Friday, September 23, 2022

Characters Welcome: PEARL and CONFESS, FLETCH

Ti West’s Pearl is an unusual horror prequel, and all the better for it. The movie follows a few weeks in the life of a young woman who’ll grow up to be the elderly woman partially responsible for the deaths of the cast and crew of an indie porn film in X. That enjoyable 70s-set slasher homage was a fine return to form for horror filmmaker West, who here takes his tale back to 1918 and settles in for something with less gore and violence—although, oh, yes, there will be blood. It’s more of an unnerving character piece about an odd young lady having a tough time. In that sense, it’s less a slaughterhouse and more in line with a Carrie adaptation’s adolescent confusion winding its way to bloodshed, or Lucky McKee’s cult favorite May, about a disturbed woman whose attempts to make friends get uncomfortably surgical. Pearl (Mia Goth) is hunkered down on the family farm, avoiding the flu pandemic with her invalid father (Matthew Sunderland) and stern mother (Tandi Wright) while her husband (Alistair Swell) is off fighting in World War I. There are verdant fields and saturated gingham patterns at play in the frames—a pleasant sight, but one ominous with loneliness and isolation, too. The movie does fine, broad strokes work that can be filled in with squirming specificities of character.

She feels stuck, and the film acutely sees the pain in the smiles she fakes for family and friends. She just wants a way out. Maybe stardom as a dancer, like in the picture shows she loves so much, is her ticket? Shame, then, that life conspires to keep her down, although her off-putting neediness and grindingly pathetic obliviousness can’t be much help. Still, she blames everyone but herself, and slowly starts to think she’d be better off without them. West, co-writing with Goth, digs into the oddities of this broken woman’s psyche, and follows on her dark path papered over with obvious falseness of Americana Pollyanna psychopathy. The screen is wide, the colors lush, the music swirling with Herrmann-style romantic strings, and the lighting bright and overpowering. There’s a gleam to the look and a glint in Goth’s eye as the poor lady starts to crack. The film’s high point is not the few bloody axings or slow-motion self-destruction of this cramped family unit, but a high-wire, close-up, one-shot monologue in which Pearl finally unburdens every nook and cranny of her conflicted emotional storehouse to an unsuspecting friendly ear. It’s a nervy, unsettled, bleakly funny, and even empathetic scene that goes on and on. We somehow care for Pearl, in all her raw vulnerability, even as the long speech winds on, digging herself deeper into a whole lot of trouble. We know her so well by then it’s hard to look away.

But for a character who’s a much more pleasant hang, check Confess, Fletch. Writer-director Greg Mottola—whose Superbad and Adventureland are also pleasant hangout comedies—once more proves not every character-based movie needs trauma to excavate. (How refreshing.) Fletch, the star of a series of dry, sly mystery novels by Gregory Mcdonald, is an ex-investigative journalist whose appeal sits squarely in how effortlessly at ease he feels bumbling into any situation, even as danger and disorder escalates. He’s just an appealing personality in a shaggy genre package. Here, played with rumpled charisma by Jon Hamm, he’s on the case of some missing paintings, which may or may not be related to an abducted Count. There’s also a murder Fletch didn’t commit, but the facts keep stubbornly implicating him anyway. This tangled web grows to involve art dealers, an Italian heiress, a few shady rich folks, a countess, a couple of cops, a yacht club security officer, and a loopy stoner. The screenplay provides eccentric characters and sequences with a charming straight-faced silliness. The repartee sparkles with wit, and the clues assemble with intelligence, while Fletch unflappably stumbles into deeper and deeper trouble while barely breaking a sweat.

It’s a character-driven comedy, in that it’s all about conversation and relationships and adult foibles and has an interesting person drawing us along through it all. He’s the sort of guy who thinks he can talk his way into or out of any situation, and probably can. He was played by Chevy Chase in two 80s adaptations, who gave the concept his own layer of smarminess. Luckily, Hamm knows he can’t out chase Chevy on that terrain, and so leans into a relaxed confidence that’s totally appealing. Here’s a movie that knows how to have a good time, giving a fun presence smart speech and a compellingly complicated mystery told so low-key that it’s more about the fun energies of a pileup of character actors (Roy Wood Jr, Kyle MacLachlan, Annie Mumolo, John Slattery, Lucy Punch, Marcia Gay Harden) circling each other until the solution half-accidentally resolves. Mottola wisely keeps this chill movie at jazzy remove, a sort of brushes-on-snare shuffle to the rat-a-tat dialogue and sparkling fizz to the complications. Fletch always has some trick up his sleeve, planning out contingencies and doling out fake names to wriggle wherever the next clue, or escape, might be found. It’s a cool pleasure to pass time with a movie that so generously lets us enjoy this enjoyable character’s company and try to think a few steps ahead with him.

Saturday, September 17, 2022


There’s a special thrill in seeing an old-fashioned Hollywood spectacle that uses a familiar vernacular in the service of new ideas. The Woman King delivers what you’d expect from a historical epic of its kind: wide shots and stunning vistas, well-considered period detail, negotiations between nations, courtly intrigue, battlefield strategy, warriors in training and on the attack. But its perspective and its telling breathes with life where so many others fall dead behind cliche. By setting its tale in the African nation of Dahomey, at a time when their impressive all-woman fighting force known as the Agojie fought back against invading tribes and white slavers alike, the movie takes on a power and a force that complicates the standard narratives. When an African leader waves his hand dismissively at a Portuguese envoy’s tales of European warfare and declares that those “tribal” disputes mean nothing to him, there’s a pleasing reversal. What a welcome corrective to centuries of stories wherein the entire continent of Africa is mere backdrop for Western adventurism. But the film itself wears this lightly and with earnest exploration. As a moving and compelling human-scale story, it makes the politics of its moment come alive, as when the King of Dahomey (John Boyega) debates with his council whether or not to continue selling their captives to the slave trade, or when painful legacies of violence are brought forth through new potentialities embodied in fragile found families.

The film centers the story of its women fighters with a sense not merely of gawking at spectacles of violence, or of admiring musculatures in action, but of flesh and blood and real human feeling. It helps that Viola Davis is in charge, using every ounce of her considerable charisma to play the general of these fearsome troops, and every bit of her richly textured emotive performance to imbue her character with an entire life of struggle and hard-fought power in each gesture and glance. There’s never any doubt she’s in charge as she grounds her strategy in a sturdy sense of moral fervor and a cleverness in negotiating royal considerations. She leads troops full of fascinating figures—a teenager (Thuso Mbedu) abandoned by her father for refusing all suitors, a spiritual confidant who skillfully wields a staff and spear (Sheila Atim), a seemingly fearless commander who can withstand a cutting blade or a broken bone with barely a flinch (Lashana Lynch). The sense of camaraderie and strength the group generates embodies a form of sisterly empowerment and collective action. Davis’ general gives them a clear sense of purpose through sacrifice—solidarity through unwavering unity. They stand strong in the face of tough odds.

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood presents this with walloping action and impressive scale. But she’s also keenly attuned to the interpersonal dynamics and in who these characters are as people. This lends lively depth, and intense sympathetic interest to the plot’s developments. She’s one of our great directors of intimate, humane dramas—with such great romances as Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights. Here she brings her generosity of spirit and sensitive understanding of relationships to warriors building bonds and training to break bones and spill blood. Her prior picture, the atypical comic book actioner The Old Guard, was a fine first round with such things. This new one is one of her best films yet—alive with specificity in every role. The Woman King is not merely about who will win the battle—although that’s certainly powerful rooting interest, and the finale is a satisfying act of rebellion against the slave trade—but in who these fighters are. There’s as much attention to the combat as to characters discovering themselves, alone and together, building connections and mending deep psychological wounds. It’s a film about scars. Davis’ character says every great warrior has them. The camera lingers on a few now and again, even as the actors play out the metaphor. They’ve each found new purpose, turning the scars of their past into the fuel for their warrior fires, and finding friendship and determination in a matriarchal force with which to be reckoned. This, too, is a thrill.

Monday, September 12, 2022


To see a thriller lately has been to dip into the psychic ripples of our very early pandemic days of isolation, of survival alone or with our closest family groups. Even as that feeling recedes into our memories, it’s a potent one sitting not too far from the surface, ready to be activated, even if only as a byproduct of standard thriller tropes. Take, for example, Beast, a jungle survival movie in which Idris Elba has to protect his daughters from a wild lion. Its suspense and sympathy rests solely in wondering how they’ll get out of this one. On safari, the girls were meant to grieve their dead mother. Now, they’re stuck in the middle of nowhere with a prowling predator ready to pounce. There’s instant emotional investment playing on that sense of abandonment, with no one on the way to rescue. The family has to stick close, be clever, and do what they can to survive. Director Baltasar Kormákur, whose mountain-climbing Everest and freighter-hopping Contraband and boat-sinking Adrift have proved him a reliable practitioner of travelogue tension, here keeps up the sense of landscape and scale, the better to make the characters feel all the more trapped and alone. The screenplay is economically structured, introducing each element on the way into the jungle that we’ll need to see them out: poachers, a pride rock, an abandoned school, a tranquilizer gun. The fun, then, is seeing Elba as the ultimate family man taken back through those variables, and ultimately willing to run toward a lion and punch it in the face if it means his girls make it out alive.

Also out in the wild is Prey, a spin-off of the Predator series. In this one, the franchise’s usual extraterrestrial big-game hunters land a few hundred years ago in the territory of a Native American tribe. It’s a neat conceit, and one that finds a resourceful young Comanche woman (Amber Midthunder) best situated to puzzle out how to defeat the enemy. Unlike the team of commandos in the first film, or the other groups who’ve encountered this villain since (like L.A. cops in Predator 2, an assortment of stranded killer stereotypes in Predators, and Giger’s Aliens in Alien vs. Predator), this hero quickly runs out of backup. It’s a good thing Midthunder has a solid presence, holding the screen with a smolderingly believable toughness in the face of bewilderment. She’s enough to carry the movie ever so slightly above its thinness. If you remember director Dan Trachtenberg’s first film, the claustrophobic trapped-in-a-bunker-with-a-doomsday-prepper 10 Cloverfield Lane, he’s skilled at stranding a character in a rough spot, twisting the tension, and then resourcefully finding everything at hand to throw at the problem. Here, though, the effects are a little flimsy—simply presented CG blood and dismemberment wears out its welcome sooner than later—and the plot becomes so much running around until the inevitable. That’s true to the spirit of this franchise, though, and at least it’s found an adequately inventive new lane for it to explore.

Then there’s Orphan: First Kill, a much-belated sequel to 2009’s Orphan, which remains among the most emotionally distressing horror movies of this century. That one, from expert pulpmaker Jaume-Collet Serra, found 12-year-old Isabelle Fuhrman playing a manipulative, murdering orphan adopted by a well-intentioned, emotionally-fragile family. The little girl then systematically takes apart their lives—often figuratively, but eventually literally, too. Part of the disquieting fun is seeing the child actress slowly becoming evil beyond her years, finding just the right buttons to press to make her new parents really hurt and truly squirm. But where do you go from there, and after all these years? Director William Brent Bell (who heretofore has given us such deflating horror pictures as The Devil Inside, the found-footage movie that infamously pointed audiences to a URL in lieu of an actual ending) takes the story backwards in a prequel that strains credulity. 

Fuhman returns to play the young lead again, with a pint-sized body double, tons of forced perspective, prosthetics, lifts, and other tricks. Now 25, she’s playing the effort of appearing much younger, so it’s cognitive dissonance running in the other direction. We pick up with her escaping an Estonian mental facility, and then making her way to the States by impersonating the long-missing daughter of wealthy WASPs. It seems to be setting up more of the same, cooped up in a dim mansion in the middle of winter. Luckily Julia Stiles, as the mother, meets the cracked energy of the project with her own tightly-wound wickedness. The whole thing doesn’t quite work, or live up to its predecessor. And how could it, really, with the missing shock of surprise and novelty? But it manages to be suitably strange. I didn’t much like it, but I also won’t forget it.

The best crowd-pleasing horror movie in quite some time, however, is Barbarian. It’s a pleasurable piece of lowbrow appeal. It plays out like a journey down a dark tunnel, with trip-wires springing surprises with such unexpected regularity that it manages to catch you off-guard every time. The premise is an instant grabber. On a dark and stormy night, a nervous young woman (Georgina Campbell) arrives at an Airbnb. (Mistake number one.) There she discovers that the house, the only habitable one in a dilapidated Detroit neighborhood, has been double booked. The man staying there (Bill Skarsgård), recognizing the fear factor, goes out of his way to appear harmless. She enters, reluctantly, on guard, ready to bolt when needed. She just has to figure this out and find a place to stay. That’s already plenty for a suspenseful little movie, a cautious walking-on-eggshells night between two strangers, both gingerly avoiding calling further suspicion or danger upon themselves. But of course there’s something darker going on here. The home’s basement is definitely a place you don’t want to end up. I dare not divulge what happens from there. Even mentioning a third character, played by a recognizable comic character actor given his best role in years, feels like it’d spoil the fun. 

Writer-director Zach Cregger's prior experience in sketch comedy surely honed his flair with unfurling a shock, and selling each zig-zagging sequence’s feints toward conventionality before doubling back with details that are exceedingly gross, compellingly tense, and bleakly funny all at once. Though it’s built out of standard elements—dank corridors and creepy rooms and shambling human monsters out of a Wes Craven picture—its telling is so enjoyably inventive. Even as the style—carefully composed shots and slow, deliberate camera moves—plays it straight, the story runs circles around expectations. Even in the final moments it’s still pulling off surprises, with the sick thrill of a storyteller getting away with getting another one over on you, even after you should know better. Treating even the darkest of scares as pitch-black punchlines makes this a great ride. No matter how unpleasant it gets, it’s fun to be stuck in it and discover where it goes.

Thursday, September 1, 2022


We’re swimming in phonies these days. Watch the pundits duly reciting talking points in defense of truly ridiculous and patently false premises—like, say, that the 2020 election was stolen, or that it’s normal for an ex-president to lie about returning topic secret documents he snuck into his golf resort—and you have to wonder if even they believe the preposterous things they’re saying. That tension has always been at the sleazy center of the televangelist, a push-pull between genuine religious sentiment and a straight up con. It seems as good a place as any to drill down into the sludge of disingenuous holier-than-thou demeanors that are so irritating in our culture. That’s the vein of hypocrisy and sympathy that The Eyes of Tammy Faye mined in its biopic stylings of a true scandal, ultimately finding the humanity in its lead’s good intentions. It’s also the richly hilarious terrain of the ongoing HBO comedy The Righteous Gemstones, a satiric, vulgar, and preposterous Southern Gothic King Lear in a tacky megachurch that’s somehow lovable, too. (That’s the Danny McBride special, I suppose.) And it finds perhaps its most literal expression of late in Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul. Writer-director Adamma Ebo, expanding a short of the same name, makes a movie that splits its time, and sometimes even its scenes, between a flat digital parodic mockumentary and a more nuanced and compelling character drama unfolding in stark grainy scope.

Switching between these two modes is the story of a couple desperately spinning artifice to get out of a calamitous series of revelations. Preening pastor Childs (Sterling K. Brown) and his wife (Regina Hall) have closed their big Atlanta church following revelations of sexual impropriety on his part. Now they’re planning an Easter Sunday comeback, complete with a carefully stage-managed semi-confession and plea for PR redemption. Thus the camera crew following them around, catching grinning smiles hiding the panic behind their eyes. These scenes are full of frantic spin and empty braggadocio. They’re in full prosperity gospel mode, a greedy sermon building a monument to their own material success and calling it God’s. We’re meeting them past a scandal that has left them with only five members, and struggling to get the message out that they’re on the way back. But what we see of their flailing in front of the camera from these angles is all artifice slipping away. We’re presented standard ideas about materialism—a tour of an expensive wardrobe, a fleet of sports cars, two enormous golden thrones—and hypocrisy, like slipping out an expletive when stepping in gum. There are also surface glosses of mindless sermons. We never get a clear sense of their religious beliefs, beyond one blatantly homophobic speech setup for an ironic disjunction. Nor do we see if there’s any real missionary zeal beyond their need to be set apart as the focus of donations and attention.

That’s why the “real” scenes within the movie are a such a relief. Away from the self-conscious performances-within-performances of the faux-doc style (and in practice, that stuff is sitcom simple anyway), Hall and Brown are allowed to let their characterizations breathe. Hall, especially, is quite good as a woman clinging to a sinking relationship, trying to see her way toward staying, even, and despite, the deep pain that’s still there. The movie never quite tips its hand with the full details of the pastor’s indiscretions—just hints that he’s wooed young men with lavish gifts, and one semi-seduction scene that’s full of squirming suspense. So it’s difficult to ultimately judge for what he’s asking to be forgiven. Characters hint that they know more than we do, and the couple themselves certainly won’t confess on camera. But the scenes without the doc conceit let the implications linger, as they characters drop the act and talk frankly. They sing along to hardcore rap, explore sexual dysfunction, and cringe as they can’t prevent confrontations with the truth of what they’ve done from slipping out in conversation with former congregants in ways both shady and sharp. Hall sells the tough edges of resolve, the stubborn denial of trauma, and the uncertainty of potential forgiveness. Brown, for his part, is a fine unreflective peacock of a preacher, also skating just one slip from doom. The actors lift the script beyond the routine. If the movie’s halves cohered as well, and with as much depth and nuance, as its leads' performances, it’d really be something. So it’s two approaches to the same material in one film. Shame only one’s nearly worth it.