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 ~ Studio 666

The Facts:

Synopsis: Legendary rock band Foo Fighters move into an Encino mansion steeped in grisly rock and roll history to record their much-anticipated 10th album.
Stars: Dave Grohl, Taylor Hawkins, Nate Mendel, Pat Smear, Chris Shiflett, Rami Jaffee, Whitney Cummings, Will Forte, Jenna Ortega, Leslie Grossman, Jeff Garlin
Director: B. J. McDonnell
Rated: R
Running Length: 106 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review:  I think it’s essential to go into a review of Studio 666 with complete transparency. I know next to nothing about Foo Fighters, save for Dave Grohl’s history with Nirvana and his charity work. If I were forced to name a song of theirs or do a backflip off a high board into a pool, I’d be choking on chlorine pretty quickly. I like a good horror picture, and making it as meta as possible will always get my antennae up and interested. Finding out Grohl and his Foo Fighters comrades made Studio 666 mainly in secret and reading more about the production, one couldn’t help but get a little excited about this type of specific genre filmmaking becoming popular again.

Based on their reaction to a movie, you can often comfortably divide a film into two camps, but in the case of Studio 666, I think a third one has to be considered. There will be people who like the film for the foul-mouthed, gory horror DIY indie feature it is, while others will be turned off by the filmmaker’s fallback on profanity to fill in gaps of dialogue in a script that’s not exactly breaking new ground where haunted houses and demonic possession are concerned. The third and final group will be the Foo Fighters fans who won’t care if the film is bad or good, they’re showing up to support their band and hear some music, and to those people, I say with confidence that you are going to get your money’s worth on every level. It’s the people seeking more who are in for a rough stay.

Years ago, an up-and-coming band moved into a sprawling mansion in the California hills to record their album but never got to finish it after one team member snapped and everyone wound up dead. After a brief prologue finding Jenna Ortega crawling on the ground with a wound and scenario eerily similar to what the actress experienced in January’s Scream requel, the Foo Fighters are introduced being tongue-lashed by their agent (Jeff Garlin, Safety Not Guaranteed), wondering where their 10th album is. Creatively blocked, lead-singer Grohl needs more time to produce something extraordinary with his band. That’s when the agent hatches the idea to find a location nearby to hunker down and get something together quickly.

With the help of Leslie Grossman’s (Miss Congeniality 2: Armed & Fabulous) chipper agent, the band is shown to the mansion we saw in the prologue, minus the corpses that formerly decorated the place. Grohl instantly finds a connection with the space. However, he comes to find out the link is less heaven-sent and more devilish in its charms, and the other Foo Fighters ensemble eventually agrees to move in for a brief stay to get the album laid down even faster. Despite a nosy, horny neighbor (Whitney Cummings, The Wedding Ringer), the band gets to work, and viewers begin to hear some of the excellent music Foo Fighters created for the film, nearly all of which is quite memorable in construction.

Each band member comes to have some encounter with a sinister force within the house, either manifesting itself through some presence or via the possession of Grohl’s body. As they lay down their tracks individually, Grohl makes a few cuts within the band…and not just in the music. While bodies start to pile up, the gang’s remaining members learn the history of the house and what it might take to stop the entity from taking over Grohl. As an evil spirit is on the loose, brutally murdering all that stand in its way, director BJ McDonnell (The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It) and writers Jeff Buhler (The Prodigy) and Rebecca Hughes attempt to inject humor when they can, but pretty quickly it’s clear this is a battle that amateur actors shouldn’t fight. Experienced comedians like Garlin, Grossman, and Cummings do their best to try to make this material work, but they wind up looking like ghoulish cartoons struggling to make situations funny and playing opposite musicians moonlighting as actors.

For his part, Grohl is every bit as affable and engaging as an actor as he is when playing music or as a consistently exciting interview. He’s essentially playing himself, so none of the band members are doing much in the way of acting, but Grohl is the one among them that could (and maybe should) continue if he chooses. The acting side of the equation is not what interests the rest of the gang; being a rock star is, and that is something they do exceptionally well. It’s just too bad that much of Studio 666 is dependent on performances being as strong as they can be – and they aren’t that great. 

McDonnell knows how to stage good and efficient suspenseful sequences, and there are a few clever scenes of a bloody massacre that will send fans of sickening kills straight through the roof. Unfortunately, there has to be more than just a well-liked cast and a few nice jolts to keep a picture humming along, especially one as long as Studio 666. Sadly, it never makes good on its early promise of consistency in coherence as more than a series of strung-together scenes or sustained engagement. If you like horror films, even a little bit, you’ll want to check it out but keep your expectations a simmer.

Movie Review ~ Scream (2022)

Just when you thought it was safe to stop #Scream -ing…

The Facts:

Synopsis: Twenty-five years after a streak of brutal murders shocked the quiet town of Woodsboro, a new killer has donned the Ghostface mask and begins targeting a group of teenagers to resurrect secrets from the town’s deadly past.

Stars: Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette, Melissa Barrera, Jenna Ortega, Jack Quaid, Mikey Madison, Dylan Minnette, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Mason Gooding, Sonia Ammar, Marley Shelton, Kyle Gallner, Reggie Conquest, Chester Tam, Roger L. Jackson

Directors: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett

Rated: R

Running Length: 114 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: “What’s your favorite scary movie?” may now be a cultural touchstone phrase forever related to the classic film Scream, but it’s always been a litmus test to see where the person being asked falls on the scale of horror fandom.  If the answer is a deep cut, something from the Italian Giallo master Dario Argento or French cult vampire director Jean Rollin, you know you’re dealing with someone that has ventured further than the confines of their neighborhood video store.  Answering with a more commercially minded offering like a Friday the 13th or a Halloween tells you you’re in the presence of a person that doesn’t mind some blood, gore, and jump scares.  Get a response from a Frankenstein fraidy-cat and you may want to reconsider suggesting anything stronger than a black and white Universal classic.

For many, the answer to the question posed by the killer to Drew Barrymore’s doomed character in 1996 is, in fact, the very movie that asked it to begin with.  Scream opened to soft business in Christmas only to grow into a word-of-mouth hit, so much so that by the time the enjoyable sequel was released in 1997 both films had the distinction of being 1997’s top earners.  Fans of the franchise are legion, and after two more sequels (one in 2000 and the last one in 2011) it has amassed a devoted base that can and have spent much time arguing over the official order of quality, though you’d be hard pressed to find a list that doesn’t put the one that started it all in the prime spot. For the record, I’m a 1, 2, 4, 3.

Though the title lived on in television under the guise of an MTV scripted series with no ties to the original cast or setting, the first two seasons attempted to tell a continuing tale before killing off much of its YA cast.  I didn’t even bother with the third, standalone season, and from what I’ve heard that was for the best.  After the success of the continuation of Halloween in 2018, it still was a surprise when it was announced in March 2020 that Radio Silence, a filmmaking collective which found success in indie horror before making a snazzy showing in 2019]’s impressive Ready or Not, would direct and executive produce a fifth Scream movie incorporating original cast members with a new group of teens stalked by a vengeance-seeking killer.  As a dedicated fan of the films and the franchise in general (not to mention a number of the previous films Radio Silence has produced), I was thrilled for another gathering of my favorite cast members and a return to the whodunit slasher film that I have a true fondness for. 

Needless to say, as we move forward into the meat of the movie, this is a spoiler-free zone.  Aside from watching the first trailer for the movie the day it was released, I haven’t watched any other marketing for the film so can’t say what may be in the previews that could be a potential spoiler…but I won’t be giving away anything that could ruin your experience.

Well…maybe one thing.  And that’s my feeling toward the finished movie.  Surprising myself, I left the theater after my screening of Scream (which, it should be strongly stated, is Scream 5, no matter how the filmmakers and studio try to spin it) sort of aghast at how much against it I felt.  The more I heard how many people did like it, the more I was wondering if I just saw something different or my tastes had changed…but this was almost directly after gleefully binge-watching the previous four films.  Delivering on the “goods” if you will (read: killings, blood, and guts) but shortchanging fans that know their Woodsboro ins and outs with a number of discrepancies and head scratching choices, the screenplay from James Vanderbilt (White House Down) and Guy Busick attempts to make connections to the past at the outset but abandons its own efforts by the messy end.  Worse, the film suffers from a strong case of the unlikeables, characters and cast members that either don’t appear long enough to create much of an impression before they’re sliced or grate on the nerves to the point where you feel like paging Ghostface stat to get on with the show.

It’s been twenty-five years since the original murder spree changed the sleepy town of Woodsboro forever.  The survivors of the attack a generation ago have encountered several copycat slayings over the subsequent years but for the last decade there has been a peaceful silence which has allowed lives to be led without much fear.  Then Tara (Jenna Ortega, Insidious: Chapter 2) gets a phone call while alone in her house and hears a voice familiar to us but unfamiliar to her.  Remember, Stab (the movie within Scream 2 based off of the events in Scream 1) came out over two decades before and its sequels have long since fizzled out.  Poor Tara should have stayed up to date on her old-school horror trivia because things don’t go well for her when quizzed on her knowledge of Stab and Woodsboro’s sordid history.

Hearing the news about her sister from a town far outside of Woodsboro, Sam (Melissa Barrera, In the Heights) returns with her boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid, Rampage) just as secrets from her family’s past and a clever killer targeting those with ties to the 1996 murder spree emerge from the shadows.  Teaming up with Tara’s friends, among them Amber (Mikey Madison, It Takes Three), twins Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown, Sound of Violence) and Chad (Mason Gooding, Booksmart) and Wes (Dylan Minnette, Prisoners), Sam and Richie eventually realize they’ll need the help of the remaining few who’ve experienced this before if they have any hope of surviving the game plan of a killer (or killers?) always several steps ahead of them.  Enter Dewey, Gale, and Sidney.

To say the film feels lighter the moment even one of the legacy cast members is on screen is an understatement.  Originally meant to be killed off in the first film and then set to die in the sequel, original director of the first four films Wes Craven and his producing partners had such a strong reaction to David Arquette’s (You Cannot Kill David Arquette) portrayal of Deputy Dewey Riley (not to mention his popularity with fans) that they made sure to shoot endings where he lived.  And you’ll be especially glad he did because his presence in this entry is so useful, bringing not only that trademark goofiness to the role but an emotional sweetness that has always defined the role and made it unmistakably his.  Noticeably absent for much of the film are Courtney Cox (Masters of the Universe) and Neve Campbell (Skyscraper), but they’re like that time Madonna made all of us at her concert wait two hours after the opening act before she went on.  By the time she showed up, we were more than antsy but when she did…it was completely worth it.  Same goes here and not only do Cox and Campbell fit right back into their characters like no time has passed, they highlight the biggest problem with the movie for me.  The acting.

I’m not sure what’s up with this cast but I think each and every one of them I’ve seen and liked far better in other projects.  Here, it’s like no one was acting in the same movie or playing off of one another to any winning effect.  It’s never more evident than with Barrera who has some of the strangest line readings, coming off as emotionless when the scene calls for drama and often absent as strong support for those she is acting opposite. I felt for Ortega who is acting her face off, performing the role like it’s the last thing she’ll ever do.  I wish the performance (which, to be clear, is solid) was in a different movie she was headlining.  Brown is another standout, finding herself a nice match for the dialogue which has some hints at original scribe Kevin Williamson’s quick meta banter but never reaches that same smirking bar which made Williamson’s screenplays, for lack of a better word, iconic.

Which brings me to another low-ish point.  Vanderbilt and Busick don’t have Williamson’s knack for snappy phrasing, relying much more on accessing the characters F-Bomb portal than having them volley back-and-forth.  While Brown gets those nice moments to explain the rules surrounding a ‘requel’, too many references are made to fifth entries not living up to their potential, being ill-advised, not being titled correctly, etc…. basically heading off all the naysayers at the pass and beating the critics to their punches.  In that way, the script starts to feel like it’s apologizing for itself instead of creating its own playing field. A few missed opportunities along the way exist, making you wonder if there wasn’t more to the story that was left on the cutting room floor or if the screenwriters are saving something for potential sequel routes. 

Perhaps you can tie some of it back to that Wes Craven touch which guided those first four films.  Dying of brain cancer in 2015, Craven was never going to be a part of this new film and while no one is claiming the previous sequels to be flawless (let’s face it, as fun as Scream 3 was, it was also silly and falling apart at the seams) or that Craven was a can’t miss director, he set the look and feel of the franchise from the start…down to Marco Beltrami’s score which I was also sad to see wasn’t back. Yet…you just can’t divest yourself from feeling that if directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett were attempting to honor Craven they would have displayed some of his knack for spotting acting talent on the cusp of greatness. Going into more details is definitely tipping the scale toward spoilers…but we can chat after you’ve seen it and I can explain more.

I’m disappointed for myself that I didn’t like the movie a little more than I did.  This isn’t about living in any kind of past because onward we must travel, especially if we want the things we hold dear to continue to thrive.  Personally, I hope this Scream makes huge bucks (all signs point to a big YES in that department) and more films in a similar vein are made.  I would ask, please, that the same kind of focus is put on the key pieces that elevate a movie to classic status though.  The original cast and script of 1996’s Scream simply can’t be beat, even all these years later.  I can’t say the same for this continuation…but trust me, I wanted to. 

Now…I’m a 1, 2, 4, 5, 3 person.

31 Days to Scare ~ Scream (2022) – First Look Trailer

Synopsis: Twenty-five years after a streak of brutal murders shocked the quiet town of Woodsboro, a new killer has donned the Ghostface mask and begins targeting a group of teenagers to resurrect secrets from the town’s deadly past.

Release Date:  January 14, 2022

Thoughts: It’s been 10 years since we’ve heard that familiar voice on the phone calling the latest batch of doomed flavors of the month (quick…how many of the teenage cast members of Scream 4 are still a ‘thing’?) and so the return of Ghostface is being met with an expected marked frenzy.  Going the 2018 Halloween and 2020’s The Grudge route and leaving off any numerical suffix, 2022’s Scream is the first not to be directed by Wes Craven who passed away in 2015.  In the hands of Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett (also known as Radio Silence, the team behind 2019’s Ready or Not), we’re back in Woodsboro for a new series of murders that tie into the events from a generation earlier. 

As excited as I am for this new installment, I almost wish I hadn’t watched the lengthy preview because…boy does it show a lot more than I wanted to see.  I know this cast is huge and the body count has the potential to be plentiful but seeing the fates of several characters (and perhaps a healthy bit of the opening) feels like we’re being served far too much before we’ve even sat down to eat.  Fingers crossed the twists make up for the trailer spoilers, but this is the last time I’ll watch any promo materials for the film before it is released.