Movie Review ~ Priscilla


The Facts:

Synopsis: When teenage Priscilla Beaulieu meets Elvis Presley, the man who is already a meteoric rock-and-roll superstar becomes someone entirely unexpected in private moments: a thrilling crush, an ally in loneliness, a vulnerable best friend.
Stars: Cailee Spaeny, Jacob Elordi, Ari Cohen, Dagmara Dominczyk, Tim Post, Lynne Griffin, Dan Beirne, Rodrigo Fernandez-Stoll, Dan Abramovici
Director: Sofia Coppola
Rated: R
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: In the eyes of Hollywood, there are two sides to every (love) story, and with those tales come the inevitable competing biopics. In 2022, Baz Luhrmann released his all-encompassing take on the life of Elvis Presley to huge fanfare. Though not a slam-dunk critical darling, it built on the strong word-of-mouth from audiences to become a sizable hit, with repeat business a key factor in its success. A typically Lurhmann-esque cavalcade of decadence, it was a visual feast that had Austin Butler’s once-in-a-lifetime performance as the late singer becoming the talk of the town and just missing out on the Oscar. (He should have gotten it, in my opinion.)

Now, a year later, Oscar-winning screenwriter Sofia Coppola (The Bling Ring) offers her vision of a different perspective on the private life of Elvis. Based on Priscilla Presley’s 1985 autobiography Elvis and Me, the ex-wife of the King is given more prominence than was afforded in Lurhmann’s film. Still, it does not tell us anything we didn’t already glean from the earlier film. Instead, what Priscilla winds up coming across as is a poorly timed, by-the-numbers attempt to insert itself into the consciousness of a public already aware of the lives of its subject. 

Living with her parents in Germany while her father was stationed at an army base near Bad Nauheim, Priscilla Beaulieu (Cailee Spaeny, On the Basis of Sex) had a relatively sheltered life before she was invited to attend an off-base party and met Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi, Deep Water). At that time, the singer was already an established star who enrolled in the military in part to clean-up his reputation. Though they had a 10-year age difference, the 14-year-old Priscilla quickly falls in young love with Elvis, only to have her heart broken when he flies home and resumes his fast-lane lifestyle. Never count out true love, though, because three years later, Elvis still has feelings for Priscilla, and he flies her over to Graceland.

Married at 22, by then, Elvis had fully groomed Priscilla, Coppola would argue in more ways than one. Ditching her All-American looks for the dark eyeliner, fake lashes, and huge hair that would become her staple for a time, Priscilla was isolated in Graceland while Elvis played around the world making movies and performing to sell-out crowds. The arrival of their daughter, Lisa Marie, a year after they married, would help them for a time, but the bond they had when they first met overseas would never truly be regained. Both had growing up to do, and Coppola delves into the new age practices Elvis explored before being shut down by Col. Tom Parker (who is never seen here and barely mentioned) and Priscilla’s aim for self-improvement through healthy living that eventually led her to leave her husband.

Peppered with good supporting work, Priscilla is mostly a two-hander shared by Spaeny and Elordi.  Elordi has the unenviable task of following Butler’s incredible work and, to his credit, creates his own Elvis that works for what Coppola’s film is trying to do. The Australian Elordi doesn’t quite nail the Southern accent (he does better as a Brit in the upcoming Saltburn), but he puts on the appropriate amount of Presley charisma that makes him irresistible to everyone, no matter what your orientation is. Spaeny (who won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival for her work) is no slouch either, transforming from a mousy early teen to a self-aware mother taking a considerable risk in walking away from a life of comfort. There’s not much space to stretch into deep emotional wells in the small arena Coppola affords, but I think that’s also intentional.

While it’s lovely to look at and carefully assembled when seen from a coldly technical standpoint, Priscilla is mostly an emotionally vacant and chilly response to 2022’s far more vibrant litigation of the life of Elvis Presley and the relationship with his ex-wife and mother of his child. It may not have taken center stage like in Coppola’s film, but at least Luhrmann’s movie found a new way to calculate the biopic formula. Priscilla uses basic addition to get its total, and that feels like a far too easy way to get a solution to the complexities of intricate relationships.  

Movie Review ~ Talk to Me (2023)

The Facts:

Synopsis: When friends discover how to conjure spirits using an embalmed hand, they become hooked on the new thrill until one of them goes too far and unleashes terrifying supernatural forces.
Stars: Alexandra Jensen, Joe Bird, Otis Dhanji, Miranda Otto, Zoe Terakes, Chris Alosio, Marcus Johnson, Alexandria Steffensen
Directors: Danny Philippou & Michael Philippou
Rated: R
Running Length: 94 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Though still early in the summer evening, the sky was beginning to turn an inky black when I was parking my car in the lot before the screening of A24’s new horror film Talk to Me.  Our up-and-down summer weather had gone from the swarm of heat to the threat of rain quickly, so I was happy to be headed indoors for the next few hours, and a possible thunderstorm felt like the perfect way to get in the mood for what was to come.  Sure enough, by the time I was walking inside, I could feel the raindrops start, and it had gotten so dark it looked hours later than it was.  Leave it to A24 to think of everything in promoting their films…even corralling the weather into a mean frenzy.

I don’t think you’ll need thunder and lightning, or even the lights entirely off, to get a good jolt out of the slick scares offered up in this original endeavor from brothers Danny Philippou & Michael Philippou.  Hailing from Australia, the twins became YouTube famous for their award-winning comedy horror channel RackaRacka.  I wasn’t familiar with their work going in, and without that previous knowledge had a low bar to scale or compare their feature film debut to.  If Talk to Me is any indication, they’ve amassed much skill from their YouTube days and experience working as crew members in 2014’s The Babadook.

A horrific incident at a noisy party opens the film, left unexplained, until it eventually crosses paths with Mia’s (Sophie Wilde) encounter with the embalmed hand of a medium who could speak with the dead.  Still fractured after the unexpected death of her mother and detached from her remaining parent, Mia experiences the appendage at a large gathering as part of a viral challenge within her extended friend group.  Her best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen) knows better than to tempt fate, but Mia, desperate to connect with someone and possibly make a play to impress cool clique master Hayley (Zoe Terakes), willingly offers herself up.

The experience of what happens when a person touches the hand is best left for you to find out at the theater, but it’s different for everyone in the film.  No one can hold on longer than 90 seconds, and the candle lit at the beginning of the game must be blown out, or the spirit that comes to speak might not leave so easily.  Guess what happens after a second night of hand chats, this time with a smaller group involving Mia, Jade, Hayley, and others including Jade’s younger brother Riley (Joe Bird)?  Note to self in any séance situation: always blow the candle out.

As with many horror films involving an object, the more we find out about the item, the less interesting it becomes.  Perhaps that’s why the brothers Philippou make Talk to Me less about the hand and more about its effect on Mia’s already fragile psyche.  It’s a smart move, and Wilde’s performance is first-rate, starting the film as a relatable and vulnerable innocent but slowly changing course to a more problematic lead being guided by the wrong agenda.  The script keeps the cast small and, aside from Miranda Otto’s (Annabelle: Creation) refreshingly no-nonsense effort as Jade and Riley’s mother, mostly adult free.  The kids are not all right, and no one is coming to save them.

Skidding on the side of derailment during its final minutes but ending with a proper shiver chill, a future installment of Talk to Me might satisfy those who like their horror with all the blanks on their Mad Lib card filled in by the end.  A sequel would likely delve into origin and further the mythology of the mysteriously powerful hand, plot points this film doesn’t have the patience (or, frankly, the time) to cover.  Instead, the Philippou brothers have trained their gaze on what they have a talent for and delivered it at a high level.

Movie Review ~ You Hurt My Feelings

The Facts:

Synopsis: A novelist’s long-standing marriage is suddenly upended when she overhears her husband giving his honest reaction to her latest book.
Stars: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tobias Menzies, Michaela Watkins, Arian Moayed, Owen Teague, Jeannie Berlin, Amber Tamblyn, David Cross, Josh Pais, Deniz Akdeniz, Zach Cherry
Director: Nicole Holofcener
Rated: R
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (10/10)
Review: I don’t want to be this kind of critic (or person?), but I think I have to say it. To fully appreciate You Hurt My Feelings, to really understand why it bites down so hard on nitpicks and nagging, to get why audience members around you may laugh at lines that don’t have a punchline, I think you need to have been in a serious relationship for a significant amount of time. It’s from that human experience to know someone so well and intimately that it will only take one glance from them, or lack thereof, to give you satisfaction or send you on a shrill spiral to your perception of super doom where you truly, wholly, feel the perfection of writer/director Nicole Holofcener’s film.

That’s not to say you singles or mingles out there aren’t going to love this sharp comedy, too, a cool breeze of a film arriving at the beginning of summer to air out the stink of the last few months. Holofcener’s script has plenty of valuable takeaways, her first since working on 2021’s The Last Duel with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon (She was also nominated for an Oscar for writing 2019’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?). Flying under the radar for years, when she does surface, Holofcener almost always has something interesting to say, even if it may not be aiming to please all comers. Reteaming with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the star of her 2013 feature Enough Said, Holofcener crafts a story for this modern era of big, easily bruised egos.

Riding the marginal success of her memoir to a teaching position at an NYC college, Beth (Louis-Dreyfus, Onward) is putting the finishing touches on her new work of fiction. Years in writing and revising, her agent thinks it needs more work but encouraged by her husband’s positive feedback, she is going out on a limb and bringing it to a new agent to see if he can get it sold for the right price. At the same time, her husband, Don (Tobias Menzies, Casino Royale), is experiencing a staleness in his job as a therapist and couples’ counselor. His regular patients (real-life couple David Cross and Amber Tamblyn) bicker viciously during their sessions, and a new referral (Zach Cherry, Isn’t It Romantic) is passive-aggressively hostile toward him. Then there’s his tendency to mix up the maladies of one patient with another – he’s adrift.

After visiting their mother (a caustically hysterical Jeannie Berlin, The Fabelmans), Beth and sister Sarah (Michaela Watkins, Paint) spot Don shopping with Sarah’s husband Mark (Arian Moayed, Spider-Man No Way Home) and decide to surprise them. That’s when it happens. Sneaking up on her husband, Beth overhears him telling Mark his honest thoughts about her completed work…and it’s not the same positive critique he’d been passing on to her for years. This revelation creates a fissure between the two, opening a deep well of trust issues having more to do with a lack of general communication in their marriage than with one opinion not being shared. Amid all this, their adult son, Eliot (Owen Teague, Montana Story), returns home with relationship difficulties crushing his world too. 

While the plot summary and general idea of You Hurt My Feelings revolves around this supposed betrayal by Don, it’s not the true epicenter of the story Holofcener is conveying. That would be far too simple of a message for a writer/director who has always made what could be a trivial situation into a meaningful look at reactive relationships. Most of our stable relationships are just waiting for a glass of milk to be spilled to drum up a conflict that has nothing to do with the puddle in the center of the table, right? Here, Holofcener takes Don hiding behind an oft-used excuse, “I was trying to be supportive,” to allow a more significant discussion about relationships.

Did I mention the film is wildly funny too? If I’m making it all sound like a gloomy Bergman exploration of betrayal in NYC, it’s not that. I found every scene perfectly constructed and well-tailored to each actor, down to the minor supporting role. As interesting as Beth and Don were, I would watch an entire film about Sarah and Mark’s relationship or revisit Beth and Sarah’s acerbic mother if she took a trip somewhere. Holofcener gives these characters function and purpose in a short time and casts extraordinary actors to bring them to life.

Already triumphing on television, it’s time for Louis-Dreyfus to start practicing her red-carpet walk for even more prestigious award shows. I thought she delivered so well in Enough Said that she could have been on the shortlist there. However, in You Hurt My Feelings, she goes further, portraying a complicated (i.e., not always likable) person but never letting the audience want to root against her. Her work here is unlike anything I’ve seen her in, and intense scenes with Menzies and Teague could be career high points. Watkins could also be in on some excellent recognition for a fascinating performance. A frustrated interior decorator married to a struggling actor (Moayed is excellent, resisting the urge to lean into that sallow thespian trope), she has a spiky edge. Still, she recognizes and then appreciates how different her relationship with her husband is compared to her sister. 

Holofcener has written and directed many strong films over her career, but You Hurt My Feelings is the first one I’d call perfect. The script is tight, and each scene is a little masterclass in comedy or high-stakes drama. Cross and Tamblyn’s crossfire fighting is bulletproof comic gold, just as a quiet, dialogue-free exchange between Louis-Dreyfus and Berlin is lovely to watch unfold. That’s the beauty in what Holofcener does for film and those who love it – she brings some of the real world, warts and all, into the open.

Movie Review ~ Beau is Afraid

The Facts:

Synopsis: Following the sudden death of his mother, a mild-mannered but anxiety-ridden man confronts his darkest fears as he embarks on an epic, Kafkaesque odyssey back home.
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Patti LuPone, Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan, Kylie Rogers, Parker Posey, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Hayley Squires, Michael Gandolfini, Zoe Lister-Jones, Richard Kind, Denis Ménochet
Director: Ari Aster
Rated: R
Running Length: 179 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  Movies rarely give me a sense of dread when I sit down and get ready for them to start (well, maybe a few from Adam Sandler’s low period), but as Ari Aster’s Beau is Afraid was drawing near, I realized that I was getting nervous. It could have been the running time which clocks in at nearly three hours, a record length for distributor A24. Or it might be because of early reports that the movie was sending preview audiences out into the night either wishing they’d never left the house or proclaiming they’d witnessed a new masterpiece. 

In his previous two films, 2018’s Hereditary and 2019’s Midsommar, Aster pushed audience endurance while giving them stretches of brilliant entertainment. There was a frustrating setback both of them shared, though. Each film would start with a bang, coast on that opening energy, but then end with hair-pulling alienation. Instead of remembering the 75% positive experience Aster was giving, that critical 25%, which kept the viewer at arm’s length (sometimes violently so), would be what made Hereditary and Midsommar tough choices for a re-watch. (Hereditary is the more easily accessible, while Midsommar drifts toward the complex unapologetic filmmaker Aster wants to be.)

With Beau is Afraid, Aster’s third time up to bat finds the writer/director working from his most confident point of view and most ambitious. Yes, the film is sprawling and often achingly long, but it needs to take up all that extra space to exist as Aster imagined it. The journey the lead character, played by Oscar-winner Joaquin Phoenix, takes is epic in scope, so the movie depicting it has to match, and boy, does it not skimp on its elaborate, absurdist narrative.

Opening quite literally as Beau exits the womb, we soon find ourselves with a present-day Beau (Phoenix, Joker) meeting with his therapist (Stephen McKinley Henderson, Dune) over his litany of worries. A hypochondriac, he’s set to visit his magnate mother (Patti LuPone, The School for Good and Evil), an imperious woman who dramatically influences him, almost down to each breath he takes. Beau’s world (as Aster has assembled it) is a bit of a hellscape. Living in a rundown set of apartments as a cavalcade of homeless and violent sort tear each other apart outdoors, I shouldn’t wonder why Beau is afraid to leave the house on any given day. Delayed in leaving to visit his mother by a series of unfortunate events, Beau learns through a phone call that his mother was killed (in a heinous accident Aster spares us from seeing…one of the only bits of violence held back) and is sent reeling into the world to make it to her funeral.

Along the way on his extraordinary journey, he suffers numerous bodily injuries, sending him to recuperate at the home of too-perfect couple Roger (Nathan Lane, Mirror Mirror) and Grace (Amy Ryan, Monster Trucks) and their troubled daughter (Kylie Rogers, Collateral Beauty), meets a pregnant actress (Hayley Squires, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain) and her merry band of forest-dwelling comrades, runs afoul of a psychotic ex-soldier (Denis Ménochet, The Beasts), and catches a glimpse of his first love who is now a grown woman (Parker Posey, Irrational Man). All the while, he has visions of himself as a young boy (Armen Nahapetian) with his mother (Zoe Lister-Jones, taking over for LuPone in these younger scenes) and witnesses fragments of memories starting to piece themselves together the closer he gets to home. 

The attention to detail in Beau is Afraid is tremendous, with production designer Fiona Crombie (Cruella) outdoing even her Oscar-nominated work for The Favourite. Everywhere you look, there is something strange to see or put away in your back pocket for use later. The graffiti on the walls, signs, billboards, and even advertisements on television are jam-packed with so many inane/insane/profane asides that you’d have to watch the movie twice (once without sound) to truly take it all in. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski (Nobody) worked on Aster’s previous films and has developed an obvious shorthand with the director. There’s a clear line of vision between where the film is going and where it is telling us to look.

I know Phoenix can be hit or miss for some (as he is for me), but this is truly a triumph for the veteran actor. While I could have done with about half as many scenes of Beau being in such a state of shock that he can barely slur a sentence together (if he speaks at all), there’s something so on the mark about what Phoenix is doing that you can’t take your eyes off of him. Another dominating force is Lister-Jones, completely nailing the manipulative mommy role but adding a demented malevolence that prevents you from looking away.

You should see Beau is Afraid in the theater for two reasons. One is for an extended sequence where Beau “enters” a play being performed in the forest. This is the peak moment for several technical elements to work together (production design, make-up, special effects, cinematography) and when Aster’s storytelling strength comes through at its highest quality. The second is to witness the tower of fire LuPone brings to her scant few minutes onscreen. The film equivalent of a big belty 11 o’clock number, when she appears on screen, make sure you don’t leave the theater – because if you miss it, you’ll have to sit through the entire film again. 

Then there’s the finale – the grand ending, which, in true Aster fashion, introduces something so eye-popping nuts that I wouldn’t blame you for needing to request assistance to pick your jaw up off the floor. That it follows a scene which will make you never hear Mariah Carey’s ‘Always Be My Baby’ the same way ever again is tough enough, but geez, how I wanted Aster to be able to bring this home. Unfortunately, it’s a mixed bag of a wrap-up that left me listing in an unmoored boat. The three hours of Beau is Afraid are worth it in the end (because of LuPone and the technical elements chiefly), but you might have to grit your teeth to get to the credits in one piece.

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.