  It’s not “sexy” but it’s not NOT sexy.  Does that make sense?  To that end, if you’ve yet to see Rex’s famous appendage, you’ll get your chance several times during the 130-minute film, which is long and could be trimmed slightly (the movie, I mean.)

Where Red Rocket tended to lose me was the nearly 50-year-old Mikey seducing 17-year-old Strawberry and, let’s just say it, grooming her for a life in the adult industry in a way that felt manipulative and sleazy.  Yes, I know that’s part of the intent in Baker and Bergoch’s screenplay, but the lines aren’t as clearly drawn as they could have been to truly make Mikey culpable for whatever damage is incurred to those around him.  There’s another incident (that I won’t spoil) which occurs in relation to Mikey and it’s a fairly horrific event offscreen and we are asked to piece it together through newsclips and offhand conversations.  Why alienate us further to a character already on the edge with us?  It’s like Baker is daring us to judge someone more and more without giving him the ‘ole heave-ho…but at some point, you have to kick him to the curb.

It’s easier not to kick Mikey when he’s down (or even when he’s up) because Rex manages to keep us on Mikey’s side longer than we might have otherwise if someone else had taken the role.  Sure, you can spot the con he’s spouting and the line he’s selling, most of those he comes in contact with can, but they let him get away with it because ultimately, he is only doing damage to himself.  It’s when the damage spills over to others when battle lines are drawn and the film strays into darker territories.  The small-town flavor of some of the other cast results in decidedly uneven performances but it makes not a lick of difference.  Line deliveries are beyond questionable from some (one sounds like they are being fed their lines from off camera) but it only adds to their overall charm.

By and large, Red Rocket is an enjoyable endeavor and a real showcase for Rex to stage a comeback in a unique way.  There’s a central joke to the movie and also to Rex which shows that both have a sense of humor and that’s just the beginning of the way in which Baker works with changing our perception of Rex as a one-dimension personality into considering him as a serious actor.  It works more often than not and while I still didn’t care for much of the action in the final 1/3 of the film, that first seventy minutes or so is rip-roaringly good. 

Down From the Shelf ~ The Green Knight (2021)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s reckless and headstrong nephew, embarks on a daring quest to confront the eponymous Green Knight, a gigantic emerald-skinned stranger and tester of men.

Stars: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, Barry Keoghan, Erin Kellyman, Ralph Ineson

Director: David Lowery

Rated: R

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review:  I grew up watching the 1963 Disney film The Sword and the Stone almost on a loop but have oddly kept much of Arthurian legend at a distance for most of my adult life.  I’m not sure why I’ve avoided the sword and sorcery films to date, perhaps it’s the medieval setting and just seeing too much torture and carnage in cheap action/horror films over the years.  Yet when I come across one of these films, I find that I’m definitely up for a nice battle between knights and a good (bad) witch or two and the bigger the production the better.  That’s why I was so surprised that I let The Green Knight slip through my fingers in its initial release in July 2021 where it received a round of enthusiastic reviews.

Recently re-released into theaters timed to the Christmas holiday, I decided to give a blind-bought 4K UHD BluRay a spin to go with the spirit of the season and putting the disc into the player felt a bit like cracking open a gold-leafed copy of a well-told tale.  Gorgeously conceived, tremendously performed, and beautifully told, The Green Knight is one of those films you stumble upon and then stumble out of, shaking your head in disbelief at just how wonderful it actually is.  Often when I hear of these types of indie endeavors and how instantly cult-status-approved they become, I’m wary about giving them too much consideration.  However, in this case all the ballyhoo and flag waving was well-earned – this is lighting in a bottle good stuff and as intricate in its design narratively as the costumes are in their fine details.

Take this as a litmus test.  If you don’t get a little tingle anywhere in your body watching the first minute of the movie, a spooky, moody introducing of the tale of Sir Gawain, then perhaps you aren’t quite in the headspace for it that day.  Only go forward once you feel the tingle.  That way you can be prepped for the story of the impetuous Gaiwan (Dev Patel, The Personal History of David Copperfield) the nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris, Macbeth) who has lived his life unimpeded until the day his mother (Sarita Choudhury, Evil Eye) conjures the titular character.  When the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson, The Tragedy of Macbeth) arrives in Camelot and challenges the Knights of the Round Table to a daunting task of bravery, it is Gaiwan who steps up and faces the magical Knight. Tasked with reuniting with the Green Knight in a years’ time on his home turf, Gaiwan spends the next year partying with his commoner love (Alicia Vikander, Tomb Raider) and not thinking too much about the fate that stands before him.

When the year is up, Gaiwan is set to keep his promise and treks forward through a perilous journey that will present adventure, deception, and distraction leading up to his second encounter with the Green Knight.  Through various episodes with a mourning ghost (Erin Kellyman, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier), a rascally fox, a rogue scavenger (Barry Keoghan, Eternals), and a Lord (Joel Edgerton, Boy Erased) and Lady (Vikander, again), Gaiwan will be tested not just on his strength of spirit but on his willingness to stay the course in the face of a certain fate that was foretold to him. 

For those following his career, director David Lowery is keeping his fans always surprised.  Scoring an indie hit with 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints before turning course with the lovely 2016 remake of Pete’s Dragon, he followed that up with 2017’s A Ghost Story and then the quiet but bold Robert Redford caper comedy The Old Man & the Gun.  Now he’s taking on this project, which is completely different than anything he’s done, and he’s presented a completely realized take on Arthurian legend…and it feels so clear and concise that you’d think he’d been planning it for decades. 

Though not an obvious candidate from the outside, Patel is the right choice for Gaiwan, getting to the heart of the boy as he becomes a man through his journey of self-discovery.  The transition isn’t easily achieved and not without a great deal of fear, all nicely conveyed through work by Patel and Lowery in conjunction with a crackerjack production team.  The cast member with the longest association to the piece was Vikander and using her in multiple capacities was a good call; it plays with the magic surrounding the world that’s been created and also allows for Vikander to get a first-rate monologue in the second half of the film.  Like me, you likely won’t realize you’ve been holding your breath until she’s done speaking. 

Clocking in at the perfect length and never lingering on any shot or sequence longer than it has to, The Green Knight is proof positive that Lowery continues on a winning streak and remains a director that must be tracked.  His attention to the production side is exquisite but how he pairs that with the emotional way into the story is also worth taking note of.  We need more of these kinds of directors that can work to meld both disciplines, the physical and emotional, together.  The Green Knight is an example of it being done to perfection.

Movie Review ~ The Tragedy of Macbeth

The Facts:  

Synopsis: A Scottish lord becomes convinced by a trio of witches that he will become the next King of Scotland, and his ambitious wife supports him in his plans of seizing power. 

Stars: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Alex Hassell, Bertie Carvel, Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Harry Melling, Miles Anderson, Matt Helm, Moses Ingram, Kathryn Hunter, Scott Subiono, Brian Thompson 

Director: Joel Coen 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 105 minutes 

TMMM Score: (9.5/10) 

Review:  I’ve written several reviews lately where I’ve had to go back and revisit my original reactions to hearing about the movie when it was initially announced – and more often than not find myself gorging on humble pie filled with my sticky words.  Basically, I’ve been proven wrong repeatedly and I’m not above admitting it.  The latest example is Joel Coen’s film version of William Shakespeare’s bloody The Tragedy of Macbeth, being released by A24 and AppleTV+.  More than any other Shakespeare, I feel as if I’ve been exposed to this work in one form or another often and questioned why Coen would use up his time on another telling as well as enlisting big-time Oscar winners Denzel Washington and his wife Frances McDormand to come along with the ride. 

I realized when the marketing machine for The Tragedy of Macbeth kicked off how wrong I was because here were two trained Shakespearean actors collaborating with a director that knows his way around a plot heavy with scheming and bloodshed.  Like the recent West Side Story and people being shocked that they ever doubted Steven Spielberg directing such a fantastic remake, why did I ever think this trio couldn’t pull it off?  Far more than fair and not the least bit foul, Coen’s take on Shakespeare’s savage tragedy is a feast for the eyes and ears. I may have thought I was over this particular play, but The Tragedy of Macbeth is so brilliantly done I can’t deny leaving feeling artistically revived.

It’s entirely possible the plot of the play, said to have been written around 1600, is still unfamiliar to some so let’s have a bit of a review session, shall we? 

After succeeding in battle, Macbeth (Washington, Flight) and his friend Banquo (Bertie Carvel, Les Misérables), both generals in the King’s army, are heading back home when both men receive a curious message about their future from a prophesizing stranger (Kathryn Hunter).  When they reach their destination, Macbeth conspires with his wife (McDormand, Nomadland) about the meaning of the stranger’s news that he would be King, eventually taking fortune into their own hands and seizing the throne through murderous acts that spiral out of control.  The ripple effect from each bloody event creates a new problem to be solved or truth to withhold, driving some to madness and others to flee.  Those that stay come face to face with their destiny in ways that were always meant to be if they had just heeded the original messages.

We’ve had a streamlined Macbeth before, as recently as 2015 with Justin Kurzel’s brutal and bloody take starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as one of literature’s most infamous couples.  I quite liked that interpretation, because aside from the luxe visuals and performances it showed that the bones of Shakespeare’s story could more than withstand excess meat being cut off the bone.  Coen takes his own slices off and the result works even better paired with Stefan Dechant’s (Welcome to Marwen) minimalist production design.  Shot entirely inside a studio without much effort to make it look otherwise, the effect is somehow even more chilling for its starkness due to the exposure the sets provide.  There’s little place to hide or mask your entrance so you better be ready for confrontation if you decide to go forth.

The cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel (The Woman in the Window) is gorgeous in its risk-taking, the striking use of black and white achieves the correct effect for a story devoid of anything but “either/or” decisions.  Marvel at the simple yet intricate costumes by Mary Zophres (Interstellar), so breathtaking in their construction and clarity.  Then there are Washington and McDormand, turning in performances that best even their best, which I didn’t think was even possible.  When I think I’ve seen everything Washington has in his reserves, he comes up with something new.  McDormand I’ve learned to never underestimate and her attack on this most towering of roles is commendable.  The real star however is the brilliant Hunter as all three witches…and then some.  How this is accomplished should NOT be spoiled for you. I’ll only say it’s a smashing collaboration of actor and director, with assistance from numerous other departments.  Nominate her for an Oscar…it’s justly deserved.

For once, I think this is a movie where it doesn’t matter what size screen you see it on.  Don’t gasp, I’ll always want you to see it on the big screen (or the biggest screen in your home) but if you had to watch this on your laptop or phone, I don’t think The Tragedy of Macbeth would lose much in the clarity department.  Coen and his team of technical geniuses have made sure the movie is crisp as a new dollar bill, so you’ll be able to get everything out of it as Coen intends no matter how you happen to see it.  See it you must, though.  It’s one of the very best films of 2021.

Movie Review ~ C’mon C’mon

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A documentary filmmaker bonds with his smart-yet-sensitive nephew, whose father struggles with bipolar disorder and is in the grips of a manic episode.

Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Woody Norman, Gaby Hoffmann, Scoot McNairy, Molly Webster, Jaboukie Young-White

Director: Mike Mills

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  The first role any actor takes after they’ve won an Oscar is always a bit of a hold your breath moment.  In the wake of being the toast of the town, can they stay true to the career they’d built up until that point and continue to perform within their chosen medium?  Or will they be tempted toward projects that are more about profit than art, resulting in their award being the only truly valuable selling point about them in terms of box office?  Perhaps they pick the right movie that fizzles at the box office.  It’s rare to get the Tom Hanks treatment and go for back-to-back wins like the actor did with 1993’s Philadelphia and then a year later in Forrest Gump

Joaquin Phoenix won his Best Actor Oscar for Joker in 2019 so he won’t be Hanks-ing it but he’ll most likely be in the mix again this year for his work in C’mon C’mon, a prime example of how to land yourself a winner directly after achieving the industry’s top award.  The performance is so good that it nearly erases whatever small discomfort this critic was harboring for Phoenix’s win in a role that was dynamically performed but found in a movie that lacked a moral center.  Paired with a first-rate child actor (newcomer Woody Norman) and a former child actor (veteran Gaby Hoffmann), under the direction of Mike Mills (20th Century Women), C’mon C’mon gives Phoenix the opportunity to show yet another side to his acting that is refreshing, honest, and true.

With her ex-husband living in another state and suffering another emotional collapse, Viv (Hoffmann, This is My Life) is unable to keep her life at home with son Jesse (Norman) on track.  So she calls in a favor from her filmmaker brother Johnny (Phoenix, Inherent Vice) to come and stay with Jesse while she tends to the boy’s father.  Unfamiliar with each other, uncle and nephew take a few days to get used to their individual rhythms and peculiarities.  Jesse, for instance, likes to role play a scenario where he’s an orphan being welcomed into the home, eventually staying for the night.  A documentarian, Johnny finds his nephew fascinating but wisely keeps him out of his latest project which involves traveling through cities, interviewing school-age children and asking a wealth of questions about growing up in this current moment in history*

As time stretches on and Viv’s stay with Paul (Scott McNairy, Non-Stop) continues to be extended, Johnny eventually has to take Jesse with him on the next phase of his documentary and that’s where the real bonding occurs.  Nudging close to middle age, Johnny has no children of his own or any potential on the horizon, so any parental traits are learned (and earned) through this time with Jesse…and as you’d imagine it’s not always easy.  Happily, Mills (who also wrote the film) doesn’t weigh the film down with a lot of “getting to know you” bumpy road introduction business.  Instead, there’s a focus on how the older man and younger boy both benefit from being in the company of the other, an approach that deepens the richness of the experience as the film progresses.

Even as a child actor, Phoenix always has had this awkward tension to his acting but there seems to be a differently wired actor on screen this time around.  He’s more relaxed and, while still soft-spoken, not dripping with the pensive and self-contained aloofness he’s often known for.  Warmth was necessary for the role and Phoenix knows it, so he’s very much tailored the work to what Mills needed for Johnny and some of that also must have come from working with Norman who is making a smashing debut.  Not the same kind of cookie cutter child actor plopped into similar dramedies, Norman (a Brit, if you can believe it) exudes wisdom beyond his young years without being precocious or cloying in the process.  He’s a good match not just for Phoenix but the style and tone Mills is going for as well.  I sometimes struggle with Hoffmann’s choices because she seems to be actively rebelling against her child star past but in C’mon C’mon she’s excellent as a do-it-all every person that realizes she needs help and is surprised at the result asking for it yields.  I would love it if this entire trio could find their way into the awards conversation because they’d all deserve it.

The unexpected moments are what make C’mon C’mon so unique and interesting, not to mention emotionally fulfilling.  In his previous films, Mills has shown such a great affinity for the people he creates so audiences that know his work have found a director they can place a certain type of trust in.  More than once, Mills hints at roads he might take which could turn rocky but then he ends up veering in another direction. On a few of these occasions, I was relieved to see the film move into a new lane because by that point, Mills had me so invested on a subconscious level that I cared about the outcome more than I originally thought.  That’s good, understated filmmaking and the result is one of the finest movies of the year.

*Be sure to stay through the credits to hear the real interviews conducted with the realy kids seen in Johnny’s documentary.

Movie Review ~ The Humans

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Erik Blake has gathered three generations of his Pennsylvania family to celebrate Thanksgiving at his daughter’s apartment in lower Manhattan. As darkness falls outside and eerie things start to go bump in the night, the group’s deepest fears are laid bare.

Stars: Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell, Steven Yeun, Beanie Feldstein, Amy Schumer, June Squibb

Director: Stephen Karam

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  I admit it, I admit it.  When I saw the national touring cast of The Humans perform this tiny intimate (read: quiet) show at our cavernous local theater I fell completely asleep before the one act play was half over.  It’s not my proudest moment but writer Stephen Karam’s dialogue just lulled me to sleep, and I would have slept a lot longer if the staging hadn’t included a rather alarming sound which jolted me up.  Widely acclaimed off-Broadway before moving to the Great White Way, The Humans took Broadway by storm and snatched up several key Tony Awards before it closed and then went on tour.  I know the tour struggled for business and it’s not hard to see why.  Karam’s play is meant to be seen in an intimate setting where you don’t have to lean quite so far in to hear what each person is saying.

Karam adapts and directs his play (a Pulitzer Prize finalist) in A24’s new film The Humans and at the outset I was hesitant about going back to it seeing that the last time I got involved with the family drama contained within I had a nice nap while doing so.  The first twenty minutes didn’t do anything to assuage my original thoughts. Karam’s tendency to favor natural sound and filming the actors so far back that you can’t read their lips if you can’t hear them begins as alienating but eventually transitions into something your brain adjusts to.  Once it does, it’s like a key has opened up a window and welcomed you into Karam’s Thanksgiving-set story revolving around one family and their surprisingly revealing gathering.

The two-level Chinatown apartment of Brigid (Beanie Feldstein, Booksmart) and her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun, Minari) is where the Blake family gathers to celebrate the holiday, though the sparsely furnished and barely lit dwelling isn’t exactly inviting.  While the couple’s furniture has yet to arrive thanks to a delay with their moving truck, they’ve done their best to make Brigid’s parents, sister, and grandmother feel welcome with what little comforts they do have.  Still, there’s a tension that hangs in the air at the outset and it’s more than the usual family dynamics which often come to a head during the festive months of the year. 

Maybe it’s because grandmother Momo’s (June Squibb, Palm Springs) dementia has continued to advance, requiring Brigid’s mom Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell, Little Women) to devote more of her time to the care of her mother-in-law.  Perhaps it’s Aimee (Amy Schumer, Trainwreck) and her recent breakup or persistent health issues.  Erik’s (Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water) aloofness to much of the clear strife going on in front of him is another issue that requires resolution and it’s not hard to read between the lines in Karam’s script that Erik is the character with the most broken pieces to fix and is being held together by the thinnest of protective layers.  When and how these dysfunctions flare up arrive in unexpected ways with solutions that don’t necessarily leave audiences with the answers they are used to getting.

It’s one of the strong selling points of The Humans that it stays so true to its stage counterpart…and a reason why it may be a tough nut to crack for many viewers.  It’s so stage-bound that you do feel as if you’re watching a filmed version of a live play at times, a feeling that isn’t helped by one (masterfully constructed) shot which pulls back to show the multi-level set as if we were in the balcony of a theater watching the show. 

Directorially, Karam isn’t quite a strong as the script he provided so it’s a good thing he has cast the film so exceedingly well.  Jenkins, Squibb, and Yeun are wonderful in their roles and Feldstein continues to show a talent for portraying complicated characters that aren’t afraid to be abrasive.  The vulnerability in Schumer’s solid performance will surprise a good many of her naysayers but it’s Houdyshell’s show, and you can easily see why she won a Tony for the same role on Broadway.  Karam likes long takes and that’s perfect for several of Houdyshell’s scenes that require a range of emotions to play out in real time.  While Deirdre isn’t always a pleasant person to be around, I left the film wanting to know far more about her than any other character and that’s a sure sign Houdyshell has done her job on an exemplary level.

I think The Humans is a tad too reserved to break into the noisier races this year and that’s unfortunate because Houdyshell should absolutely get noticed for her work, as should production designer David Gropman (Life of Pi) and cinematographer Lol Crawley (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) for their focused efforts on making Karam’s world come to life so seamlessly from stage to screen.  It takes a while to get its engines up to speed but when it does there are some fascinating characters created, with issues ready to be digested along with your own Thanksgiving meal.

Movie Review ~ Val

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The Facts:

Synopsis: For over 40 years Val Kilmer, one of Hollywood’s most mercurial and/or misunderstood actors has been documenting his own life and craft through thousands of hours of film and video. This raw, wildly original and unflinching documentary reveals a life lived to extremes and a heart-filled, sometimes hilarious look at what it means to be an artist and a complex man.

Stars: Val Kilmer, Jack Kilmer

Director: Ting Poo, Leo Scott

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  In addition to keeping you updated with the latest and greatest (and not so greatest) films that received a streaming release during the year-long lockdown, I also found time to do a lot of reading.  Most of the time it was those easy beach read thrillers or whatever was being adapted into an upcoming film, but I never can resist a good celebrity memoir.  One of the most entertaining selections I came across during this entire period was “I’m Your Huckleberry: A Memoir” by Val Kilmer, giving a greater insight into an actor that up until that point I had always believed to be exactly what the Hollywood insiders said he was.  Difficult to work with, arrogant, demanding, and pretentious were all words that came to mind when I heard Kilmer’s name and his recent spate of acting roles (in already dreadful films like The Snowman and Paydirt) didn’t do much to make me think I should give him a second thought.

That book changed my opinion of the actor, doing more for explaining the man underneath it all than the usual superstar autobiography.  On the heels of that book comes Val, a documentary being released for a limited run in theaters now before debuting on Amazon Prime in early August.  With an even more focused magnifying glass, audiences can witness firsthand the path the Los Angeles-born actor took to his stardom and see through an incredible amount of personal home movies and on-set videos he recorded the unvarnished side of moviemaking.  At the same time, Kilmer’s struggle with health issues related to a throat cancer diagnosis in 2015 make for a striking comparison with the ruggedly handsome man featured early on in his career.

Val actually opens with some onset horsing around with actors on the set of Top Gun and you almost can’t believe that film is nearly 35 years old at this point.  So many of the men on that set were at the start of their careers and even Kilmer was just coming off his first real feature film (1984’s Top Secret!), having already made his Broadway debut (alongside Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon who Kilmer captures mooning the camera) upon his graduation from Julliard.  It’s surreal watching brief clips of the red carpet premiere and opening night party for Top Gun, with the likes of Tom Cruise and others dancing the night away in their chic ’80s evening wear. After Top Gun, Kilmer’s star continued to rise, although he kept running up against roadblocks of his own making when challenging directors and producers that wanted Kilmer to be less of an actor and more of a silent commodity.  As the years went by, the leading roles in major projects dwindled as less directors (and a few costars) wanted to be involved in Kilmer’s often extreme approach to his method.

Kilmer’s full commitment was ingrained on him from an early age, growing up on a ranch formerly owned by Roy Rogers.  One of three sons born to parents that would later divorce, the family suffered an early tragedy that would haunt them, and especially Kilmer, for years to come and it would be this influence that would often propel Kilmer to go to edge.  You can say a lot of things about Kilmer’s choice in projects and roles but you can’t ever say he doesn’t commit 140% when he does sign up.  Throughout Val we see several projects that obviously were key films to him for one reason or another (Tombstone, The Doors, The Island of Dr. Moreau) where he went the extra mile to get it right or defend his choices.

With the throat cancer treated but leaving his voice severely impaired, Kilmer now speaks with the aid of a medical device and while his adult son Jack narrates the majority of the film using his dad’s words, Kilmer himself speaks often as well. It’s these ‘unscripted’ moments that Jack isn’t ready when the documentary is quite reflective.  Kilmer is open about his past mistakes and the way he approached the people he loved and the friends he came to know, and it’s not born out of a man that has come to the front step of death’s door and has regrets.  It’s from a person that reached a point in his life where he’s let go of a lot of the stones that have burdened him unnecessarily and watching that release in someone clearly exhausted is cathartic even for the viewer.  Knowing much of the footage shot wasn’t meant to be seen by the public at large makes it feel more genuine and less showy.

I think fans of Kilmer will be greatly moved by this documentary on his life and current journey toward peace – it reinforces that Kilmer has always had good intentions in his work but simply played the Hollywood game a bit too aggressively. Then he was dealt a raw hand by the system and by fate. Those that had perhaps written him off (full admission: like I had before I read his book) would do well to view Val for its raw and all-access unmasking of a complicated man that is more relatable than we might think.