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 ~ 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. 

31 Days to Scare ~ Suspiria (2018)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A darkness swirls at the center of a world-renowned dance company, one that will engulf the artistic director, an ambitious young dancer, and a grieving psychotherapist. Some will succumb to the nightmare. Others will finally wake up.

Stars: Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson, Mia Goth, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jessica Harper, Lutz Ebersdorf, Sylvie Testud

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Rated: R

Running Length: 152 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Though Dario Argento’s 1977 film Suspiria has long been considered a giallo classic, filmmakers have been trying to remake it for decades. Most recently, it was going to be a project for Natalie Portman and director David Gordon Green, until arguments over the budget caused the in-demand duo to move on to other projects. Portman, who had begun training for the dancing in Suspiria, went on to win an Oscar for Black Swan, which was considered by many to be a film in the same vein. Though he had put a lot of heart and soul into his vision of Suspiria, even casting the film with some impressive names, Green wouldn’t delve into horror again until 2018 when he successfully rebooted Halloween.

The person that brought the project to Green was director Luca Guadagnino who met with Argento and his co-screenwriter Daria Nicolodi to get their blessing to remake the film. With Green on to other projects and Guadagnino gathering strong accolades for his work, plans continued to simmer until it was officially announced in 2015. Three years later we have what Guadagnino considers an homage to the original film instead of an outright remake. Though the original Suspiria will always have a place in the horror history books for it’s gorgeous production design and creative visuals, Guadagnino’s version is the superior one with the director and screenwriter David Kajganich holding nothing back. It may lack the color and vibrant gothic-ness of Argento’s vision but it takes the morsel of an idea Argento set on the plate and turns it into a five course banquet of riches.

Once again, the film is set in 1977 but the political unrest at the time is felt throughout and becomes a secondary character at times. Televisions broadcast news of a plane hijacking and there are demonstrations in the street from youths rebelling against their parents and grandparents who are being held responsible for the atrocities conducted in WWII. Into this mix comes American Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson, Fifty Shades of Grey) who has arrived from the safety of her Mennonite upbringing. Growing up Susie always felt out of place in her devout and traditional family but an early exposure to the Markos Dance Academy creates a strange pull to the modern dance pieces they originated. It was her dream to attend and after an impressive audition she is granted a spot in the company.

Susie has shown up right after the disappearance of Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz, Dark Shadows) who we see at the beginning telling her therapist Jozef Klemperer that she thinks the academy is being run by witches. When Patricia vanishes completely, Klemperer begins to investigate on his own which will drum up painful memories of his past and endanger his future. At the same time, Susie is drawn deeper into the darkness that haunts the academy as well as the intoxicating aura of Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, Only Lovers Left Alive) who takes her under her wing.

The bones of the film Argento created are still there, with Susie’s friends falling prey to an unseen evil but Guadagnino takes things further into more psychologically complex territory. With no male actors playing a major role in a film directed and written by men, the movie is completely void of a male point of view, a smart move made by Guadagnino and Kajganich to get out of the way of the imperious actresses hired to play their sinister characters. Suggesting the witchcraft at play is part of the undulating movements by the dance students and choreographed by Blanc, Guadagnino and Kajganich move away from our traditional thoughts of spells and sorcery.

As Susie, Johnson gets her best role to date, showing just how much the Fifty Shades series failed to utilize her strengths. Far more nuanced than the original character portrayed by Jessica Harper (who pops up in an important supporting role here), Johnson’s Susie is innocent but not naïve, green but not inexperienced, clever but not all-knowing. Where she begins at the start of the movie and where she ends are light years apart and Johnson skillfully takes us step by step through her journey. As Susie’s friend that begins to get more suspicious of her beloved academy and teachers, Mia Goth conveys a nice amount of terror as she becomes a target of evil and Moretz’s brief appearance fits in nicely with the paranoia of her character.

Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) has populated the staff of the academy with brilliant European actresses, all notable stars in their own right. It’s Swinton who is given center stage in not one, not two, but three different roles and the performances are, as expected, brilliant. That Swinton could so believably play multiple parts (and ages, and genders) is another tribute to her willingness to lose herself entirely in a role. The filmmakers at first tried to deny she was playing more than her central role of Madame Blanc but it quickly become a well-known fact that she was also playing Klemperer. The third role she’s playing I leave it to you to find out on your own.

As a horror film, the movie delivers the shocks in several truly disturbing sequences that I’ve honestly had trouble shaking off. If you get woozy at the sight of blood this is definitely not the film for you as the last third of the movie is drenched in the red stuff. That being said, the violence is effective because it is so straight-forward and horrifying, some of it coming out of nowhere. A dynamite sequence interspersed with the troupe performing a new piece is a harrowing experience. There are also quiet moments, such as an outstanding epilogue that conjure the kind of emotions not usually felt in a horror movie.  Special mention must go to Radiohead’s Thom Yorke for his first feature film score that is all moody creepiness and melds perfectly with several of Guadagnino’s uncompromising sequences.

As is the case with many of these overtly arty horror films, Suspiria isn’t for everyone…nor should it be. At 152 minutes it’s a commitment but one that I felt flew by in a flash. Your experience will likely be different than mine, but I’m hoping people go into this one with their eyes wide open, knowing it’s a challenging film on many levels. I found it to be a largely unforgettable winner and a loving homage to the 1977 original.

The Silver Bullet ~ Suspiria (2018)

Synopsis: A darkness swirls at the center of a world-renowned dance company, one that will engulf the troupe’s artistic director, an ambitious young dancer, and a grieving psychotherapist. Some will succumb to the nightmare. Others will finally wake up.

Release Date: November 2, 2018

Thoughts: Whoa, this remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic looks far better and way more terrifying than I was expecting. Coming off of 2017’s lauded coming of age drama Call Me by Your Name, director Luca Guadagnino makes a major shift in tone for this creepy tale of a European dance company ruthlessly run by a coven of witches.  From this brief look, the feel of the film seems in line with Argento’s stylish masterpiece but also doesn’t come off like a carbon copy.  With stars Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades Freed), Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive), Chloë Grace Moretz (The 5th Wave), and original star Jessica Harper top lining and buzz steadily building based on early screenings of key intense scenes, Suspiria is one fall film to keep your eye out for…and then cover them in fear.