31 Days to Scare ~ Revenge

The Facts:

Synopsis: Never take your mistress on an annual guys’ getaway, especially one devoted to hunting.

Stars: Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz, Kevin Janssens, Vincent Colombe, Guillaume Bouchède, Avant Strangel

Director: Coralie Fargeat

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  It’s often a stereotype that horror films are made solely for men, but it’s hard to deny that a great number of them are definitely constructed from a male perspective.  Though the concept of the “Final Girl” has been cemented as one of the classic rules of a horror film, just as many nubile women meet gruesome ends before the last female standing finally defeats whatever has been hunting down her friends.  Women are often treated as set pieces even when they are the heroines of their own stories.  It’s sad, but true.

In 1978 a landmark movie originally titled Day of the Woman arrived to little fanfare.  The story of a woman raped and left for dead who returns to wreak vengeance on her perpetrators was a micro-budgeted stomach-churner that was eventually re-titled I Spit on Your Grave.  With a title like that, it caught more attention and quickly became a late-night cult classic that spawned many imitators, all with a similar (bad) taste level.  Remade in 2010 and getting three more sequels, its infamy lives on.  I’ve seen the original and the remake and…that was enough for me thank you very much.

When I first heard about the French movie Revenge, it was hard not to think about I Spit on Your Grave because they share similar plot elements.  A woman is brutalized and returns with full force to repay the men that think they’re smarter than her.  I resisted the film for a time because I know how extreme European (especially French) filmmaking can be but once I read the movie was written/directed by a female I was intrigued to see how a story like this would play out as viewed through the female gaze.  How would a female approach the violence?  How would she treat her victim?  Would this be any different than the skeezy schlock that had come before it?

Boy, am I glad I gave this one a go because, as difficult as it is to watch at times, Revenge is a sizzling jolt that starts out slowly and builds to a crazed crescendo.  It’s a movie in full control of its narrative and intentionality, always raising the stakes for its victimized star and often putting obstacles that have nothing to do with her tormentors in her way.  Writer/director Coralie Fargeat doesn’t create a reborn Rambo that suddenly develops skills to assist her in her revenge, but lets the woman discover her own strength naturally surprising herself and the audience in the process.  Feeling like it’s happening in real time, we are right there with the protagonist each painful step of the way as she comes back from the dead, brusied and bloodied, and with a necessary score to settle.

Arriving for a long weekend of hunting at his extravagant retreat in the middle of a desert (we never know where this location is but the movie was filmed in Morocco), Richard (Kevin Janssens) has brought along his mistress Jen (Matilda Lutz, Rings) for some extra fun before his friends arrive.  They don’t get much alone time, though, because Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède) show up soon after and it’s just the boys and Jen partying into the night.  Jen is a flirty but friendly, obviously only having eyes for Richard but still being welcoming to the attentions of his friends.  Though she thinks she’s in control of the situation, as observers of the situation we can see how it’s getting out of control. The next morning is when things take a terrifying turn for Jen and when she stands up for herself she’s betrayed by Richard…and that’s all I’ll say about the last half of the film because you have to experience it yourself.

Turning in a truly revelatory performance, Lutz goes from tart-ed up Lolita at the beginning of the film to blood-soaked avenging angel at the end.  The woman we see 90 minutes into the film looks like a completely different person than the one that we started out with. It’s a credit to Lutz that she believably transforms the character so fully from a trusting bombshell to an activated creature unwilling to be tossed aside like garbage.  She begins her journey back just wanting to stay alive but, when it’s clear the men won’t/can’t let her live, she decides to beat them at their own game and learns the tricks as she goes.  It’s a fantastic performance.  Janssens is also slyly good as her lover without much allegiance to anything/anyone and it’s fitting Fargeat asks him to be so exposed in the film’s most memorable sequence.

Fargeat stages the first act of Revenge with such a luxe vibe with glamour shots of Jen, Richard, and their swanky surroundings.  Seeing beautiful people in a beautiful setting is easy to relax into.  It’s when his less refined friends arrive the cinematography starts to get less shiny and more gritty, leading up to the latter half of the movie set in the stark blaze of exposed sun standing in high contrast to the opening.  That’s nothing compared to the bonkers finale Fargeat has worked up…and it’s a marvel that she pulls it off so well.  This isn’t an easy watch, to be sure, and those with issues on rape and violence toward women are advised to be cautious on exposing yourself to this film.  The main violation does occur mostly off-screen but just the fact that it happens is enough to warrant consideration for those who might be affected by seeing this action.  As a film, though, I recommend it highly as an example of taking a subgenre of horror infamous in the way it handles women and giving it a fresh (and exceptionally well-made) perspective.

Movie Review ~ Luce


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A married couple is forced to reckon with their idealized image of their son, adopted from war-torn Eritrea, after an alarming discovery by a devoted high school teacher threatens his status as an all-star student.

Stars: Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Norbert Leo Butz, Astro, Marsha Stephanie Blake

Director: Julius Onah

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  If there’s one thing that’s been plaguing many recent theatrical releases, it’s an infestation of predictability.  Used to be that curse was relegated to the big budget franchise blockbusters that operated on formula as part of their plan on delivering exactly what an audience expects but I’ve noticed a lack of creativity creeping into the smaller films arriving as well.  Blame it on an industry more averse to risk than ever before, hardly willing to gamble on not quite a sure thing.  Yet it’s these roll of the dice titles that do make their way into theaters that remind you how fun it can be to not know what’s going to happen next, to not arrive at the conclusion a half hour before the characters do.  Films like Booksmart, The Farewell, The Kid Who Would Be King, and, yes, Crawl are all part of the 2019 unpredictable list.  All from different genres, but all are going after something off the beaten path.  You can go ahead and add Luce to that roster now.

Based on JC Lee’s play that had been well received in its 2013 NYC premiere at Lincoln Center, it’s been adapted for the screen by Lee and director Julius Onah (The Cloverfield Paradox).  I was unfamiliar with the play and had managed to screen the film without seeing the preview and I’d encourage you to do so as well.  Besides, there’s something pleasant about going into a movie with no expectation because you’re letting the film set its own bar it has to jump over.  It’s clear from the start that Lee and Onah know they’ve set their stakes high and are confident enough to traverse the increasingly barbed terrain introduced over the next two hours.  What they have is a tense, at times terrifying, look into the dark recesses behind privilege and the expectation of excellence.

When Amy and Peter Edgar adopted their son Luce as a young boy from Eritrea, one of Africa’s poorest countries, they wanted to give him a better life and over the last ten years they think they’ve done a good job.  Luce is a star athlete and an honors student, a polite and sensitive young man with a bright future and, after years of therapy to help resolve the trauma he suffered before he was adopted, reasonably well adjusted.  As the film begins, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr., The Birth of a Nation) is giving a speech at a school function after which his parents are introduced to Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water), Luce’s world cultures teacher.  The tension is evident and when pressed by Peter (Tim Roth, The Hateful Eight) later about Miss Wilson, Luce dismisses her to his parents as a “bitch”, much to the dismay of Amy (Naomi Watts, Allegiant) who knows her son has more respect than that.

This is the first crack in the relationship not only between mother and son but between husband and wife. While Peter initially sides with Luce over his caustic relationship with an overly difficult teacher, when Miss Wilson makes a further claim about a concern she has observed and Luce’s behavior toward her, the loyalties switch and suddenly Amy is the one defending her son while Peter takes the opposing view.  Turns out the minor concern Miss Wilson has is only the tip of an iceberg of secrets involving the school that provide some surprising twists and turns for all involved.  At the center of all of it is Luce, and though his past positions him to be someone we want to root for and believe in, could he harbor the dark side Miss Wilson observes or is he the golden child being misunderstood by a teacher holding him to a different standard?  Or perhaps he’s neither and no one, not even his involved parents, knows the real Luce.

These questions are posed with skill by Lee and Onah, creating shifting allegiances not just with the characters on screen but with audiences trying to decipher it for themselves.  One moment you think you’ve figured things out and the next Lee has thrown a curve ball and perhaps you’ve jumped to a conclusion that’s too easy and also…why was it so easy for you to jump to that conclusion in the first place?  Questions of nature vs. nurture are explored as well as racism not just between blacks and whites but within the same rice.  Films adapted from a play can often have the feel of being too talky and stage-y and Luce does have its fair share of scenes that I’m sure were lifted verbatim from the original text but it never feels stage bound.  Lee and Onah have opened up this world to include all.

The performances across the board are outstanding and it reinforces the already strong material with an extra layer of steel.  It’s a long standing joke that Watts often gets the roles that her best friend Nicole Kidman passes on because they look so similar and Watts can seem like Kidman-lite but I can’t imagine anyone tackling this role and displaying the nuanced layers brought forth as well as Watts does.  I’m often very on the fence with Roth but he’s paired believably with Watts and handles a late breaking personal revelation with the appropriate amount of inward turmoil.  As Luce, Harrison has a tricky line to walk because he can’t ever show his cards too much or else the audience will finalize their conclusion about him.  By keeping us off-balance with his charm one minute and his Bad Seed-iness the next, we know not to get too close to Luce…but also not to take our eyes off of him.

Octavia Spencer was working long before she won her Oscar for The Help and has continued to show up in an impressive amount of movies every year.  They aren’t all winners but she has a way of rising to the top of any project she’s working on…even serving as producer of last years’s Best Picture Oscar Winner Green Book.  Sometimes her performances get a little campy but, if marketed and promoted right, her role in Luce could get her another Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.  I’d argue Lee has made Miss Wilson the most multifaceted of all his characters in the film because not only do we see her dealing with the Luce situation, we observe her trying to take in her mentally disabled sister (Marsha Stephanie Blake) who has her own set of devastating challenges.  That Spencer gets the absolute best moments in the movie doesn’t hurt her chances of staying in the Oscar conversation.  No actress working right now can convey so much with just a shift in her eyes.

The summer days are dwindling down and the “big” movies are largely behind us.  While the kids go back to school and we all have a little more free time on our hands and breathing room in the theaters, here’s hoping theaters find space to include Luce and you seek it out.  It’s well worth your time and provides edge of your seat entertainment that even the best of the 2019 supposed summer thrill machines couldn’t muster.

Movie Review ~ Wild Rose


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A musician from Glasgow dreams of becoming a Nashville star.

Stars: Jessie Buckley, Julie Walters, Sophie Okonedo, Craig Parkinson, James Harkness, Jamie Sives

Director: Tom Harper

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: As is often the case more and more with movies, it’s the films that you know the least about the tend to provide the biggest surprises. I’d seen the preview for Wild Rose a few times here and there and didn’t give it much of a second thought, feeling like it was something that I’d catch later when I had extra time to spare. Then the soundtrack made its way to my playlist and proceeded to sit there for another month or so, gathering digital dust. With a release date looming and an opportunity to get an advanced look at the movie presenting itself, I figured I’d give it a listen and…I was just not prepared for what I heard.

The name Jessie Buckley was only familiar to me because of the buzz generated from her work in a little-seen but much loved thriller from 2017, Beast. What I didn’t know was that she possessed the kind of voice that could blow the roof off the joint one moment and soothe you to sleep the next. Comprised of sixteen songs, the soundtrack was mostly covers but included one original song written expressly for the film (more on that later). I listened to the whole thing in one setting. Then I listened to it again. And then one more time for good measure just to make sure it was as fantastic as I thought it was. Then I began to worry, would the film live up to the soundtrack? It’s a rare problem to have but I honestly had a fear seeing the movie would somehow break the magic this impressive soundtrack had conjured.

Thankfully, while Wild Rose may seem on the surface like a carbon-copy of every other girl with a guitar and dreams of stardom film that has been done to death (and just done exceptionally well last year with A Star is Born), it doesn’t pivot where you think it will and resists the urge to bend when you feel like it will break. Anchored by a superstar making performance by Buckley and overflowing with the kind of truthful heart you just don’t get in films these days, this is a real authentic winner.

In Glasgow, Rose-Lynn Harlan (Buckley, Judy) is returning home after serving time in jail for drug possession. Leaving her two young children in the care of her mother (Julie Walters, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) we get the impression right away being a mother isn’t her first priority because instead of running home to see her kids she first stops off for a roll in the hay with her boyfriend (James Harkness, Macbeth). Possessing a thrillingly soulful singing voice and an equally fiery personality, Rose-Lynn lives life big and loud and everyone and everything else better stand aside. Faced with being a mom to two kids that barely know her and don’t trust her, she only half tries to parent them while attempting to reignite her singing career with the hope of making it to Nashville.

Taking a job as a house cleaner to the wealthy homemaker Susannah (Sophie Okonedo, Hellboy) who isn’t aware of her past or her children, Rose-Lynn isn’t in the house a day before she’s sneaking liquor from the cabinet. While she may not be the best maid, the children of the house overhear her signing (in a creative fantasy sequence where the odd bandmember pops up around the house as Rose-Lynn is vacuuming) and pass that information along to their mother. Now fixated on Rose-Lynn as her new project, Susannah offers her an opportunity to meet influential people and get to the place she’s been longing to be…but at what cost?

Surprisingly, screenwriter Nicole Taylor and director Tom Harper (The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death) answer these questions in a different way than I was expecting. Where one film might find a climax in the friendship between Susannah and Rose-Lynn, Taylor and Harper use that merely as a mid-way jumping off place for something more robust and fulfilling. It’s a tribute to the talented supporting players that they support the script and don’t let us get too far ahead of the action. Several times, I thought I knew where a certain scene was going only to have it come out in quite a different way.

Before it builds to its deeply satisfying finale, there’s some thorny emotional terrain to navigate and Buckley has us in her pocket from the moment she appears onscreen. I’m fairly sure she’s in every scene of the film and she’s a captivating presence throughout, even when she’s doing things that are self-destructive and counter to everything we know to be the “right” step to take. When she has her first true moment to just sing while making a video recording, it’s a transformative experience for her and the audience. It’s a flawless, note-perfect performance.

She’s matched well with two formidable actresses playing two very different mother figures. Walters yearns for her daughter to grow up and take responsibility for her children and her life, now fully at the point where she can’t hide her disappointment any longer. Okonedo comes from privilege and perhaps has some blinders on to the uphill climb Rose-Lynn is on. Yet she is still her champion, looking for ways to help her succeed by earning it and not just giving it to her on a silver platter. Both women see the talent and want her to achieve her dreams, but only one understands the extra personal sacrifices she would be making if she does.

The one original song composed for the film is performed at a key point and, paired with Buckley’s from-the-gut vocals, will likely have you grabbing for some tissues. Listen to the lyrics and how perfectly they reflect the journey – and then note the song was written by Oscar-winner Mary Steenburgen (Book Club) who may just add another Oscar nomination to her list for her work on this track. If we’re lucky, Buckley’s performance will get a push from its distributor and remembered when the end of the year rolls around. So far, this is one of the best performances I’ve seen in 2019. And if she ever decides to retire from acting, she could go into the studio tomorrow and make a hit record – I’m sure of it.

Movie Review ~ Apollo 11


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A look at the Apollo 11 mission to land on the moon led by commander Neil Armstrong and pilot Buzz Aldrin.

Stars: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins

Director: Todd Douglas Miller

Rated: G

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  The red carpet has barely been rolled up from the Oscars celebrating the 2018 movie season but is it too early to feel like 2019 has already seen the release of a surefire nomination for Best Documentary?  Yeah, I know it’s barely March and there are many months to go before the documentary features released this year get shortlisted for a shot at an Academy Award but I can’t imagine Apollo 11 won’t be included in that spread.  Before this weekend, I had heard next to nothing about this film released from indie studio Neon, but after it secured a one-week engagement in IMAX I was curious if I should make time for it.  I’m so glad the timing worked out and I had the opportunity to see it projected on a huge screen.  Here’s a stunning accomplishment in cinema 50 years in the making that looks like it was filmed yesterday.

The moon landing in July of 1969 by the crew of Apollo 11 isn’t exactly an event we don’t know a lot about.  There have been countless books, movies, TV specials, and a few conspiracy theories that have broken down the extraordinary measures it took for NASA to send a man to the moon.  Just last year saw the arrival of First Man, a biopic of Neil Armstrong where Apollo 11’s mission plays a key part of the action.  While that movie was a bust due in no small part to its cold aloofness toward the audience, Apollo 11 embraces viewers with open arms.

Using an astonishing amount of footage that hasn’t been seen previously, director Todd Douglas Miller has put together a documentary with a style I usually shy away from.  There’s no narration and no interviews…it relies entirely on film shot during the time of Apollo 11’s mission both on the ground and in space.  Okay, there’s a tiny bit of basic animation to illustrate some of the maneuvers the spacecraft undertook on its journey to the moon but it’s unobtrusive to the fascinating audio and video many of us will be taking in for the first time.  Remastered and optimized for an IMAX experience, the footage looks spectacular, you’ll very likely forget you’re watching a documentary and not a Hollywood movie that’s spared no expense in reproducing the mission with top notch production design and special effects.

The movie wastes no time in introducing us to astronauts Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins and detailing their preparation to take on this challenge into the unknown.  As they suit up, we get quick flashes of each of their personal histories that led them to this point and hold our breaths as they take their place at the top of a rocket that will send them into orbit. If you’ve seen First Man, you have the added context of what fueled Armstrong’s urge to take to the skies but Aldrin and Collins have always been a bit of an enimga to me.  It should also be noted that Armstrong is shown to be a genial, warm, personable presence…a far cry from the emotionally vacant shell Ryan Gosling played him as in First Man.

Making sure everything goes as planned are hundreds of workers on the ground monitoring their progress from Florida and Houston.  Almost entirely male, the NASA employees manning the control station are level-headed and precise…but at times become a little hard to distinguish from one another.  At the same time, Miller brings in footage of the general public arriving to witness this historic moment, crowding onto beaches and hotel balconies to have the best vantage point at lift off.  These establishing shots are important to orient us to the time, place, and people without ever having to explain anything to the viewer.  I can understand where Miller obtained the NASA footage but these passages of the swells of people is truly an impressive get, especially considering how pristine they’ve been rendered.

There are several scenes in Apollo 11 that unexpectedly hit me in a real emotional sweet spot.  Don’t be shocked if the pulse pounding take-off, Armstrong’s first step onto the moon, the astronaut’s splash landing on their return, or a beautiful coda elicit some tears.  I’m not sure if it was the general awesomeness of these moments captured on film or a feeling of pride at the accomplishment of our country but it’s enough to make you almost uncontrollably leap out of your seat at the end.  I’d sit through the movie all over again just to witness Apollo 11 lifting off from the ground and ascending into the heavens — a truly spellbinding few minutes.

Certain movies are meant to be seen in theaters on the biggest possible screen, like last year’s Oscar winner for Best Documentary Free SoloApollo 11 is absolutely one of those films where you should do everything you can to catch it before it leaves your local cinema.  I can imagine it will still play well if you watch it at home but there’s nothing that will be able to beat the experience of watching these monumental moments on the most gigantic screen you can find.  See it, see it, see it.  You won’t be disappointed.