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. 

Movie Review ~ Saint Maud

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A pious nurse who becomes dangerously obsessed with saving the soul of her dying patient.

Stars: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle, Lily Knight, Lily Frazer, Turlough Convery, Rosie Sansom, Marcus Hutton

Director: Rose Glass

Rated: R

Running Length: 84 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  For a while there, it was looking like Saint Maud was going to be the one that got away.  Making its debut all the way back at 2019’s Toronto International Film Festival where it was acquired by red hot indie studio A24,  then on quite a roll with next-gen horror fare like Midsommar, Hereditary, In Fabric, and Green Room.  Early trailers were enticing, hinting at something different than your usual religious experience horror outing, and filtered through a uniquely female lens, something the sub-genre was sorely missing.  Originally supposed to debut in April 2020 but then, well, you what happened; Saint Maud became a long-standing casualty of the great 2020 shuffle and only recently received its release on a smaller scale than was intended.  As it turns out, perhaps it was a good thing the movie eluded me for so long.  While it gets off to a swell start with haunting imagery, committed performances, and a claustrophobic set-up suggesting a mountain of dread ahead, it plays its hand too early and effectively leaves a solid 40 minutes that can’t live up to what came before.  For all the talk about it eschewing the trappings of other religion-based horror films, it actually manages to fall into lockstep with every one of them until the climax that, while one doozy of a final kick in the rosary beads, is more inevitable than it is thrilling.

In a dullish town on the English seaside, Maud (Morfydd Clark, The Personal History of David Copperfield) is the newest hospice nurse assigned to care for Amanda (Jennifer Ehle, Run This Town), a caustic former dancer turned choreographer moving into the final stages of terminal cancer.  We’ve seen the bloody remnants of the last job Maud (then known as Katie) held and since then she’s found God which has led her to Amanda’s doorstep.  At first, Maud seems to be just what Amanda has needed in a nurse.  She listens to her patient and humors her whims to a point but stays firm in the care she administers and the boundaries she sets.  Pallid Amanda drops her acidity towards her caregiver and indulges her as well, listening to Maud’s recounting of a recent conversion to the church and giving her the kind of attention only someone experienced in nurturing young souls could pull off without making it seem as phony as it most definitely is.  If only Maud knew of Amanda’s lack of sincerity.

The bigger problem is that Amanda is still Amanda deep down and her late-night trysts with Carol (Lily Frazer, The Gentlemen) start to light the fire and brimstone under Maud, especially when she finds out the online hook-up has been accepting money when their visit is over.  Of course, Amanda isn’t about to be ordered around on a personal level by her younger, ultra-religious nurse, which puts their working relationship to the test.  It all comes to a head as Maud begins to unravel under the weight of what she believes is her duty to “save” Amanda before she dies while at the same time battling her own snarling demons that are causing her to act on some very basic instincts of her own.  Consumed (or possessed?) by the need to purify the soul, Maud sinks far beneath the dizzying swirl of her fractured reality.

The opening act of writer/director Rose Glass’s horror film is spooky and, at times, quite scary in a real-world, unsettling way.  Maud is so innocuous with her intentions that the little ways she tries to subvert Amanda’s way of living is troubling at first, disturbing around the halfway mark, and totally unknown by the end.  It’s as if Glass knew how she wanted to start things and how it would end but wasn’t quite sure how to fill in some major gaps of action in the middle third.  That results in a long period of time where Saint Maud goes off the rails in the clunkiest of ways, focusing on Maud’s journey into the black abyss and it’s frankly not nearly as interesting as anything else in the movie.  We’ve seen characters like Maud go through these trials before and they’ve been far more effective in intent and execution, not that Clark doesn’t commit to the character with a bravura performance that keeps the film with a hearty pulse.

Where Glass has found the steeliest strength in Saint Maud is the casting of her two main character and I’d argue that Clark and Ehle’s scenes alone would have been enough for the movie to be a larger success had the above-mentioned passages been truncated or excised all together.  The dynamic between the two women is skilled, the electricity palpable.  I could just easily have believed Glass’s screenplay began life as a script for the stage and might imagine it would make for excellent material for actresses to use in scene study down the road in a few years.  Though Clark can hold her own (when it’s just her), Saint Maud’s fervor drops considerably when Ehle isn’t somewhere nearby and we’re lucky Glass has given her several boffo moments throughout.  The remaining supporting cast tend to blend together, dwarfed by the large shadows cast by the strong stars.

Like many movies that get their fuel from the mystery of religion, Saint Maud derives a number of its shivers from the unknown.  Though it does resort to jump scares on occasion, much of the actual terror the posters and pull quotes proclaim come more from witnessing the disturbing decay of the supposedly pious and downward spirals we are unable to stop from happening in the third act.  Without spoiling anything, I’ll say the final few minutes did give me the heebie-jeebies, leaving this viewer with one or two lingering images that I’d like to quickly forget.  However, it’s all to send a shock wave through your system and the attempt at being so bold at these very last moments have a bit of a smell of last-ditch desperation to them.  Some penance is needed for this not being the holy terror it could have been, though Clark and Ehle’s performance makes it worth it for a time.

Movie Review ~ On the Rocks

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A young mother reconnects with her larger-than-life playboy father on an adventure through New York.

Stars: Bill Murray, Rashida Jones, Marlon Wayans, Jenny Slate

Director: Sofia Coppola

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Let’s have it out right now at the start so we can move on.  I’m not a fan of Lost in Translation and I don’t get it’s appeal.  Whew.  There, I said it and I feel better.  Do you?  Sorry, but that film just didn’t land with me and I know I like a bunch of movies that may leave you wondering if I have a sane bone in my body but Sofia Coppola’s Oscar-winning screenplay left me freezing.  I guess I could watch it again and see if my mood on it has changed but…I just don’t think so.  Her subsequent films have been a mixed bag too, with 1999’s The Virgin Suicides being right on target and Marie Antoinette making 2005 buzz with its charisma and style.  I was marginally sold on The Bling Ring but less enthused with her remake of The Beguiled, which is all to say that I approached her new film On the Rocks (which has been playing in theaters and now premieres on Apple+) very carefully.

The story of an almost-40 New York mother of two (Rashida Jones, The Sound of Silence) who suspects her busy husband (Marlon Wayans, The Heat) of cheating on her with his co-worker could have easily been another in a long line of crestfallen big city women in crisis movies that you’d rent from Redbox and then forget about forever.  Yet Coppola has made one of the more interesting films of the year by casting one of the more interesting actors working today and giving him his best role in quite some time.  That moves On the Rocks from the watch it and forget it column to the watch it, talk about it, think about it, tell all your friends about how good Bill Murray is in it sort of deal.

At first, Laura (Jones) isn’t sure her successful husband Dean has strayed in their marriage.  A half-awake Dean has returned from a lengthy flight and when he flops into bed and she greets him, he appears surprised to hear her voice.  She actually writes off the incident and even believes the rational reason he provides when she finds the make-up bag for his co-worker in his luggage.  Then she has lunch with her retired art-dealer dad Felix (Murray, Moonrise Kingdom) and that’s when he plants the germ of a seed of doubt in her mind and proceeds to help her nurture it.  A notorious womanizer that has struggled to stay faithful himself, he seems to know what he’s talking about.  Even though Laura doesn’t want to believe the hard to believe signs, maybe her dad is right…but does she want to risk her marriage on a hunch?

Coppola’s film is mainly a drama, a family drama no-less, but there are elements of a number of different genres present.  It’s a buddy film in the way that Laura leans on Felix for support during this strange period of her life as it doesn’t appear she has any female friends she can open up to, surely not the self-involved women (including a scene-stealing Jenny Slate, Zootopia) at her children’s school.  There’s a road trip adventure quality to it as well when Felix convinces Laura to follow Dean to Mexico to surprise him on a co-workers only trip in the hopes of finding him with another woman.  It’s a mystery too, as the audience is never quite sure how allegiant Felix is to his daughter – we feel like he wants the best for her but it’s also clear that for as much shameless flirting and grandstanding gladhanding as he does, she may be his only true connection and if she remains so devoted to Dean where does that leave him?

I wish Coppola had a bit more to say about these relationships in her wrap-up because the conclusion is definitely nowhere near as interesting as the carefully laid out (and highly enjoyable) first ¾ of the movie.  There is a feeling too that had Wayans been a more dynamic actor the stakes may have been raised a bit higher.  As it stands he’s just not on the same level as Jones who in turn isn’t at the same level as Murray.  So you have three different actors all at differing levels of range – sometimes that doesn’t make a difference but in emotionally fueled movies like On the Rocks it does become part of a make or break discussion.  Murray is fantastic, easily the best and brightest he’s been in years – fingers crossed he gets some recognition for this effort – and I hope Coppola continues to explore this side of her narrative storytelling.  Just work on the ending.

Movie Review ~ Boys State

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A thousand 17-year-old boys from Texas join together to build a representative government from the ground up.

Director: Amanda McBaine & Jesse Moss

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Show of hands.  How many of you out there reading this have been watching your favorite news network and watched the politicians of our great nation squabbling over some pithy thing while a huge issue goes unresolved and thought to yourself “Geez, they’re acting like children!” You’re raising your hand right now, aren’t you?  Ok.  You can put your hand down and continue on.  Yes, it’s true that more often than not, politicians are no longer looked at as the distinguished men and women that are elected to serve for the people but more as misbehaving children and petulant teens.  Actually, having watched Boys State I think that comparison isn’t fair to teens because this insightful and surprisingly agile documentary shows that maybe the young leaders of tomorrow already have something on their elder statesmen and women: decorum.

Let’s back up a bit.  When I first saw the preview for Boys State I was expecting something far more wince-inducing to get through.  I fully thought I’d be grimacing during this look inside the yearly event sponsored by The American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary and held in every state.  Began in 1935 by a Loyola law professor and an American Legion chairman, the program has expanded throughout the country and is a massive event for high school juniors that gives them a crash course in the day to day operations of local, county and state government.  Throughout their weeklong stay, the students will elect their own officials and debate issues that are of importance to them, all in service of understanding their roles in government and politics.  Being elected to office looks mighty good on a college admission application, too.

Though every state offers programs for boys and girls, directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss choose to focus solely on the 1,000+ strong Boys State event that was held in Texas several years ago and what they’ve captured is pretty eye-opening.  Instead of the staunch conservative red-blooded American indoctrinated teenagers I thought we’d be spending two hours with, we’re instead greeted with a diverse cast of interesting personalities that come from different backgrounds and perspectives.  Make no mistake, all of the boys McBaine and Moss follow have been painstakingly chosen to play a role in a certain unspoken narrative but it’s not as manipulative as it might seem on the surface.  There is good representation of all sides for the most part and gun control seems to be the lynchpin much of the action hinges on, but even though viewers may disagree on the politics of the subjects the kids themselves are kind of great in their own way.

As anyone who has ever been to summer camp without their close friends accompanying them can attest, your first moments off the bus in a new group of people your own age is scary.  Though students mostly stay with their cities so they at least know a few familiar people, I’d have to imagine a sea of largely white faces must be intimidating for the few minority members that are in attendance.  Even so, it isn’t hard for socially conscious René Otero to find his place in the crowd or for the popular and gregarious Robert Macdougal to ingratiate himself with anyone he decides to charm.  Then there are those that have to work a little harder, double amputee Ben Feinstein has a game plan going into the week that could prove to make him a hero or villain at the end of it all.  Finally, the quiet Steven Garza wants to get to know people on an individual basis and treats even the brief responsibilities of mock government with respect.

How these four and others will work together within two opposing parties is the stuff of good documentary filmmaking – you’ll be highly engaged and maybe alternatively enraged at some of the tactics that go on.  Cheering on small victories leads to laughter at deserved losses for those unprepared to go toe to toe with more qualified candidates…much like the enjoyment we may get in seeing our current government officials challenged.  Don’t be surprised to find yourself holding your breath when votes are tallied and decisions announced and keep a tissue handy because a tear or two might fall – not for any reason other than seeing some goodness in the next generation that many leaders are sorely lacking in.

Available on Apple+ and arriving just after the first batch of primary elections have wrapped up, I imagine Boys State will generate some more buzz as the November elections get underway.  My hope is that the way these young men conduct themselves is used as an example of how decorum and acceptance can be a good fit in politics and that inclusion, not exclusion benefits everyone in the end.