Women Talking

Posted November 27, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, art-house, drama

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If you only have two choices, how much choice do you have? That’s one of many questions raised in Women Talking (opening in the U.S. on December 23), a dialogue-driven drama about a group of Mennonite women trying to decide what to do: fight or flee. It’s recently been revealed that some of the men in the community have been dosing some of the women (and girls) with cow tranquilizer and raping them while they’re unconscious at night. The men responsible have been taken away, but they’ll be out on bail soon, and will come back to the colony — and to the women. Three initial choices are laid out for the women: Do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. The last two options finish in a tie, so eight of the women discuss whether to stay or go, and before long the notion of staying recedes into the distance.

Women Talking is the third narrative feature directed by Sarah Polley (Away from Her, Take This Waltz), who seems drawn to material that shows people in all their unlovely complications. Bur her gaze is warm, not cold, and here she simply provides a space for the frequently voiceless to speak. What’s compelling about the drama, aside from the ticking-clock structure and the ghastly situation itself, is the various women’s responses to the assaults and to the realities of the aftermath. If they don’t forgive the rapists, they will be denied entry to Heaven. If they do forgive the rapists, how can that possibly please God? Why didn’t He stop the violence in the first place? And so forth.

The movie, as well as the Miriam Toews novel it’s adapting, is based on an actual incident in a Bolivian Mennonite colony in 2011. Questions of faith are prominent in the women’s discussions, but don’t really dominate. Some of the issues, I guess, would be brought up in a less devout group of women. One particularly bitter abuse survivor, Mariche (Jessie Buckley), angrily asks another woman in the group why the assault seems to have affected her more than the others. It might seem an uncommonly callous thing to ask until you learn that Mariche is routinely beaten by her husband. The violence inflicted on her has blown out a large chunk of her ability to empathize with others’ pain. Not every victim is as kindly and “nice” as some would like them to be, and Polley knows this and shows it.

Those with the patience to sit and listen will be rewarded with some top-notch performances; Polley even gets a subtly warm turn from Rooney Mara as Ona, whose encounter with a nighttime rapist has left her pregnant. Ona is also sweet on August (Ben Whishaw), a young man from an excommunicated family who has come to the colony as a teacher for the boys. (The girls aren’t taught to read or write.) I kept expecting August to turn out to be slimy, but no, Polley does believe “not all men” (a character even says it). Her film privileges women but is more concerned with what they choose to do with the information they’ve been given. One survivor has changed their name from Nettie to Melvin, and doesn’t speak to anyone except the children; a whole fascinating movie could be made about Melvin (played by trans nonbinary actor August Winter). 

It’s not a “likable” film — it’s grim, with some dots of humor — but I don’t think it was meant to be. It grapples with the subject of women in a society where their options are limited, and that subject expands beyond the literal scenario in a Mennonite colony the more we let the story wash around our brains. It’s jarring as hell when a truck drives slowly past the community’s house, blaring the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” over a loudspeaker along with a voice encouraging the colonists to come out and be counted for the 2010 census. In a little touch typical of scripter-director Polley’s method here, the teacher August, who left the community for a while to go to university, sings softly along with the song, which he might remember from his time outside. The movie is built out of little human moments like that. If we’re waiting for the women to stop talking and start doing — as a century of male-steered movies have conditioned us to want — we might miss those moments, and the movie. 

Smile

Posted November 20, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror

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Superhero movies aren’t the only kind of movies that survived the pandemic and restored some faith in the future of theaters. Horror movies (Barbarian, Halloween Ends, Bodies Bodies Bodies, Terrifier 2) have been rallying, and one of the bigger success stories has been Smile, which has taken $213 million worldwide against a $17 million budget. Smile was also helped immeasurably by its creepy marketing campaign, which involved putting people wearing menacing smiles behind home plate at baseball games. The actual movie, or should I say the actual story, doesn’t live up to the marketing. But its writer-director Parker Finn is a director to watch.

Note I don’t say “writer to watch.” Stripped down, Smile is the sort of curse film that was popular in Asia about 25 years ago, and then briefly in America. The way the smile curse works is simple. Someone cursed commits messy suicide in front of you (with their face contorted in an eerie, mirthless rictus), creating trauma that the entity feeds on; it then, within the next seven days, cozies up to you and torments you a fair bit before making you, too, kill yourself in front of someone, perpetuating the cycle. There’s a metaphor here for how the unchecked effects of trauma can repeat themselves. But Parker Finn is interested primarily in the number of startling “Boo!” moments — jump scares — he can get out of the premise. Which is disappointing, but Finn sets them up effectively and also creates a sense of oppressive dread as well as random freakiness.

Smile focuses on therapist Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon), who had a traumatized patient slit her own throat in front of her. The patient is played by Caitlin Stasey, who played what I think is the same role in Finn’s 2020 short film “Laura Hasn’t Slept.” (I recommend that short, as well as Finn’s first short, 2018’s “The Hidebehind.”) This kicks off a standard supernatural-horror plot in which Rose sees weird, terrifying things, but nobody will believe her, and conveniently she has a cop ex-boyfriend (Kyle Gallner) who can help her track down people connected or related to the smile curse’s prior victims. Smile creates a simultaneous doubling effect in the viewer: we experience the story and we are unimpressed, but we see and hear the stifling moods of fear and frustration Finn can evoke and we wish they weren’t yoked to such a nothing-special story.

I guess Smile will be wild and strange for people whose tastes tend towards the norm of filmmaking. If your norm is Lynch or Cronenberg, you’re likely to shrug, while recognizing Parker Finn’s game as a pure horror director. “The Hidebehind,” for instance, is really nothing other than a piece about a guy lost in the woods who runs into a mysterious entity, but it’s simply and effectively wrought. Finn knows how to use ominous quietude and uncertainty to creep us out. Horror fans will hear more about him in the years to come, but horror fans will also have seen most of the story elements Finn has to offer here and will, again, shrug. Perhaps in the future Finn will hire a good writer, or find a story that means more to him than being a clothesline for ooga-booga freak-outs.

Past a certain point the plot stops making sense — Rose has been flagged as a potential danger to herself and/or others, and she’s still driving around (including to her abandoned childhood house where her mother killed herself, which you’d think would be staked out) as if no one were looking for her. Maybe no one is. Here and there, Smile chills when it brushes against the intractable realities of mental illness in America; Rose gets mildly called onto the carpet when she approves a mental patient for admission but the patient has no insurance. Later, we see that there was no meaningful help available to Rose’s mom; she could only suffer and waste away and terrorize her daughters. Some of the subtext here is cold and ugly in ways that befit a horror movie but put standard horror tropes to shame. And there’s a spectacularly horrific/awkward birthday party with a shock we see coming (and it’s another element whose aftermath is exquisitely implausible as a literal plot point — there would probably be jail time for that) but is still precisely carpentered. Some movies begin as dazzling scripts and get diluted in the filming. Smile may be the exact opposite, a humdrum script that shows off a director who, if he wanted to and had the right material, could really hurt us. Maybe next time. 

Weird: The Al Yankovic Story

Posted November 6, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: biopic, comedy, overrated

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Every so often a movie comes along that makes one feel like a real Grinch for finding fault with it. This time, that’d be Weird: The Al Yankovic Story. It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t like Weird Al, who capered around on the margins of ‘80s MTV pop with song parodies (and accompanying video parodies) of acts like Michael Jackson and Madonna. Weird Al’s takes on popular songs, gentler than Tom Lehrer and goofier than Mad magazine’s resident song parodist Frank Jacobs, were good-natured enough, and also skilled enough, that pop stars came to see a Weird Al parody as a sign they’d made it.

Weird, starring a game and enthusiastic Daniel Radcliffe as Al, makes no bones about being a complete farcical fabrication. That’s part of the joke, that Weird Al (who wrote the script with the movie’s director Eric Appel) can’t even tell his own story straight. The plot touches on the usual rise-and-fall tropes and clichés of rock-star biopics, which prevents it from being as wild and, well, weird as it could have been. In real life, Weird Al’s parents were supportive, with his father holding the exact reverse philosophy that the movie version of him does — that it’s important to do what makes you happy. So I’m not sure why Weird Al turns his dad into a forbidding, violent grouch who works in a factory and only later reveals his true colors. In 2004, Al’s parents both died in a tragic freak accident in their home, and we wouldn’t expect that to be covered in what’s supposed to be a comedy — but if you know that background, you might wonder why his parents are in the movie at all being portrayed as glum killjoys. Why not rub against the grain of the usual biopics and have the old man fantastically, unrealistically supportive of his son’s unusual goals?

Weird Al’s path eventually crosses that of Madonna (well-played by Evan Rachel Wood, who nails Madge’s insouciant narcissism), who wants him to parody her song and give her the “Yankovic Bump.” They become romantically involved, which is funny for about a minute, but not when it goes on for scene after scene and leads to a dead subplot involving Weird Al superfan Pablo Escobar. (Even if this premise hadn’t been addressed in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, it wouldn’t be all that funny here.) A good chunk of the film finds Weird Al behaving like a jerk twisted by the goblins of success, which we all know is Al’s self-deprecating goof on the actuality of his being a nice, normal nerd who’s only weird in his music. But it doesn’t make it less annoying to watch, because we know he’s scheduled for a wake-up call and comeback. Weird plays too slavishly by the rules of music biopics — there aren’t many surprises. Rainn Wilson does come through with a sensitive turn as Dr. Demento, the radio DJ who inspired and launched Weird Al, but even the good doctor gets an awkward moment where he stammers that he never had any kids and wants to adopt Al (in real life, Dr. Demento and his wife — she passed in 2017 — were childless by choice), but Al demurs. There’s discordant father-figure stuff throughout Weird that gives one pause.

Radcliffe throws himself into whatever each scene requires, and he’s often fun to watch, but the performance doesn’t really cohere. He’s playing a goofball variation on Weird Al that seems to shift from scene to scene. Weird is the feature directing debut of Eric Appel, who has worked on various comedy shows and on Funny or Die projects. On the evidence here, he should probably stick to short-form gags; the movie is predictable and borderline dull, poorly paced and, if I’m not mistaken, badly sound-synced during several performances. (Radcliffe sang the songs live but was later dubbed by Yankovic.) I like Weird Al a lot, don’t get me wrong, but my hunch is that people’s fondness for him (and for Radcliffe) is rubbing off on the rather inept movie. Stick with it through the end credits, though, for a new Weird Al ditty (“Now You Know”) that roasts movie-fed mythology far more efficiently than the film preceding it.

I Didn’t See You There

Posted October 30, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: Uncategorized

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Reid Davenport is a filmmaker based in Oakland, California. He has made several short films (a few of which can be watched on the library-affiliated streamer Kanopy) about disability; his feature-length debut, I Didn’t See You There, turns the camera around to the world around him. As someone with cerebral palsy who requires a wheelchair to get around, Davenport is unhappily accustomed to being, as he says here, looked at but not seen. Disabled people, Davenport knows all too well, are often objects and seldom subjects (the moment here when he politely but firmly asks wannabe-helpful abled people “Please don’t touch me” will ring a sharp bell for many disabled viewers).

When a circus tent goes up near Davenport’s apartment building — making it well-nigh impossible to avoid the tent in many scenes he films near his home — he folds it neatly into the movie he’s making and the point he’s making with it. Davenport grew up in Bethel, Connecticut, hometown of P.T. Barnum. For a mordant disabled artist like Davenport, this is a happenstance almost too sweet to ignore; he reminds us that Barnum popularized the “freak show,” which pressed the often severely disabled into service to be gawked at in a context of horror. The circus tent is a constant reason for Davenport to muse on his town’s most famous son and how Barnum might have found employment for Davenport.

But largely this is a first-person account, literally, the audience seeing what Davenport sees. The camera, turned away from its wielder, looks at abled people the way they look at disabled people. Sometimes they’re oblivious to Davenport; sometimes they’re solicitous, whether genuinely or merely performatively it’s hard to tell. For a stretch or two, the movie successfully depicts a day in the life of a disabled person as a constant mosquito-hum of microaggressions (sometimes not so micro). People leave power cords dangling across an accessibility ramp, not out of ableist evil but because, unlike disabled people, they don’t have to devote a big chunk of their everyday time to thinking about the realities of disability.

It’s enough to make someone do what Davenport does at one point: get home and loudly drop an F-bomb. But it’s not enough for Davenport to turn his camera into an empathy machine, to put abled viewers in his position of literally being looked down on all the time. He also records the sidewalk under his wheels and the walls that blur past as he rolls, turning them into abstract visuals that go on a bit (impatient viewers may have to recalibrate accordingly). I found those bits sometimes lulling, sometimes bleak, never just empty pictorial poetry. When Davenport goes back home to Bethel to visit his family, the neighborhoods are very nice and full of flowers and spacious back yards. What they aren’t is accessible. It’s easier for someone like Davenport to get around in a big city, which despite a rep for crime also has good public transportation and long stretches of sidewalks, than in the suburbs, which are designed more for walkers and car owners — the affluent and abled.

Davenport has an eye — the movie isn’t visual broccoli, the camera locates beauty and stillness amid the urban bustle and the bumps in the sidewalk. He’s also quick to advocate for himself, again politely but firmly. He’s witty enough to win over abled viewers as well as the perhaps tougher audience of skeptical disabled viewers. Possibly what works most in his favor is that he speaks only for himself; he doesn’t position himself as inspiration or as a voice for every disabled person everywhere. He just shows us what he sees. That makes the film closer to subjective art than to a “documentary.” It uses the leveling power of cinema to put us in Davenport’s chair and let us experience the insults and indifference he faces. That may sound like a bummer, but I’m happy we have the film.

Nope

Posted October 23, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, one of the year's best, science fiction

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With Nope, his third feature as writer-director, Jordan Peele solidifies his status as one of the most exciting new American filmmakers now working. He has a steady command of mood and suspense, and he knows enough to let subtext be subtext and not overexplain it. I can’t tell you how relieved I was, for instance, that the sad and terrifying story of Gordy the trained chimp, which opens Nope on an ominous note, doesn’t turn out to be connected in some way with the larger plot.¹ Yes, we meet a survivor of the incident as a grown man, Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), but Peele has the sense to let the event linger and fester in the back of our minds while we watch what certainly appears to be an alien-invasion thriller.

Ultimately, Nope shakes out as a comment on Hollywood and how people are wasted, swallowed up, disfigured in the name of entertainment. But it’s also foreboding and spooky as hell, like Peele’s previous thrillers, Get Out and Us. The movie is set mostly on a ranch dedicated to training horses for use in TV, movies and commercials. The ranch is owned and run by OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), who takes care of the horses and occasionally sells one to Jupe, who now manages a Western theme park and low-key ghoulishly dines out on his traumatic experience with Gordy. 

All of this is background, and it’s a slow but compelling burn until we recognize what’s going on: a creature of unknown origin is feeding off of local life. I was reminded of Stephen King thinking about him and Louis L’Amour having separate ideas while standing at the edge of a pond: “His story might be about water rights in a dry season, my story would more likely be about some dreadful, hulking thing rising out of the still waters to carry off sheep . . . and horses . . . and finally people.” It’s OJ’s vibrant sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) who figures out what should be done about it: get it on video and get rich. For a while, nobody else comes up with any more productive notions, like how to kill it, because it takes a while to learn what might kill it.

There is one beautifully simple yet brilliant callback: the impact of a balloon popping. It’s a shame one particular character isn’t there to appreciate the second instance. Nope goes on a bit, slightly north of two hours, but is never boring, not with the amount of character and world-building detail Peele packs into the story. The people in the movie are written as utterly unique, including a Fry’s tech clerk (Brandon Perea) who helps set up surveillance and a grizzled cinematographer (Michael Wincott, with his usual gravelly growl) who rises to the challenge of capturing the thing on real film at magic hour. (Cinematographers — what are you gonna do?) Kaluuya gives us a stoic and almost comically unflappable figure — a classic Western hero — and Palmer crackles and pops as a firecracker with innumerable side hustles. 

Nope even tucks in some film history, telling us that the Black jockey who rode a horse for Eadweard Muybridge’s famous 1887 Animal Locomotion Plate 626 was the ancestor of OJ and Emerald. That’s a claim they make to boost their business; it’s also accurate inasmuch as the rider — to this day no one actually knows his name, though the fucking horse was identified — is, in a way, ancestor to all artists of color unnamed, dismissed, and ignored while they added to the history of cinema. The more we think back on Nope, the more depth it takes on; it is the work of a specifically Black sensibility fed by decades of Hollywood, for good (the influence on his own art) and ill (the reality of being non-white in the white dream factory). And Peele has fed well, and knows which bits are nourishing and which not, and he also knows the dangers of consuming too much filled with too little.

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¹Without getting into spoilers, what I mean is that Gordy doesn’t figure into the threat later on; it doesn’t turn out that he was controlled by the menace, or something. Other writers would try to tie those elements together in a neat, cheap little bow instead of allowing Gordy his own power as subtext.

Halloween Ends

Posted October 16, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, one of the year's worst, sequel

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We certainly can’t say that Halloween Ends, the last of the new trilogy supposedly putting paid to the struggle between superslasher Michael Myers and survivor Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), does the same old same old. It diverges so wildly from what most fans might expect of a Halloween film that I’d like to give it points on that basis alone. This leg of the franchise has taken the story deadly seriously, layering on subtext after subtext, which is fine if the text itself engages and entertains. But Halloween Ends, like its 2021 predecessor Halloween Kills, comes across more annoying and depressing than scary. 

A nerdy kid named Cunningham with an overbearing, forbidding mother runs across an avatar of evil and loses his moral bearings. John Carpenter made that movie in 1983, from a book by Stephen King, Christine. Well, it also describes the key conflict here. David Gordon Green, who has directed all three of these Halloween movies, and wrote this one with three other guys, has possibly placed this as an Easter egg for the fans. Okay, neato. But the kid here, Corey Cunningham (Rohan Campbell), barely makes sense as a human being. Notoriety has followed him from an incident in which he accidentally killed a kid he was babysitting, and after he’s bullied and meets Michael in the sewers, Michael seems to recognize himself in the kid, and vice versa. 

Meanwhile, Corey also falls for Laurie’s granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), but if we’re supposed to root for him to reach out towards love and sanity and break from the “dark path” he’s trudging down, we don’t. We don’t like him and we don’t care. Green and his co-writers have made Halloween movies more fit for analysis than for seasonal scares. Everything in the movie only makes sense symbolically; taken literally, the plotting is stupid, depending, once again, on people doing the absolute dumbest things they can do. If Halloween Kills was “really” about the deranging power of fear, this one says that evil never dies, it just changes faces under the mask.

The kills are as brutal as ever, accompanied by stylized sounds of squelching, spattering, and slicing. The dirty secret of the slasher subgenre is that its structure allows us to enjoy the murder and mutilation; they’re the crescendos in a musical piece. To his credit, Green wants to do something different, uglifying the deaths. But without the fun or suspense or even the morbid curiosity that makes us want to look at the blood and brains on the floor, where’s the entertainment? I wound up not being sure what Green and his cohorts wanted to accomplish with this trilogy. Here, there’s more boring stuff about how violent tragedy can deform a whole community; we learn that some folks in Haddonfield, Illinois, the sleepy death town where all of this unfolds, blame Laurie for the new Michael murders. This is an example of how the script wants to Say Something Important — in this case, about victim-blaming, I guess? — but completely fumbles it as a plausible thing that happens in the story.

Rohan Campbell has been coached to play the faux-Michael as a sullen, misunderstood kid who kept reminding me unhelpfully of the irritating Caleb Landry Jones. There’s not much of a shift between Corey when he’s “normal” and Corey when he’s gone off the deep end. As for Jamie Lee Curtis, who has been riding a media blitz surrounding her last dance with Michael Myers, she gets a Big Moment near the end but otherwise can’t do a lot with Laurie as (inconsistently) written. I can read Curtis’ loyalty to this diminishing-returns trilogy — she’s said she owes her career to Laurie Strode and is grateful to the franchise’s fans for the life she’s had — far more easily than I can read anyone’s motivations in the film. I will always be fond of Curtis, but the Laurie in these films is beyond my understanding. Green’s 2018 Halloween famously proceeded from the 1978 original and disregarded any of the sequels. By and large, I would like to disregard Green’s sequels, too. His first effort was solid, and he should have stopped there and resisted the temptation to Say Something Important.

Hellraiser (2022)

Posted October 9, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, remake, sequel

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Try as I might, I’ve never quite snuggled up to the Hellraiser franchise, a gory series of movies, comics and other media derived from Clive Barker’s 1986 story “The Hellbound Heart.” Why this particular tale, among dozens of others in Barker’s portfolio, wound up being his gravestone work is a mystery to me, though perhaps it shouldn’t be. It is, as noted, bloody and nasty, with a side order of cautionary horror about being careful what you wish for. If what you wish for is experience and sensation beyond anything imaginable, the punctured and harrowed angels/demons known as the Cenobites will oblige you — bloodily and nastily. Maybe it’s just a reflection of what scared the openly gay Barker himself during the peak of AIDS — a vision of blood-bound wrath drawn to hedonism.

Barker, who wrote and directed the first Hellraiser film in 1987, returns here as producer but leaves the footwork to other hands: director David Bruckner and writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski. What they come up with is sort of the same old story. The wealthy Roland Voight (Goran Višnjić) acquires the mystical puzzle box that summons the Cenobites and, so they claim, eternal pleasure. Gory things happen, and six years later the box finds its way into the hands of recovering addicts Riley (Odessa A’zion) and her boyfriend Trevor (Drew Starkey). The box is supposed to draw Riley’s blood, but instead it drinks from her brother Matt (Brandon Flynn); he disappears, and Riley determines to find him.

Anyone who’s seen the original Hellraiser probably remembers, with a sick laugh, the movie’s famous line “Jesus wept,”1 which in its context is just what the narrative needs at that moment. The new Hellraiser contains no jokes nearly as good, or indeed many jokes at all. I’m not saying every horror movie should be The Munsters (or even The Re-Animator). But moments of dark levity like “Jesus wept” are what keep the 1987 film warmly thought of after 35 years, and what is there in the new film to compel any affection, either from newcomers or old fans? Not a lot. And even though the acting is fine — Odessa A’zion, daughter of Pamela Adlon, makes Riley touchingly vulnerable, and Jamie Clayton as the Cenobites’ leader “Pinhead” has an icy, mordant way with her lines — unless you’re heavily into watching blood flow and flesh ripped and taffy-pulled, there’s not much entertainment value here.

Better minds than mine have likely analyzed where the Hellraiser concept fits into gay literature. Those who watched lovers and friends fade in the hospital during AIDS’ heyday in the mid-‘80s, watched them become human pincushions and their flesh mottle and melt off the bones, will see more in the torments devised by the Cenobites than others will. And here, in the interest of inclusion, we have a gay male couple, and a trans woman playing Pinhead. Thus the franchise seems queerer than ever, but a Pride float is not the quietest and therefore most deadly vehicle on which to convey the original subtext. “The Hellbound Heart” was a gay male horror artist telling a scary story to other gay men, saying “Look, I get it, but the pursuit of too much pleasure leads to death.” People in other demographics took other things away, of course. It was a big crossover success.

Will this one follow suit? Even if it hadn’t been sent direct to streaming and condemned to an eternal fate of being subsumed into Hulu’s back catalog, Hellraiser ’22 would be too dreary and sober-sided to go over with the mass audience. It’s blandly unpleasant, and even the flesh-ripping scenes pack neither the sting of authentic pain nor the surreal excesses of Barker’s original story. It just sits there, not daring to be remarkably bad or, heaven knows, remarkably good. Like other recent horror “reboots,” its tone is tepid, never showing any personality, and taking the material deadly seriously because the filmmakers think that’s what the fans want. Jesus wept.

1 Yes, I know the line was ad-libbed.

The Munsters (2022)

Posted October 2, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: based on tv show, comedy, horror, kids, underrated

 

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Why does everyone have their knives out for Rob Zombie’s The Munsters? It may be his most endearing feature film. Zombie, of course, is notorious for his grubby grindhouse exploitation throwbacks (The Devil’s Rejects, 31, etc.), but The Munsters is a PG-rated mad-lab goof full of dad jokes and neon colors. You’ll know within the first five minutes if it’s for you, but I took it as a relaxing, cornball Halloween party of the sort I might seek out when I’m sick, as a bowl of cinematic chicken soup or orange sherbet. It sparked warm childhood feelings, and I’m not all that big a fan of the show (The Addams Family has more going on). 

My hunch is that Zombie made this movie — a passion project for a couple of decades — for kids secondarily, and for himself as a kid primarily. There’s even an autobiographical element. The Munsters is a prequel of sorts, outlining how Herman (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Lily Munster (Sheri Moon Zombie) met and how they came to live on Mockingbird Lane in Hollywood. Lily, who hasn’t had much luck on the dating scene, happens across the newly-created Herman at a Transylvanian dive where he’s setting his awful puns to punk-rock music. She sees him onstage, and it’s eternal love; she visits him in his dressing room, and the feeling is mutual. What we’re watching is the courtship of Sheri Moon and Rob Zombie through a Saturday-afternoon, groovie-ghoulie filter.

This movie, which minds its language and only floats a couple of jokes that’ll go over kids’ heads, is surprisingly good-hearted coming from a director who’s built his empire on profane nihilism. Far from being a sell-out, Zombie’s The Munsters takes him in a polar opposite direction, and it reads to me as a risk. After all, fans of the Munsters TV show will likely hate it, as will Zombie fans who just want him to do the gore-drenched adventures of the Firefly family over and over. It will appeal to a slim Venn diagram encompassing people with no strong feelings about the show and people who’ve been waiting for Zombie to change his pitch up a little. Well, he does; it’s loony and doofy, a full-color Mad magazine parody as well as a heartfelt tribute — Zombie very obviously loves these characters, and I responded to that. You may or may not. Like I said, you’ll know soon enough whether it’s a comfy chair you can settle into or a torture chair.

The script is pretty episodic; the plot motor has an obscure character, Lily’s ne’er-do-well werewolf brother Lester (Tomas Boykin) — who only appeared in one episode of the show — sucker Herman into signing over the Transylvanian castle owned by Lily’s vamp father the Count, aka Grandpa (Daniel Roebuck). That explains why they move to Hollywood (along with Herman catching a bit of a horror host on TV and figuring he could do that, too). I found the story didn’t matter (did it ever matter on the show?). I was content to hang out in the tacky haunted-house sets with a cast that seemed fully into it. Even the usually dour Richard Brake camps and vamps it up in two roles here; I was happy to see him smiling and cackling and departing from the sullen bad-asses he’s played for Zombie.

Zombie shares that spirit. I felt him having fun in his best previous efforts (The Devil’s Rejects is some kind of grotesque masterpiece and easily the pinnacle of his greasy-grimy-gopher-guts aesthetic), but this is a different flavor of fun; again, it’s a colorfully wrapped gift from adult Rob Zombie to young Bobby Cummings, who cut his teeth on Famous Monsters and Aurora monster model kits and, well, The Munsters. I can’t put it any other way: The movie made me feel good. Do I want a Munsters franchise from him? Probably not, assuming Netflix would even let him anyway (although the performances, particularly Jeff Daniel Phillips as the dense but jolly Herman and Daniel Roebuck as the caustic Count, are amiable enough to warrant revisits). I’d rather see him move on to other things that light him up, perhaps even an original idea that doesn’t involve the Munsters or certainly the Fireflys. 

Lou

Posted September 25, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, thriller, underrated

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It’s tempting to say that the idea of Allison Janney as an action hero would be tough for any movie to live up to, but Lou tries very hard. Lou (Janney) is a scowling loner who lives off the coast of Seattle with her loyal dawg. (The dog survives; the movie never really puts that in doubt.) She acts as a grouchy landlady to Hannah (Jurnee Smollett) and her little daughter Vee (Ridley Bateman), who live nearby. Problem: Hannah’s ex-husband Philip (Logan Marshall-Green), a psycho who used to be with the Special Forces, kidnaps Vee, spiriting her across the rainy, perilous island towards a symbolic structure, with Lou and Hannah in hot pursuit. 

We know Lou’s no pushover even before she angles into a shack inhabited by two of Philip’s armed associates and dispatches them ruthlessly, one with a broken and sharp soup can. For this scene and at least one other, Allison Janney was trained by martial artist and fight coordinator Daniel Bernhardt, who did likewise for Bob Odenkirk on Nobody. Those who liked Nobody for its transformation of someone not known for action into an ass-kicker will probably want to give Lou a day in court. It is, of course, the sort of story that only speaks in the broad vowels of pulp, but pulp isn’t illegal — why fight it? 

The script (by Maggie Cohn and Jack Stanley) ties together a lot of psychological/thematic threads neatly and, I thought, gratifyingly. The reason for Philip’s psychosis, we eventually gather, opens him up for some sympathy. But he’s no less scary for that, and possibly scarier, because the illness we’ve diagnosed in him will not be readily cured, the rage perhaps never appeased. The narrative threads, on the other hand, knot together in ways that strain credulity. By the end, I was wondering if the kindly ol’ island sheriff (ol’ dependable Matt Craven, a “hey it’s that guy,” Canadian division) was somehow connected to the shenanigans as well. Heck, everyone else seems to be. But if you want starkly believable plots, you’d do well to avoid the “thriller” section at the video store.

Yes, I did say “video store,” which is a too-cute way of saying that Lou unfolds in late 1986, when Reagan is on the box denying any such thing as an exchange of weapons for hostages. An episode of Only Murders in the Building this past season posted a weirdly funny riff on the whole Iran-Contra Affair, too. Why this enduringly shameful chunk of recent American history is rearing its clean-cut Oliver North head now is a question I don’t feel qualified to answer. But it engages nicely with the backstories of some of the characters. It also takes the story out of the realm of cell phones, and when our heroes are trying to reach civilization and have to do it via sketchy walkie-talkies, we might sympathize with writers whose movies would be five minutes long if anyone had a working phone. Not that this rainy, windy island would be within service anyway.

Allison Janney is not the new Michelle Yeoh, or even the new Cynthia Rothrock, but the moves she’s added to her toolbox work for her character even in quiet, noncombative moments. When you’ve been trained to execute maneuvers that can kill someone, you carry your body differently. That was evident with Odenkirk, who trained for two years and definitely had the vibe of someone who could end you efficiently and then move on to the next aspiring corpse, and sometimes had it just sitting there. The key to the performance is the moment when Lou, posing as a frail ol’ gal named Martha who just wants to come in out of the rain, ever so slightly overdoes the frail-ol’-gal mannerisms. Janney is a great actor, but Lou, despite her other skills, is not, quite. (Or she may have been once, but living in isolation for so long has rusted those particular gears.) So Janney acts badly in character, and it’s as though Lou had such contempt for her stupid opponents that she doesn’t bother to make her “performance” realistic. These idiots deserved to die, and didn’t deserve Lou at her peak of imposture. Lou is low-nutrition thriller babble, but it’s often fun, and it has Allison Janney, for Pete’s sake.

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon

Posted September 18, 2022 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, drama, fantasy, one of the year's best

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It might be amusing to think of Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon as writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour’s idea of a superhero movie — specifically, an X-Men movie, albeit one that begins in a mental hospital and sidetracks to the strip clubs of New Orleans. Amirpour made a splashy debut eight years ago with the moody vampire indie A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and followed that with the determinedly cultish cannibal dystopia The Bad Batch. Now she returns with a drifty, digressive fable about Mona Lisa Lee (Jeon Jong-seo), a young woman with mind-control powers. She escapes from the facility she’s locked up in, and falls in with erotic dancer Bonnie Belle (Kate Hudson), who sees how Mona Lisa’s powers can be used to make money.

Some may find Mona Lisa a somewhat thin work dramatically. Aside from a limping detective (Craig Robinson) on Mona Lisa’s and Bonnie’s trail, not much happens. But I think Amirpour means the movie not as a neon-noir narrative (although it is that) but as a commentary on how capitalism drives people to self-debasement. It’s not that Bonnie dances for money, or that Mona Lisa’s power is put to work hypnotizing passersby into draining their bank accounts at an ATM and handing the cash over to her. These things are presented as what must be done to survive. It’s when Bonnie gets smug about it, literally letting twenties and fifties rain on her, that we see she’s become part of the system that holds her down. 

Bonnie has a young son, Charlie (Evan Whitten), who views her as toxic and can’t wait to get away from her. Charlie dances off steam in his room while trash metal blares, and he’s a pretty good artist. He represents the creative urge to run away from the corruptive world and do art in solitude; he’s the hero of the piece, if anyone is. When Bonnie brings Mona Lisa home, Charlie hits it off with Mona Lisa. He doesn’t agree with how his mother is using her. He would rather watch TV with Mona Lisa or draw her — either keep her company or honor her with art. He doesn’t want anything from her. Weirdly, a skanky drug dealer named Fuzz (Ed Skrein), who helps Mona Lisa at a couple of points in the film, looks like predatory trouble but seems to be legitimately taken with Mona Lisa. He only wants a kiss from her, which she gives, knowing that’s all he wants from her. 

The movie is candy-colored and doesn’t press too hard on our nerves. Mona Lisa is potentially dangerous, but she’s not interested in killing anyone; at most she gets people to maim themselves in the leg, even a mean cracker who abuses her in the mental hospital. She only wants freedom, and we want her to have it. The movie is low-stakes but engaging and, with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski (Midsommar) on board, gorgeous. Other than a trio of dirtbags who corner Bonnie after she has used Mona Lisa to empty their wallets, most of the hostility towards Bonnie or Mona Lisa comes from other women, interestingly. Amirpour, though, lets us understand where that anger comes from. 

Hudson comes through with a sharp turn as a woman whose worldview has been whittled down to the hustle. Bonnie is only a vivid supporting character, though; Jeon Jong-seo takes the lead, and acts largely with her eyes, pools of melancholy in a blank face. Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon isn’t interested in the nuts and bolts of the fantasy premise. We don’t know where Mona Lisa’s power comes from or what she plans to do with it once she’s on her own. She’s mostly an avatar of innocence used for corrupt ends, and Jeon conveys that with no fuss. And Amirpour remains a director to watch, picking up scraps of genre and pasting them into funky collages that share elements with a lot of things but aren’t really like anything else.