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. 

Hasta La Vista…Summer (May)

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Hasta

We did it! We made it through another summer and while the outdoor heat wasn’t too bad (in Minnesota, at least) the box office was on fire.

I’ll admit that I indulged in summer fun a bit more than I should, distracting me from reviewing some key movies over the last three months so I wanted to take this opportunity to relive the summer of 2015, mentioning my thoughts on the movies that got away and analyzing the winners and losers by month and overall.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride read.

May

Though the summer movie season has traditionally been thought of as Memorial Day through Labor Day, in the past several years studios have marked early May as the start of the summer movie wars and 2015 was no different.

Kicking things off on May 1 was Avengers: Age of Ultron and, as expected, it was a boffo blockbuster that gave fans more Marvel fantasy fun. While it wasn’t as inventive as its predecessor and relied too much on jokey bits, the movie was everything a chartbuster should be: big, loud, worth another look.

Acting as a bit of counter-programming, the next week saw the release of two very different comedies, neither of which made much of a dent in the box office take of The Avengers. Critics gnashed their teeth at the Reese Witherspoon/Sofia Vergara crime comedy Hot Pursuit but I didn’t mind it nearly as much as I thought I would. True, it set smart girl power flicks back a few years but it played well to the strengths of its leads and overall was fairly harmless. I hadn’t heard of The D Train before a screening but was pleasantly surprised how good it turned out to be, considering I’m no fan of Jack Black. The movie has several interesting twists that I didn’t see coming, proving that Black and co-star James Marsden will travel out of their comfort zones for a laugh.

Blythe Danner proved she was more than Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom in the lovely, if slight, I’ll See You in My Dreams. It may be too small a picture to land Danner on the end of the year awards list she deserves but the drama was a welcome change of pace so early in the summer.

Another early May drama was a wonderful adaptation of a classic novel…and one I forgot to review when I had the chance…here’s my brief take on it now…

                                         Movie Review ~ Far From the Madding Crowd
far_from_the_madding_crowd_ver2The Facts
:
Synopsis: In Victorian England, the independent and headstrong Bathsheba Everdene attracts three very different suitors: Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer; Frank Troy, a reckless Sergeant; and William Boldwood, a prosperous and mature bachelor.
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Juno Temple, Tom Sturridge
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 119 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: This adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s celebrated novel was a moving drama brimming with quietly powerful performances and lush cinematography. It’s a story that has been duplicated quite a lot over the years so one could be forgiven for feeling like we’ve seen this all before. Still, in the hands of director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) and led by stars Carey Mulligan (Inside Llewyn Davis), Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust & Bone), & Michael Sheen (Admission) it stirred deep emotions that felt fresh. Special mention must be made to Craig Armstrong (The Great Gatsby) for his gorgeous score and Charlotte Bruus Christensen for her aforementioned picturesque cinematography. You missed this in the theater, I know you did…it’s out to rent/buy now and you should check it out pronto.

Around mid-May the summer bar of greatness was set with the arrival of Mad Max: Fury Road. The long in development fourth outing (and semi-reboot) of director George Miller’s apocalyptic hero was a movie lovers dream…pushing the boundaries of cinema and filmmaking into new places. A vicious, visceral experience, I can still feel the vibration in my bones from the robust film…a real winner.

The same week that Mad Max came back into our lives, a so-so sequel found its way to the top of the box office. Pitch Perfect 2 was a lazy film that’s as close to a standard cash grab as you could get without outright playing the original film and calling it a sequel. Uninspired and lacking the authenticity that made the first film so fun, it nevertheless made a song in receipts and a third film will be released in the next few years.

Tomorrowland and Poltergeist were the next two films to see the light of day and neither inspired moviegoers enough to gain any traction. Tomorrowland was actually the first film of the summer I saw twice…admittedly because I was curious about a new movie theater with reclining seats that I wanted to try out. As for the movie, the first half was an exciting adventure while the final act was a real mess.

I thought I’d hate the Poltergeist remake way more than I did…but I ended up just feeling bad for everyone involved because the whole thing was so inconsequential that I wished all of that energy had been directed into something of lasting value. While Sam Worthington made for a surprisingly sympathetic lead, the entire tone of the film was off and not even a few neat 3D effects could save it from being a waste.

May went out with a boom thanks to two wildly different films. If you asked me what I thought the prospects were for San Andreas before the screening I would have replied that Sia’s cover of California Dreamin’ would be the only good thing to come out of the action picture starring everyone’s favorite muscle with eyes, Dwayne Johnson. I still feel like Sia came out on top but the movie itself was a more than decent disaster epic, a little too long but made up for it with grand sequences of mayhem and destruction. Can’t imagine it will play nearly as well on a small screen but I wasn’t hating the film when the credits rolled.

A film I wasn’t too thrilled with at all was Aloha, Cameron Crowe’s own personal disaster flick. I still don’t know quite what to say about the movie because it was so dreadful that I’ve attempted to clear it from my memory. What I do remember was that it wasted its strong cast and exotic locale, as well as our time. Truly terrible.

STAY TUNED FOR JUNE, JULY, and AUGUST!

Movie Review ~ Pitch Perfect 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After a humiliating command performance at the Kennedy Center, the Barden Bellas enter an international competition that no American group has ever won in order to regain their status and right to perform.

Stars: Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Alexis Knapp, Brittany Snow, Adam DeVine, Hailee Steinfeld, Ester Dean, Kelley Jakle, Hana Mae Lee, Katey Sagal, Anna Camp, Skylar Astin, Keegan-Michael Key, Flula Borg, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Ben Platt

Director: Elizabeth Banks

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  What Pitch Perfect 2 has is a deadly case of sequelitis.  It’s a not-so-very-rare disease that most sequels succumb to and, sadly, it has no cure.  Now, it should be said that Pitch Perfect 2 doesn’t deserve to be chucked in the hazardous materials bin with the likes of Poltergeist II: The Other Side and The Hangover Part III but it deserves a good spanking for taking the sweet surprise fun of the original and turning it into a off-key and slack feature length ad for a variety of advertisers.

What made 2012’s Pitch Perfect so, well, perfect was that no one involved was expecting much from the modestly budgeted comedy…least of all its studio.  When early test screenings scored high with audiences, Universal launched a smart ad campaign and released the film slowly allowing that good ‘ole word-of-mouth to drive people into the theater.  The film exploded and, thanks to its (mostly) charming cast and skilled mash-up of the musical and college comedy genres, became a bona fide repeat viewing go-to for old and young, male and female.

A sequel seemed like a no-brainer and, true to form, that’s exactly what we get.  Returning screenwriter Kay Cannon hasn’t done much to move our characters along; merely letting a few of them graduate school or to new planes of maturity doesn’t exactly qualify as improving a character arc.  Cannon’s screenplay gives the film no purpose and commits the deadly sin of gathering up all the laughs from the previous film and just repeating them, sometimes verbatim.  Laughs that worked in small doses back in 2012 are piled high and frequently fall flat because they feel so been-there-done-that.  Worse, even more time is given to Adam DeVine (who I referred to in my original review as a Jack Black-alike…and at this point DeVine should be paying Black a percentage of his earnings) who pops up all too frequently to stink up the joint.

A co-star and producer of Pitch Perfect, Elizabeth Banks (Man on a Ledge) steps behind the camera for the first time as the director and while that may seem like an inspired choice, Banks can’t seem to find a rhythm to the overly episodic nature of the film.  With its garish lighting and questionable use of color it looks like a badly produced industrial training video and unspools at an awkwardly motionless pace.  Continuity between the two films is non-existent (Anna Kendrick’s character originally sported a canvas of tattoos that she seemingly had removed in the last three years) and there just seems to be an overall forced energy in the film.

What does help to qualify the film as only a near miss in my book are several engaging performances and a loud and clear message of female empowerment and positivity.

While Pitch Perfect really centered on grumpy Beca (Kendrick, Into the Woods) falling in with the all-female a capella group at her new college, the sequel doesn’t have one central character and that works in its favor.  Now, it’s an ensemble comedy that mostly gives equal time to several of the Barden Bellas that are going through some “stuff” while the group struggles to regain its reputation after an incident labeled by the press as Muffgate (to explain it would give more time to this idiotic plot device than necessary).

The breakout star of the first film, Rebel Wilson (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb), is of course given more to do here and that’s a decision that has qualified success.  Too often she’s a Rebel without a cause as the actress lazily mumbles through some improvised shtick that probably was better than what the script had her saying.  Returning Bellas like Brittany Snow, Ester Dean, Hana Mae Lee are joined by freshman Hailee Steinfeld (The Homesman) and all deliver exactly what’s expected of them…which is very little.  As for the men, Skylar Astin and Ben Platt are barely utilized because the film has no real place for them or any real reason to add them into the mix.  Each time they pop up it feels extraneous and more unnecessary than ever before.  A time-waster of a side-story features Keegan-Michael Key as Beca’s boss…these scenes could have been subtitled The Sound of Silence because the comedian’s jokes land with a thud.

Forced to fight for their survival at the World Championship, the Bellas go up against Das Sound Machine, led by Flula Borg & Birgitte Hjort Sørensen.  Looking like the Eurotrash villains from a stage musical of Die Hard, the members of DSM are supposed to be forces to be reckoned with but, as is the case with an alarming amount of the musical numbers, next to none of the performances are very exciting.  It’s only in the finale (with a surreally bizarre cameo by Robin Roberts) that some sparks are ignited with a song composed by Sia and Sam Smith Hailee Steinfeld’s character.  In Pitch Perfect the music seemed to be justified and had a pulsating verve that got your toes tapping but the song choices for the sequel are pretty bewildering and not memorable in the least.

A centerpiece of the original was the Riff Off, a battle of the bands of sorts that tests the best of the best.  There’s a repeat of that (of course) here and it happens to be one of the more inspired bits in the film.  Watching the Bellas battling the likes of DSM, the Treblemakers, and one totally random group (the biggest spoiler of the movie…if someone tells you who it is, they aren’t your real friend) is where the most joy in this rather joyless sequel is found.

I recognize that I’ll probably be in a minority of those that failed to fall into the orbit of Pitch Perfect 2 (and hey, I liked Hot Pursuit so clearly I’m operating on a different playing field currently) but if this is the sequel fans were waiting for I’m glad it did its job.  I just happened to find it off-key and resting too much on its well-earned laurels.  When Pitch Perfect 3 comes out (and trust me, it will), can I make a suggestion that it’s a prequel?