Saturday, November 26, 2022

A Christmas Story Christmas

Director: Clay Kaytis
Starring: Peter Billingsley, Erinn Hayes, Julie Hagerty, Scott Schwartz, R.D. Robb, Zack Ward, Ian Petrella, River Drosche, Julianna Layne
Running Time: 98 min.
Rating: PG

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

"You'll shoot your eye out" might be one of the most quoted lines in all of movies, but there's no Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle to be found in A Christmas Story Christmas, director Clay Kaytis' agreeably pleasant sequel to the 1983 holiday staple. An initial flop in theaters, annual TBS marathons and decades worth of reappraisal significantly bolstered A Christmas Story's reputation, but as strange as this sounds, the nostalgic, coming-of-age classic is still underrated. And this follow-up mostly serves to hammer home just how well made it was, deliberately trying to replicate the feelings we had watching it, but unable to escape the original's shadow. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, it acknowledges its predecessor, while still attempting to spiritually recreate it with many of the same characters and situations in a new story. Complicating matters is that many of those scenes are the weakest ones, honoring the original by reminding us of everything it did better. 

Far superior to 2012's forgettably embarrassing straight to DVD follow-up, A Christmas Story 2, this at least has a sensible plot that uses the first film as its guidepost, reuniting original cast members and even occasionally capturing its tone and warmth. Unfortunately, it isn't all that funny, with an assortment of call-backs and gags that sort of fall flat, making its 98 minutes sometimes crawl by. But fans will be extremely happy to know that most of what works can be attributed to star Peter Billingley, revisiting his most famous role after spending some time behind the camera. All that wide-eyed enthusiasm he effortlessly projected as a child actor carries into adulthood, as he displays impeccable timing and conveys a sincerity that redeems a lot of the material. And while it may have been interesting to see what he could do with a stronger script, this still had a very high bar to clear.

It's December 1973 (33 years after the events of A Christmas Story) and Ralphie Parker (Billingsley) is living in Chicago with his wife Sandy (Erinn Hayes) and two young children Mark (River Drosche) and Julie (Julianna Layne). Taking a year off from work to pursue a career as a sci-fi novelist, Ralphie's met with constant rejection from publishers who find his writing overly long. Ready to abandon his dreams and return to a 9 to 5 grind, his mother, Mrs. Parker (Julie Hagerty, taking over for Melinda Dillon) calls, breaking the news that his father, "the Old Man," has died. Devastated, the family makes their way back to Ralphie's home of Hammond, Indiana to spend Christmas with the grieving Mrs. Parker. 

Ralphie's return to his old stomping grounds sees him reconnecting with old friends like Flick (Scott Schwartz) and Schwartz (R.D. Robb), as well as his childhood nemesis, Scut Farkis (Zack Ward). Faced with the impossible task of taking up the mantle of Christmas from the Old Man, Ralphie must show his own kids the true meaning of the holiday, as they too face neighborhood bullies, store Santas and bodily injuries. Struggling to write an obituary for a parent who defies description, Ralphie must also avert disaster to somehow make the holiday as special for his family as the Old Man did for him.   

In concept, this was the right approach. Having the story take place thirty years later with an forty something Ralphie taking his family back home to help Mrs. Parker deal with the Old Man's death is a viable sequel idea. Add on top of that a bunch of returning characters most didn't expect to see entertainingly reprising their roles and it's kind of a shock this didn't turn out better. Billingsley's a wonderful presence in carrying it, but the more Kaytis attempts to put a fresh coat of paint on some of the original's more famous sequences, all the ways this falls short become clearer.    

Billingsley does fine job handling the voiceover narration, but there's something special about an older person looking back on their childhood that just can't be duplicated here. Or more accurately, it's Jean Shepherd, whose iconic and sweetly sardonic delivery in the '83 film perfectly complimented the absurdity unfolding in front of us. It certainly helps too that he wrote it, but given his passing over twenty years ago, this was an unavoidable obstacle with any sequel. Adult Ralphie's voiceover seems to be narrating things as they occur, and there's a little too much of it, sometimes underlining action rather than providing invaluable reminiscences and sarcastic quips that enhance what we're watching. 

Having the plot revolve around the Old Man's death works in tying the two films together while also functioning as a fitting tribute to the late Darren McGavin, who's a primary reason that Bob Clark's original has endured for so long. His straight-faced exuberance at the leg lamp's arrival is what made that sequence so hilarious, and given all the call-backs, it's kind of surprising Kaytis elects not to do something (anything!) with the lamp again. Then again, maybe he should be praised for his restraint since an early dream sequence involving Ralphie's writing that pays homage to the original isn't successful in either timing or execution. They try this a few more times throughout with mixed results but the more subtle nods that advance this story tend to land better.

While A Christmas Story contained more than a modicum of dark humor and fear that reflected how a child would view the world, this tackles the much heavier issue of losing a parent. It makes you wonder whether Clark's film could even include a storyline like that and still be remembered as fondly. Luckily, it never needed to, so it's somewhat of a miracle that this is handled well enough to result in a touching pay off that makes sense in justifying what some might consider a surprisingly depressing start. 

Julie Hagerty's a solid choice to replace the now retired Melinda Dillon as Mrs. Parker since they share similar dispositions and personalities on screen, but even putting aside the continuity issue, the character's sort of portrayed as an airheaded lush. Erinn Hayes isn't asked to do all that much as Ralphie's wife, Sandy, but she delivers, sharing good chemistry with Billingsley and radiating a down home perkiness that enhances the proceedings. It's no fault of the child actors that the slightest material involves them, as they're saddled with recreating original Ralphie milestones, including an underwhelming bully subplot and a visit with the Higbees department store Santa that doesn't really go anywhere.  

When the movie stops pretending it's about anything other than Ralphie coming to terms with the loss of his dad and becoming a published writer it starts blossoming, leading to its two best sequences. One involves a variation on a certain triple-dog dare and some drunken sledders, while the other sees Ralphie having a much anticipated rematch with Farkus, with Zack Ward flawlessly recapturing his character in middle age as if no time's passed at all. Another highlight is the reappearance of Ralphie's little brother Randy (Ian Petrella) who's strangely still recognizable, whining and crying like a baby. 

Moments like the ones with Farkus and Randy, or even the retro title credits, go a long way, even if the insertion of flashbacks from the original are an unnecessary distraction we could have used less of. But sequeling a classic is a thankless task, so A Christmas Story Christmas probably turned out better than expected given the many challenges. This was at least approached with the right intentions, even as it too frequently invites unavoidable comparisons to a movie it's sincerely trying to celebrate.                                    

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Pearl


Director: Ti West
Starring: Mia Goth, David Corenswet, Tandi Wright, Matthew Sunderland, Emma Jenkins-Purro, Alistair Sewell
Running Time: 102 min.
Rating: R  

★★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

The best advice to give someone before watching Ti West's Pearl is not to see its prequel, X, first. Or maybe even at all. That won't happen since those most interested in this already did, eager to analyze the connective tissue between the two films. But there's little crossover, as it's sometimes tough to believe it was even made by the same person. Anyone lucky enough to know nothing going in wouldn't categorize it as a horror prequel at all, far transcending its slasher label to paint a psychologically unnerving portrait of a troubled young woman on the brink of emotional collapse. Featuring a brilliantly disturbing performance from Mia Goth as the younger version of the murderous octogenarian character she played in X, this operates on an entirely different level, replacing that film's gore and gruesomeness with suspense and heartbreak. 

If we already knew West had the talent, it's never quite come together for him like this, finding aesthetic inspiration in golden age cinema classics like The Wizard of Oz while still creating a singular, genre blurring vision that stands as an anomaly in the current movie landscape. Recreating the 1918 era in which this takes place with a vibrant technicolor presentation that confirms we're not in Kansas anymore, this film's version of Dorothy desperately aspires to escape her suffocating home life to become a star. And in depicting a surprisingly relevant world not so far removed from our own, West injects the material with a depth and complexity that's brought to life by Goth's staggering turn. The film belongs entirely to her, as Pearl's giddy, wide-eyed exuberance gives way to unbridled madness and bloodshed.

It's 1918 during the influenza pandemic and Pearl (Goth) is living with her German immigrant mother Ruth (Tandi Wright) and paralyzed father (Matthew Sunderland) on their Texas farm while husband Howard (Alistair Sewell) serves overseas in World War I. With Pearl's father wheelchair bound, the controlling, domineering Ruth has her taking care of him and the farm, but she yearns to escape for the bright lights of Hollywood. Depressed but hopeful for the future, she becomes entranced by the films she sees at the local cinema, befriending the theater's young projectionist (David Corenswet), who takes an immediate interest in her. 

Aspiring to become a chorus girl, Pearl hears from sister-in-law Mitsy (Emma Jenkins-Purro) of a church audition being held to find new dancers for a traveling troupe. Potentially seeing this as the big break, she pins all her hopes and dreams on winning, even as her behavior becomes disturbingly erratic. Between Howard's absence and insurmountable pressure to conform to her mother's ways, a mentally unhinged Pearl reaches a breaking point, with those closest to her about to discover just how dangerous she can be.

While it seems as if every other release these days centers around the impact of formative moviegoing experiences, West actually uses this familiar trope for a renewed creative purpose. Aside from cinematographer and frequent West collaborator Eliot Rockett invoking the MGM-era technicolor classics in perfecting the film's bright, gaudy look, Pearl's celluloid obsessions undoubtedly play a role in sending her further into her own head, which is a perilous place to be. 

Seeing the verbal abuse her tyrannical mother unleashes at seemingly minor indiscretions engenders a certain degree of sympathy for an outwardly sweet, goofy and often jubilant young woman. Desperately longing to get out from under her mom's iron fist, the desire to get into pictures becomes that escape hatch as Goth gradually peels back the layers to reveal how Pearl's issues cut far deeper. Calling back to one of X's major themes, she hears the clock ticking, as the fear of time passing without realizing her dreams becomes an all consuming obsession. 

If killing animals or doing the unspeakable with a scarecrow weren't already red flags, Pearl's admission that she can't wait until her parents die feels like a turning point and the moment that inside voice takes over, terrifying those who thought they knew her. To varying extents, the projectionist, Mitsy, and even her infirm, unresponsive father begin gradually waking up to this reality, albeit entirely too late.

West patiently builds to her breakdown, with many of the most thrilling, suspenseful scenes having little to do with violence, but the characters' reactions to Pearl's words and her reaction to them. She's hurt and bewildered by their responses in a way that far surpasses any surprise or remorse in herself that she said it. And as an uncontrollable Pearl's behavior becomes more theatrical, these exchanges increase in prevalence and intensity, culminating in her uncomfortably cringe worthy audition, which has a fallout even more tragic than anticipated.

Goth's now infamous eight-minute monologue is built entirely around that very conceit, as Pearl lays bare all her insecurities, crimes, and darkest thoughts for an initially willing listener who gets more than they ever bargained for in volunteering to play armchair therapist. The actress takes us on an unpredictable, emotional ride, investing Pearl with a naivety that only faintly acknowledges the heinousness of her actions. But being honest doesn't necessarily mean she grasps what that truth actually means, and by the time she does, it's too late for the unfortunate soul who sat there and listened to it. If in X it seemed as if Goth channeling Shelley Duvall then that observation holds much truer here in appearance, presence and delivery, reimagining Olive Oyl as an ax wielding sociopath.

The eventual slashings actually mean something due to the empathy Goth elicits for the character, and despite the film's playfully wicked sense of humor, West takes the smiling Pearl seriously, firmly distinguishing this from X's winking, tongue-in-cheek Texas Chainsaw tribute. After watching this it's hard not to wonder if that would play any differently now on a rewatch, even with this succeeding entirely as a standalone. 

By setting it in a period plagued with fear, isolation and financial instability, West also manages to make a pandemic movie without directly making one, cleverly utilizing the 1918 Spanish flu and World War I as anxiety-fueled triggers that only add to an already present sense of impending doom. And it maintains that momentum throughout, punctuated by a memorable closing credits sequence you won't be able to look away from or shake off.

Much has been made about what an incredible year it's been for horror, and while that's true, categorizing Pearl as strictly that almost sells it short, implying its strengths are limited to only a narrow, specific category. But even amidst a crowded pack of elevated horror entries, it earns its place toward the top, with 2019's Midsommar as its only viable competition. A psychological thriller before all else, certain biases will likely prevent the film and Goth from getting some much deserved attention and accolades. But for adventurous audiences who appreciate the shockingly unique and bizarre, that won't make a bit of difference at all.               

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Don't Worry Darling

Director: Olivia Wilde
Starring: Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Olivia Wilde, Gemma Chan, KiKi Layne, Chris Pine, Nick Kroll, Sydney Chandler, Asif Ali, Kate Berlant, Timothy Simons, Douglas Smith, Ari'el Stachel, Dita Von Teese
Running Time: 123 min.
Rating: R

**The Following Review Contains Major Plot Spoilers For 'Don't Worry Darling' **

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Hardly the disaster it's been purported to be, Olivia Wilde's psychological thriller Don't Worry Darling does have more than a few things going for it, regardless of all rumors surrounding how strained the production may have been. What's on screen matters most, making it somewhat ironic that Wilde's direction and Florence Pugh's lead performance are the film's two biggest strengths, mostly eclipsing some admitted deficiencies. The latter also again earns all the justified the hype anointing her  one of our most talented contemporary actresses. It's not a coincidence that of those scarred by the commercial and critical drubbing this took, she escapes completely unscathed, if not more appreciated than before. 

Recalling elements of The Stepford Wives, Get Out, Pleasantville, The Matrix, The Truman Show, Inception and probably a few others, Katie Silberman's script may not be entirely original and is largely set-up and mood, but it slowly builds to a satisfying enough payoff that prevents the film from buckling under its own ambitions. And however you may feel about the execution or conceit, the ending twist is definitely a doozy worth sticking around for. A mess at times, portions play like your standard thriller, even as its visual look and performances work in raising it a notch. But what it most feels like is a prototypical sophomore effort from a hotshot director who had a big hit out of the gate and is given leeway by the studio to do what they want. And both for better and worse, Wilde does that. 

Alice (Pugh) and Jack (Harry Styles) Chambers live in the idyllic, utopian 1950's-like community of Victory, California, a small company town where the men go to work everyday at Victory Headquarters manufacturing mysterious products. Heavily discouraged from asking what their husbands actually do or venturing anywhere near the desert headquarters, the wives stay at home to clean and prepare dinner for when they return. Alice has a circle of friends that include neighbor Bunny (Wilde), Peg (Kate Berlant) and Margaret (KiKi Layne), but when Margaret starts exhibiting alarmingly disturbing behavior after losing her son in the desert, she's ostracized upon her return to town. 

Suspecting there's more to Margaret's story than meets the eye, Alice's suspicions heighten after witnessing what she believes is a plane crash in the desert and begins experiencing many of the same nightmarish hallucinations that plagued her friend. Soon, this catches the attention of Victory's enigmatic but seemingly benevolent leader, Frank (Pine), who's clearly hiding something. But as Jack rises up the ranks at the company, Alice must decide whether it's worth risking the comfortable life they've built together to escape a controlling force far more sinister and dangerous than anyone in Victory ever imagined.

What's immediately apparent even before all the story's pieces are put together is that this isn't taking place during the 1950's, and even while all the cars, wardrobe and myriad of era-specific music may signify otherwise, there's something else going on. Without any recognizable or meaningful history, the characters seemed to have been plucked from somewhere and placed in a very stylized, heightened version of what that era would look and feel like filtered through present day. The film straddles that line particularly well in making us believe these people would fall in line without a second thought, mistaking the cult-like creepiness for stability and comfort. It's clear none of them are there by choice, whether or not they realize it, and thus far, most don't. 

The townsfolk are the living embodiment of "going through the motions," as husbands pull out of their adjacent driveways for work in synchronicity every morning as their wives wave them off. If it feels like a staged production, earning those Truman Show comparisons mostly through DP Matthew Libatique's lensing and Katie Byron's authentically retro production design. For many, this will be where the praise begins and ends, as the film's feel supports its concept more than the actual content, which eventually ends up in familiar territory. 

In Wilde's defense, this is a more worthwhile attempt than expected in replicating this well-worn formula, mainly due to Pugh, who's so good at playing a woman torn between this loyalty to her husband and the growing disorientation that she's merely a cog in a mysterious, controlling machine. Danger mounts the more curious she becomes and her questions are unwelcome intrusions hardly looked kindly upon by Victory's mastermind, Frank, and to a lesser degree, his wife Shelley (Gemma Chan). 

In a massive departure, Chris Pine's all in on this, taking full advantage of the opportunity to play the kind of sleazy villain he's rarely cast as. And while those comparisons to author and motivational speaker Jordan Peterson (off whom Frank is supposedly based) become more apparent later, it's also reminiscent of Tom Cruise's similarly nefarious turn in Magnolia. Convincingly good at playing bad, you almost wish Pine had more to do, but his cat-and-mouse game with Alice during a memorable dinner table face-off effectively sets the stage for the stockholm syndromed neighbors to doubt her as they did Margaret.

Jack's the wild card, too ingrained in this lifestyle to notice this as anything other than an Alice problem. Harry Styles doesn't register much early on but as the story's underlying layers are peeled back and he's given more complicated shades to play, his performance starts coming alive. It's not absurd to suggest he'll have a decent movie career and holds up just fine in some of the more dramatic scenes, even if the far superior Pugh carries him through the wacky finish. As for the film's much talked about sex scenes, there sure are a lot of them, but existing mostly to shock and titillate, served up as a stark contrast to the repressed society these characters inhabit.    

When the town's shady charlatan Dr. Collins (Timothy Simons) and Frank's red suited henchmen descend upon Alice, Wilde gives us a last act that's certainly a choice. It was inevitably going in this direction, with the only remaining questions being how and why. The not so subtle implications that all of what these characters are experiencing either wasn't real or a simulation of some sort is confirmed, even as we're taken aback by how literally Silberman's screenplay leans into that premise. 

After being gaslit left and right, Alice awakens to the reality (or lack thereof) in front of her, igniting a change in the women with her actions rather than words. There's a lot of baggage to unpack with the idea of characters held hostage in some kind of sexist, throw back male fantasy prison that seems to have sprung from the mind of a fringe podcaster. Intentionally or not, the movie's kind of fuzzy on the details beyond the "real" Jack being an unkempt loser who's stripped surgeon Alice of all autonomy under the guise of rescuing their marriage with this simulation. 

Viewing this entire experimental society as a metaphorical rape might recontextualize those sex scenes, but if that seems like a jumbling of various ideas you also wouldn't be wrong. It all leads to a pretty spectacular car chase sequence that proves Wilde could probably make an exciting action movie down the line if she chooses, or now more accurately, if anyone lets her. Still, you can't help but wish the whole thing was a little crazier and wonder if spending more time on the background and origins behind the reveal would have helped or hindered the experience. 

As much criticism as the film's gotten, it's at least easy see why Pugh initially decided to be a part of it, as her work makes the heady material more watchable than it has any right being. Neither the putrid, self indulgent spectacle some were fearing or the culturally significant thinkpiece it's aiming to be, Don't Worry Darling lands in some weird gray area in between. It just may take a little while to process exactly where.        

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Weird: The Al Yankovic Story

Director: Eric Appel
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Evan Rachel Wood, Rainn Wilson, Toby Huss, Julianne Nicholson, Spencer Treat Clark, Jack Lancaster, Tommy O' Brien, Thomas Lennon, Arturo Castro, Quinta Brunson, "Weird Al" Yankovic, Will Forte, Jack Black, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Scott Auckerman 
Running Time: 108 min.
Rating: TV-14 

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Maybe not surprisingly, Roku Channel's parody biopic Weird proves to be the ideal representation of iconic satirist Al Yankovic's career. You almost couldn't envision any other approach, as the Funny or Die fake trailer that provided the inspiration for this project is expanded into a full blown spoof befitting an artist who specializes in them. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story may have covered similar territory, but this never feels like a retread since Al's long been the trailblazer for this brand of performance comedy. Co-writer and first-time director Eric Appel gets that, turning what could have been a one-joke sketch into a full-length feature that's just as subversive as the parodies Yankovic's been successfully churning out for decades. 

This movie is Weird Al through and through, with certain portions of truth lifted from his life, but twisted and exaggerated to the extreme. It also happens to be very funny in a gut busting kind of way, boasting an impressive number of jokes and gags that really hit their mark. Even his most casual fans will still appreciate the script's smaller details and its unironic commitment in presenting him as the biggest superstar on the planet.

While being popular enough to have major artists clamoring to be spoofed by him, the film takes the same digs at fame and celebrity as his songs, filled to the brim with cameos and off-the-wall gags. Al's fingerprints are all over this meta parody, placing special emphasis on how complaints about originality have followed him throughout his career. Of course, they haven't, but that only makes this funnier, as does the depiction of one of the friendliest, most straight-laced performers as an out of control trainwreck. 

As a child, Alfred Yankovic (Richard Aaron Anderson) is strongly discouraged by his disciplinarian father Nick (Toby Huss) from pursuing his musical interests and playing the accordian. But when Al's mom Mary (Julianne Nicholson) purchases him one and he's caught sneaking out to a polka party as a teen, his dad snaps, smashing "the devil's squeeze box" into pieces, along with Al's dreams. But when rooming with friends Steve (Spencer Treat Clark), Jim (Jack Lancaster) and Bermuda (Tommy O' Brien), inspiration strikes in the form of a bologna sandwich, as Al (Daniel Radcliffe) suddenly alters the lyrics of The Knack's "My Sharona."   

After an unexpectedly confrontational meeting with music executives Tony (Al Yankovic) and Ben (Will Forte) Scotti lead to Al securing a record deal, he enlists the services of his childhood idol, Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson) as his manager. Enjoying a career explosion in the 1980's, Al becomes romantically involved with vapid opportunist Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood), who would do anything to get the career bump of Al parodying one of her hits, leading him down a dangerous path of alcohol abuse. Desperate to be taken seriously as an original artist, Weird Al must overcome his inner demons to regain control of his life so he can continue making music that entertains fans across the globe.

A scene where young Al sits at the dinner table with his parents sets the tone for what the film will continuously deliver for the remainder of its running time, as the boy's hysterically told to abandon everything that makes him who he is. With Al's dad taking out all his pent up frustration and disappointment on a hapless accordian salesman, he envisions a more respectable future for his boy working at the "factory." Al's form of rebellion is escaping to illicit polka parties, which sends his father even further off the deep end, unintentionally pushing the singer on his path to superstardom.

With an early, uproarious section that invokes musical biopics like The Doors, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Rocketman (though it may remind some more of Howard Stern's Private Parts) the movie really starts having fun when Al's career takes off and we're privy to the "inspiration" behind some of his highest charting hits. Even when only a tiny fraction of what's shown is true, the screenplay's clever in how it incorporates all these Easter eggs and real details from his actual career into a biopic that couldn't be more fantastical. Much of this comes from the origins of "Eat It," "Like a Surgeon," and "Amish Paradise," which are presented as stories in and of itself rather than just parodies.  

In his quest for musical respectability, Al's many brushes with celebrities include a pool party featuring a who's who of comedic actors playing the likes of Andy Warhol, Pee Wee Herman, Wolfman Jack, Divine, Alice Cooper and Tiny Tim. And that's not even including the other appearances sprinkled throughout, like Quinta Brunson as Oprah Winfrey, Arturo Castro as Pablo Escobar and even Weird Al himself in a bigger, more consequential role than you'd expect, playing it straight as record executive Tony Scotti. 

Rainn Wilson leaves an impression as the quirky Dr. Demento while Evan Rachel Wood is a flawless 80's era Madonna, nailing all the pops star's mannerism and expressions as she seduces Al down a dark, destructive path. But it's Radcliffe's film, delivering a delightfully wacky performance that teeters between wide-eyed innocence and unhinged comedic madness, putting an ingenious spin on the title character that justifies seemingly odd casting. The anchor around which all the chaos revolves, it's easily his craziest role since Swiss Army Man, and having Yankovic's voice dubbed over the performance and concert scenes is only fitting given the genre this is sending up.

The action-packed last act should seem like a wild departure, but given Yankovic's sensibilities, it instead feels completely on brand. A prankster until the end, he very literally goes out in a blaze of glory, while still finding time in the film's original song to remind the Academy to nominate him for original song Oscar. But at the very least he can claim to be the only musician to receive a biopic that's intentionally embarrassing, hilarious and inaccurate. Likely bound for cult status, Weird captures a one-of-a-kind entertainer the best and only way it can.        

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Fall

Director: Scott Mann
Starring: Grace Caroline Currey, Virginia Gardner, Mason Gooding, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jasper Cole, Darrell Dennis
Running Time: 107 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Supposedly, the big pitch for Scott Mann's Fall was that it's Buried or The Shallows in reverse, with two women stuck atop a 2,000 foot tall radio tower in the desert. It's an intriguing comparison that could be either good or bad depending on your opinion of single location thrillers. But even as a self professed admirer of the subgenre, it's hard to be blind to their faults, mainly because most of them don't have enough ambition or new ideas to withstand multiple viewings. They're often the ultimate cinematic junk food, providing pulse pounding entertainment throughout, until you've forgotten about it a half hour after the credits roll. Whether it be a parking garage, swimming pool, ski lift, ATM booth or anything else you could envision being trapped on, under, or in, many of these entries get grouped in with the lowest level horror titles, unfairly or not. Few strive for more, which could come down to the script, budget or just not having the right talent behind the camera.

Fall is a fascinating case study in that for long stretches it actually distinguishes itself as wildly different, shot in a style that's legitimately terrifying and facilitates the story unfolding in front of us. Impressively walking a tightrope between being patently absurd and almost unbearably intense, it's probably best experienced on the largest IMAX screen possible, even if seeing it in that format could  be a vertigo-inducing nightmare for both acrophobiacs and those convinced they have no fear of heights. But while boasting a great concept and flirting with greatness, it occasionally succumbs to some of the pitfalls that have held back similar thrillers. And yet even taking that into account, this still gets the job done way better than most.  

Best friends Becky (Grace Caroline Currey) and Hunter (Virginia Gardner) are scaling a mountain with Becky's husband, Dan (Mason Gooding) when he suddenly loses his footing, falling to his death. Now nearly a year later, a depressed, alcoholic Becky has isolated herself from family and friends, including estranged but concerned father, James (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who never thought Dan was right for her. But when vlogging adrenaline junkie Hunter reemerges to invite Becky join her in climbing the decommissioned 2,000 foot B67 TV tower in the desert to move on from Dan's death, she very reluctantly agrees. 

Bringing Dan's ashes to scatter when they reach the top, a trembling Becky completes the treacherous climb with Hunter, but when the rusted ladder breaks off below them, they're stranded, looking 2,000 feet down. With no cell reception, food or water and fighting the elements, they come up with numerous plans to somehow signal for help, to no avail. Hours turn to days, and as weather changes and vultures smell blood, their prospects for survival rapidly dwindle. When panic sets in and tensions rise, they're faced with a perilous situation that's suddenly become insurmountable.

There's arguably more set-up than necessary to start, making you wonder how much tighter or different the film could have been if it began with the climb rather than the abundance of personal drama leading into it. But regardless of those scenes' execution, it's easy to understand why Mann and co-writer Jonathan Frank made this call considering the only alternative would probably be awkward flashbacks throughout that slow the action. The screenplay at least dispenses with the narrative background early and some of the later scenes do try to address the already lingering questions and plausibility issues present right out of the gate. 

Aspiring influencer Hunter's unhealthy obsession with them doing this seems to go far beyond views and likes or simply helping her friend get past a traumatic experience. And of course we wonder what Becky could gain from again putting herself in the type of scenario that killed Dan, only more dangerous. Even under the most optimistic circumstances, it seems she'd be better served by therapy instead, which is exactly what Hunter's treating this as. Becky's clearly in a dark place, not to mention a big bundle of petrified nerves who wouldn't exactly make the ideal partner for a death defying adventure. Luckily, whatever is lost in credibility, the film makes up for in suspense since you can literally feel her fear when she climbs up the rusted, rickety ladder as bolts fly off with each step.

It's a given that Hunter's social media obsession and the use of their cell phones will play a role once they're up there, but even that doesn't materialize quite as you'd expect. There's also a personal revelation of sorts that isn't exactly a huge surprise, but handled well enough to throw a compelling emotional wrench into the dynamic. But the real story is the stomach-churning cinematography from MacGregor and the performances of Currey and Gardner, both of whom bring their A games to what had to be physically demanding and draining roles. 

Currey turns any initial misgivings about the Becky character around quickly, emerging as a tough, sympathetic lead while Gardner goes all in as the wild girl, marking a stark departure from much of what she's previously done. Both of them undergo a believable transformation that does hold up despite the increasing incredulity of events. They really sell it, leading into a last act development we've seen before, but rarely executed as well. Mann sets the groundwork to pull it off in way that doesn't seem insulting or cheap, which is noteworthy considering how many similar titles have misplayed this same hand as a predictable story crutch. Working within the confines of a PG-13 rating, there's minimal gore, as vulture attacks are the closest it gets to flirting with horror, remaining a straight ahead survival film throughout.

After a somewhat underwhelming start, once the climb begins and the gravity of their predicament kicks into overdrive, the film soars, before eventually coming to more of a sudden stop than an end. Still, Mann's decision to utilize an actual tower rather than rely on green screens or digital sets is why this looks and feels so authentic, resulting in astonishing shots that will generate genuine discomfort and anxiety, bringing you right up there with them. Whatever CGI was used isn't a distraction and little of it looks fake or staged in the slightest, making it perplexing that the special effects were already being called out by some as below par before this was even released.

If Fall ever frustrates, it's mostly for the right reasons, knowing that it was probably just a few tweaks away from not being mentioned in the same breathe as the inferior titles it'll likely be compared to. But it's nonetheless a big success, even if at times the filmmakers involved don't seem fully aware of what they have, or more accurately, all it had the potential to be. Those moments it fulfills that promise make for a thrilling watch, provided you take slow, deep breathes and hold on.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

X

 

Director: Ti West
Starring: Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Brittany Snow, Scott Mescudi, Martin Henderson, Owen Campbell, Stephen Ure, James Gaylyn
Running Time: 106 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)  

At first glance, it may not be obviously apparent just how straightforward a slasher Ti West's X is, as he does an admirable job making it play like some kind of meta genre deconstruction and throwback ode to 70's horror. You'd be hard pressed to find a recent film more enamored with the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, at least in terms of plot and setting. And that's where the similarities end. Despite looking great and carrying a specific authenticity steeped in the era, when it ends you can't help but shrug. Utilizing everything short of John Larroquette's opening narration to pay homage to TCM, you instead realize after a promising start this comes closer to matching the quality of its derided sequels and prequels than the genuine article. 

The film's saving grace is a really interesting idea that isn't mined enough, carried by a star-making performance that's probably worth the admission price alone, Moving at a glacial pace, it lacks suspense, isn't exactly "scary" and leads where you'd expect. Part of the problem might be the amount of time spent on the making of the intentionally bad pornographic movie within a movie, with the drawn out scenes slowly draining the life out of the actual story. And yet it's still easy to see why West would feel compelled to craft a prequel centered around its best character, especially considering the astonishing talent of his lead actress. Far from unwatchable or poorly made, X is a ride, albeit a more disappointingly shallow one than expected given its promising premise.

It's 1979 and aspiring pornographic actress Maxine Minx (Mia Goth) joins her producer boyfriend Wayne (Martin Henderson), actors Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) and Jackson Hole (Scott "Kid Cudi" Mescudi), and director RJ (Owen Campbell) with girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) for a road trip to Texas to shoot their adult film, The Farmer's Daughters. Upon arriving at the guest house Wayne negotiated to rent from the farm's elderly owners Howard (Stephen Ure) and Pearl (Goth), the crew is met with immediate hostility and skepticism by the married couple. And that's even before they find out what they're filming in there. 

As RJ's lofty ambitions to direct an important work of cinematic art are derailed by tensions within the cast, Pearl silently stalks Maxine, becoming increasingly jealous and sexually aroused by the actress's  youth and vitality. Those feelings soon extend to everyone else, with this old, frail woman going on an unhinged rampage to extract revenge on those she thinks are living lives that should still be hers. Tragedy and bloodshed ensues, as it becomes a battle of wills to see who will be able to make it out of this farm house alive. 

West gets more than a few things right, at least making it partially understandable how this has garnered acclaim comparable to some of A24's previous horror outings, most of which are superior. If nothing else, it looks and feels like the late 1970's, with a strong soundtrack, wardrobe and production choices that believably invoke the mood of the period. And the opening half hour successfully introduces all the characters while setting up an intriguing if overly familiar scenario that has you eagerly anticipating what follows. 

The deliberate pacing hints that maybe West has taken a page out of the original TCM playbook by slowly building suspense until the actual carnage. But at some point the script just loses its way, becoming so engulfed in the filming of this porno that the narrative hits a wall and never quite recovers. You'd figure if nothing else worked, at least the fictitious adult film scenes would grab attention, but they're actually kind of a bore until a conflict within the ranks splinters everyone off in different directions and the massacre starts. 

An elderly woman going on a killing rampage to recapture her glory days from a much younger generation is a different concept ripe for further exploration. The framework's also there to invoke genuine empathy, but before you know it we've descended into a series of graphic kills played for the kind of self referential visual gags found in any contemporary slasher, only better filmed. But what's most frustrating is how in between that West pauses for these meditative moments and beautiful shots, suggesting a complexity that lurks beneath the story's surface, struggling to escape.

Mia Goth's a revelation as both the free-spirted, coke-snorting Maxine and murderous Pearl, completely unrecognizable under heavy prosthetics as the latter, with every movement and mannerism leaving no doubt we're watching a woman nearing her end, desperately clinging to a past that can't again be revisited, even vicariously through Maxine. West just eventually turns her into a killing machine, but Goth brings humanity to a handful of scenes where she's afforded that opportunity. As Maxine, she's equally effective, carrying this story on her back as an aspiring starlet marching to the beat of her own drum, conveying this odd mix of strength, vulnerability and ethereal quirkiness that's already earned the actress comparisons to the great Shelley Duvall. That feels accurate, as does a future filled with roles even better than this.

Scream's Jenna Ortega extends her horror streak as the shy, introspective Lorraine, who eventually takes steps steps to bust out of her churchgoing shell, much to boyfriend RJ's displeasure. Brittany Snow is saddled with silliness, Kid Cudi does well with a fairly underwritten part, and Henderson and Campbell fulfill what's required of them as the somewhat sleazy older producer boyfriend and film geek director. But of everyone, it's Goth's magnetic screen presence that stands out the most.

There is a clever ending twist and the fountain of youth themes West plays with do land, at least up until a last act that doesn't really match the tone of anything that preceded it. As strange as it seems, the best news to come out of this is its prequel Pearl should likely give Goth her own showcase to fill in the character's blanks, possibly making this effort more tolerable on a rewatch. But for now, labeling X an unpleasant, messy experience will have to be the best backhanded compliment it'll get.                                                  

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Halloween Ends


Director: David Gordon Green
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Andi Matichak, Rohan Campbell, Will Patton, Kyle Richards, James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle, Jesse C. Boyd, Joanne Baron, Rick Moose, Michael O' Leary, Keraun Harris, Jaxon Goldberg
Running Time: 111 min.
Rating: R  

 **The Following Review Contains Major Plot Spoilers For 'Halloween Ends' **

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

For decades, each new Halloween film has generally followed the same template as those that preceded it. What this entails is some variation on the plot of Michael Myers coming home to unleash violence and terror on Haddonfield. That's not to say it hasn't been fun, but Halloween Ends, the third and final chapter of David Gordon Green's reinterpretation of the franchise does something only Halloween III: Season of the Witch and Rob Zombie's Halloween II have attempted. It actually breaks from the formula in a major way, going nearly an hour without showing The Shape at all, telling a self-contained story in which other characters are are given room to breathe and develop, building for the moment he does eventually show up.

In lifting the narrative weight that's dragged down previous installments, we're permitted to hang in Haddonfield and watch people interact without constantly counting down the minutes until you know who shows up. With last year's Halloween Kills pushing the envelope as far as possible in terms of Myers surviving, Green goes in the entirely opposite direction, delivering on the quieter, more character focused aspect many expected him to bring in 2018. While that was a well made quasi-sequel doubling as a soft remake, it did earn some comparisons to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, reminding us of the stringent requirements that often accompany a major IP like this.

This is the real reboot, employing a much maligned tactic that made horror fans' blood boil the few times we've seen it in Friday The 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street sequels. Even Halloween has dabbled in it before (who can forget the cult of Thorn?) But it's actually done well here, playing out in a fresh, exciting way that makes it feel like uncharted territory. As a sidelined Myers is finally given the "time out" he's needed after years of misuse and overexposure, a compelling new character infected with similar urges rises up to take his place. Even while not physically present, Myers' impact and legacy is felt, as the script digs further into Haddonfield's ongoing fear and paranoia while touching on issues related to "cancel culture." So if the big draw was intended to be Laurie facing Michael for the last time, it speaks volumes that it's taken this long to mention that.       

It's Halloween night 2019 and Corey Cunningham (Rohan Campbell) is babysitting a young boy named Jeremy (Jaxon Goldenberg), who pulls a prank that ends in a horrifying accident, with the boy dead and Corey accused but eventually acquitted for unintentionally killing him. Three years later, he's a public pariah working at his stepfather's salvage yard while Laurie Strode's (Jamie Lee Curtis) writing her memoir while living with granddaughter Allyson (Andy Matichak) in a new house, both still reeling from Michael Myers' (James Jude Courtney) last rampage. 

When Corey ends up cutting himself in a confrontation with some high school bullies, Laurie takes him to the hospital where he connects with Allyson, who's working as a nurse. They grow closer and begin dating, but something's off, and Laurie's initial support for their relationship gives way to skepticism. Still being taunted and blamed for Myers' reign of terror, she notices a change coming over the increasingly unpredictable Corey. Now with Allyson slipping away and the community rallying against her grandmother, Michael lurks in the sewers and shadows, making a new friend who plans on following his blueprint for destruction.

Starting the film with a tragic event that vaguely recalls the original Myers murder is shocking, immediately setting this apart from other sequels and opening the floodgates for a number of questions. Who is Corey Cunningham? Why are we watching him? While it's apparent early that the absent Michael isn't directly a part of Corey's personal trauma, he's still very much a part of Laurie and Allyson's, while continuing to hold Haddonfield's residents in paralyzing fear. And explored more concisely here than in the previous film, that fear only begets additional fear and violence. As for the opening sequence, it stands out not just for what happens, but the grisly, darkly comedic tone with which it unfolds. 

With a few notable exceptions, Green generally holds back on the winks, nods and Easter eggs that permeated his first two films, but he gets a good one out of the way early with the Halloween III style title credits, a first of many clever departures and a nod to the only movie containing less Michael. Surprises continue when we still don't go into any Myers follow-up, instead tracking Corey as he faces the harsh hostility and abuse from frothing townsfolk, most of whom have now gone full scumbag after the lack of resolution and justice from four years ago.

When Corey first comes face-to-face with a concerned, empathetic Laurie, the dots begin connecting, even if what comes next remains fairly unpredictable, a rare feat for this franchise. If everyone except Officer Hawkins (Will Patton) hates and blames Laurie, Haddonfield finds it even easier to despise someone they consider a "child killer." And the best thing about Rohan Campbell's performance is that along with the goofy charm, he conveys an awkward instability right from his initial appearance that remains consistent throughout, only adding layers of complexity to what later occurs. 

Green, Danny McBride, Paul Brad Logan and Chris Bernier's script actually takes its time putting Corey through the wringer before meeting his match in Allyson, who's a far cry from the underdeveloped, supporting character Andy Matichak previously made the most of. Now she's essentially a full-blown lead in the vein of Curtis in the original, but under completely different circumstances. Wrestling with the pain and judgment that's accompanied their respective tragedies, Allyson and Corey attract immediately, but believably, as the writers spend nearly an hour fleshing out this relationship, knowing just how much more it will mean when it implodes. 

On paper, none of this should work, but there's just something so rewarding about a smartly conceived Halloween movie that actually develops its characters while simultaneously letting us observe the toxic behavior that's infested this community. Is it entirely due to Myers? The true nature of evil is a scintillating question the franchise has frequently hung its hat on without ever exploring too deeply. This is the closest it's come, asking whether the propensity for Corey to follow in Michael's footsteps was always there or this was a monster was created by the citizens of Haddonfield.

The film goes from strangely good to great during an incredibly shot party sequence at Lindsey Wallace's (Kyle Richards) bar when Allyson helps Corey put his guard and inhibitions down, only to experience more abuse and humiliation for it. Through Myers he'll get his revenge, but that party marks the last time Corey's literal and metaphorical mask comes off. And it's notable that instead of going for the easy shout-out with a clown mask, Green opts for the creepy scarecrow, which undeniably works just as well, if not better.

Damaged after losing both parents, it makes sense Allyson's empathy for Corey only increases the further he sinks into Myers' abyss. Knowing what it's like to be on the outside looking in, her tension with Laurie grows as Corey's rage intensifies. It's an intriguing dynamic for Curtis this time around, leading to Laurie's memorable verbal confrontation with him in the "new Myers house," the site of Corey's life-altering trauma. The "psycho" meets the "freak show" as Laurie lays down the law, serving as a warm-up for when she gets her badass on again later. But until then it's Corey in the driver's seat, going on a streak of revenge kills that are more creatively suspenseful than gory, with the crazy death of that radio DJ being an exception that harkens back to the over-the-top glory days of the franchise. 

Other than a new but sparser than usual John Carpenter musical score, his fingerprints aren't exactly all over the picture this time, though the overall influence is still definitely there. The plot is very singularly focused with far fewer characters than the more overstuffed Halloween Kills so you're either on board with Green's very specific vision or not. Horror fans who aren't will probably be ripping out their hair in frustration, but this narrower focus allows so much development for Corey and Allyson, introducing a sorely needed human element that's gone missing in these movies for years.

As thrilling as it is seeing a Halloween entry not only survive, but outright thrive without Myers, we know at some point he'll become more involved, regardless of his physical deterioration. Played again by James Jude Courtney, Michael first appears a shell of his former self, old, injured and worn out enough that he needs help shaking off the rust. There's this weird tranference going on with Michael and Corey that the writers are smart enough not to overexplain since it's pretty clear why the latter is particularly susceptible. 

Myers has always registered best when treated like Jaws, with his absence making the suspense and terror slowly simmer. Much of that has been abandoned by lackluster entries, but this does it right, with Michael getting a second wind thanks to his alliance with Corey. Working together and murdering in tandem in ways that vaguely recalls Scream, but with more fleshed out psychological motivations, Corey will find out that no one stays friends with Michael for long. 

If the film has a flaw, it's that it cuts bait on Corey a little too early, or even at all, since it's hard to imagine better groundwork ever being laid for Myers' logical successor, especially given how this ends for the Shape. Campbell and Matichak are so good it legitimately feels like a loss that they're not continuing in these roles, but with this being Blumhouse's last entry and closure being paramount, we're left wondering what could have been. And that's okay.  

The trilogy-ending Strode vs. Myers fight is basically a contractual obligation at this point. It's the finale fans want and their kitchen brawl more than gets the job done, as does the solemn Haddonfield funeral procession and subsequent public shredding. But none of that will be what's most remembered. It's everything else that breaks the mold, especially the depiction of a relationship between two believably written new characters we actually care about, anchored by a pair of performances that might only be topped by Curtis' in the original. 

You can't claim Green's effort just blends in with the rest or doesn't earn its divisive reaction by making bold choices. For all the reshoots, delays and bad early buzz, at the end of the day he stitched together a really special final chapter that acknowledges the past and uses it to create something different. Consider it a litmus test, separating fans who follow the series for Michael from those who watch for what he represents, as if Carpenter's intention of an anthology centered around the holiday has finally been fulfilled. But like Season of the Witch, the only problem is the word "Halloween" in its title, along with all the baggage and expectations that brings.You can only imagine this growing in stature once we inevitably groan at the next reboot's promise to go "back to basics," without truly grasping what that means. There's nothing basic about Halloween Ends, and it's all the better for it.