Movie Review ~ Saint Maud

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The Facts
:

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

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

Director: Rose Glass

Rated: R

Running Length: 84 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review ~ The Personal History of David Copperfield


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A fresh and distinctive take on Charles Dickens’ semi-autobiographical masterpiece, chronicles the life of its iconic title character as he navigates a chaotic world to find his elusive place within it.

Stars: Dev Patel, Aneurin Barnard, Peter Capaldi, Morfydd Clark, Daisy May Cooper, Rosalind Eleazar, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Paul Whitehouse

Director: Armando Iannucci

Rated: PG

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Right about the time this pandemic hit and the country shut down, I was closing on a condo my partner and I were set to take our time painting and moving into with the help of our friends and family.  Now, this new social distancing term and all that went with it meant that our friends couldn’t help us move or be with us to paint so we were on our own.  To while away the hours slapping primer and two coats on the entire place, we decided to go all literary and listen to Jane Austen’s Emma because it was a rare Austen neither of us had read.  As a reward not just for toiling away in Behr Eggshell over the course of several weeks but for getting through the novel, we movie buffs thought it a good idea to make our way through the filmed versions of Emma before watching the 2020 version that arrived this year because, well, there couldn’t be that many to get through right?  Wrong. So wrong.

Watching the various versions of Austen’s tale come to life so soon after reading the book illustrated that there were different ways to breathe energy into a novel but that it’s all based on interpretation.  There was a four-and-a-half-hour version of Emma that in some ways moved faster than the 1996 much-loved Gwyneth Paltrow version.  You also can’t forget 1995’s Clueless which we all know was writer/director Amy Heckerling’s loosely inspired modernization of the classic.  It all goes to show that you can have your Austen fancy or you can have your Austen cool but when the characters are written so well to begin with no amount of fussing around with them is going to totally ruin the heart of the piece.

So, why all this talk about Emma in a discussion of a new view of Charles Dickens David Copperfield?  Well, it’s to address off the bat that this isn’t going to be the David Copperfield you have come to expect from your BBC adaptations or your Masterpiece Theater Sunday evening appointment television showings.  While certainly not in any way a faithful adaptation of a novel Dickens published in 1850 and was known to be his favorite, The Personal History of David Copperfield is a richly realized one that rather blithely removes the most despondent pieces and revels in the fanciful.  It also wisely knows the difference between modernization and revisionism and walks the line between the two with ease.  The result is one of the most surprising and surprisingly entertaining films of the year.

Director Armando Iannucci is likely a familiar name to those that followed the HBO series Veep.  As the creator and showrunner for the first four seasons, he helped establish that political satire and its irreverent humor so I went into this film expecting it to have that same fast style and brusque energy.  The quick interplay was there and it definitely has the energy that I’ve come to expect from Iannucci but not in that same kind of rough and hot to the touch feel it has had before.  It’s softer here and allows the story to be propelled forward by the characters and their choices, not by plot machinations.  That’s a significant achievement when you’re working within a storyline where a seemingly endless set of maladies befall our leading man throughout.

For those unfamiliar, David Copperfield is the story of a young man (Dev Patel, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) who spends the majority of his growing up years encountering one set of colorful characters after another.  At his birth, his arch aunt (Tilda Swinton, Suspiria) arrives to assist but leaves promptly when she discovers he is not a girl.  His young, widowed mother (Morfydd Clark, Crawl) marries again, this time to a wicked man with an even more wicked sister (Gwendoline Christie, Welcome to Marwen) and soon he’s living with an always in-debt landlord (Peter Capaldi, World War Z).  During a brief stay with his aunt he’s introduced to her eccentric cousin (Hugh Laurie, Tomorrowland) before enrolling in a respected school where he meets lifelong friend James Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard, The Goldfinch) and first encounters the meek but not mild Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw, Little Joe).  He’s loved from afar by Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar) and pursues dotty Dora (also played by Clark) all the while hoping to secure his future happiness.

There’s a lot for Iannucci and co-writer Simon Blackwell to cover in two hours and it’s a remarkable accomplishment that they managed to cram as much story in as they do.  Obviously, some of it has to go and a good chunk of the book’s latter half is missing, with several storylines either combined or excised.  What’s been removed are the sallower portions of Dickens novel, leaving the remaining moments more light-hearted and vibrant.  One could argue that the characters needed a little more strife but Iannucci and Blackwell give David and his extended family a fair amount of business to overcome.  The villains in a Dickens story are always of the scheming and grasping variety, making them perfect for the likes of icy Christie and the gleeful apathy of Whishaw.

Along with the sharp writing, Iannucci has cast the film with a spectacular amount of top-tier talent and it all starts with Patel’s nicely metered approach to the title character.  Patel is an actor that has grown on me greatly over the years and continues to get better with each new role he takes.  I also especially liked Jairaj Varsani as the young David, showing again that its possible to play precocious without losing your audience to alienation.   As usual, Swinton mines every syllable and skin cell for maximum effect, and you simply can’t end 2020 without seeing her go crazy over a persistent donkey presence on her property.   If the film has a drawback, it’s that it’s so packed with welcome faces in episodic segments you don’t always feel you’ve rounded out the corners with each character before they’ve vanished for good.  That goes for the strong supporting players as well, many of whom have but a few lines/scenes to make an impression yet manage to leave an indelible on in their wake.

Purists may scoff and, honestly, I see their point in some way, but there’s an abundance of joy in these 120 minutes that have been hard to come by.  That’s something celebrate and not over-analyze.  A week after the extremely nasty and unpleasant Unhinged became the first film to re-open theaters, here comes The Personal History of David Copperfield on its heels to remind the rest of us what possibilities there are on the big screen…though it works just as well on the small one too.  I was thankfully able to screen this one from my home and would not have reviewed it otherwise.  Please, decide carefully if venturing into theaters is the right choice for you as well as anyone in your home that you may be returning to.

Movie Review ~ Crawl


The Facts
:

Synopsis: While attempting to save her father during a hurricane, a young woman finds herself trapped in a flooding house and must fight for her life against alligators.

Stars: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Anson Boon, Morfydd Clark

Director: Alexandre Aja

Rated: R

Running Length: 87 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: If there’s one thing that will give me the honest-to-goodness willies, it’s an alligator. I don’t care if they are on TV pestering golfers just trying to play through, lounging on the side of the highway on the Florida interstate, or six feet away behind glass in a zoo. I do not like them. I can vividly remember my father making the mistake of renting the VHS of the 1980 classic creature feature Alligator (where oh where is the remastered BluRay of that gem?) which kept me out of swimming pools for months. While other creepy monsters of the deep have had their fair share of D-grade movies, somehow the alligator and its fellow archosaur, the crocodile, have had a better run of decent films than most. Aside from Alligator, there’s Rogue, Lake Placid, Black Water, and Primeval. Heck, even the Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner Eraser has a memorable crocodile encounter.

So you can understand my excitement and a little bit of fear when I heard that Crawl was making its way into theaters. The logline alone, girl is trapped inside flooding house with alligators during a hurricane, was enough to entice even the most exasperated horror junkie, burned too often by SyFy originals and direct to Redbox gunk featuring killer piranhas and beastly barracudas. I kept tabs on the movie during its production and while a trailer seemed to give away key moments, I held out hope it was a return to the kind of fun monster movie we used to get served up regularly by movie studios.

It’s usually never a good sign when a major movie studio like Paramount decides not to screen their film for critics in advance and that’s what happened with Crawl. While it often can hold off negative press for a stinker (like the recent garbage remake of Child’s Play) it can also stymie a film that might be better than its genre suggests. Opening the film the week after Spider-Man: Far From Home and before The Lion King roars into theaters, there was a small gap in July when there was no competition and that’s where Paramount opted to release the film without much fanfare.

What a huge mistake.

Paramount, who often screens gigantic duds without a care in the world, kept the downright tasty Crawl under wraps and away from the eyes of critics for no good reason and that’s only to their detriment. A very fine creature feature produced on a low budget that feels like a high-end affair, it’s short and scary and delivers in every way a movie like this should. All the beats are hit, all the bites are taken. This is the movie jolt this sleepy summer has needed and it’s come from the least expected place.

Hurricane Wendy is coming on strong along the Florida coast and college co-ed Haley (Kaya Scodelario, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) can’t reach her father Dave (Barry Pepper, Monster Trucks) who lives near the eye of the storm. Against the advice of her sister (Morfydd Clark, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and local law enforcement, Haley makes her way through rough weather to the beach house to make sure her father is OK. Finding the house abandoned, upon further investigation she finds her father in the muddy subbasement with a nasty injury. However, before she’s able to get him out and avoid being stranded in the storm her exit is cut-off by a gigantic alligator that has found its way into the basement through an overflow pipe…and it’s not about to let its dinner just walk away.

So begins a fight for survival as Haley and Dave fend off the rising waters in their flooding house while evading an ever-growing number of alligators that begin to swarm around their neighborhood. Screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen devise some fairly ingenious ways of keeping the father and daughter believably stranded in the basement while also credibly showing their attempts at escape. In so many of these movies the characters suddenly lose all brain cells (if they had any to begin with) once they are put into a predicament but here both call upon their own convenient strengths to get them out of this ‘gator jam.

In the past, director Alexandre Aja hasn’t been the most subtle of horror directors. Beginning with the stomach-churning Haute Tension in 2003 and following it up with gross-outs like Mirrors and remakes of The Hills Have Eyes, Maniac, and the blood frenzy of Piranha 3D, he doesn’t exactly do soft horror so I was worried Crawl would be an unnecessary gore fest. Surprisingly, Aja is the most restrained he’s been ever, nicely dialing back the carnage and reserving it for when its most effective. Keeping it contained like that makes the moments when the alligators do strike have a far greater impact. The attacks, on poor souls that find themselves in close proximity to Haley and her father, are vicious and not unnecessarily prolonged.

I’d love to see some a behind the scenes making of documentary on Crawl to see how they utilized their sets and incorporated those with green screen because it’s a nearly seamless blend. Filmed in Serbia (yeah, Serbia), the movie largely takes place on that one labyrinthine basement set but does frequently switch to the rising waters outside where the alligators lurk and can swim freely. The gators themselves are an impressive mix of CGI and animatronic creations, far better than they should be considering the budget. Put it this way, I was in a movie seat that reclined and 98% of the time the alligators looked real enough to make me raise my legs up even higher.

Shortly after seeing Crawl I was speaking to someone about how much the movie frightened me and they asked me why this scared me so much when I routinely watch movies like The Conjuring, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Alien, Annabelle Comes Home, etc. Well, there’s a huge difference between those and Crawl. Crawl is a movie, like Jaws, that feels like it could maybe possible sometime somehow happen. And it’s why I’ll never live in Florida. Or by a beach. Or go into a basement. You, however, should make your way to your local theater and catch this one…if only to support these kinds of films and encourage studios like Paramount to make more of the same quality.