Category: Movie Reviews

Angelyne 0

Angelyne

Ask anyone outside of Los Angeles who Angelyne is, and you may be greeted with a confused shrug. But for Angelenos of a particular generation, she was a hyper-local legend: the mysterious blonde bombshell who suddenly appeared on billboards all around the city in 1984, offering little elaboration besides her name in hot pink lettering and her busty frame in one pin-up pose or another. She was “famous for being famous” long before Paris Hilton or the Kardashians, selling nothing more (or less) than herself, riding around in her bubblegum-pink Corvette and signing autographs at 35 bucks a pop.  

But who is Angelyne, anyway? The answer, as posited in Peacock’s limited series about the figure, is “whatever Angelyne wants herself to be.” Based on Gary Baum’s articles on Angelyne for The Hollywood Reporter and created by Nancy Oliver (“True Blood,” “Six Feet Under”), “Angelyne” makes merry play of the lines between identity and delusion, and does it with all the bubbly verve of the real-life figure it’s digging at. It’s brilliant stuff.

“I am not a woman,” Angelyne (Emmy Rossum) coos to herself in the opening moments of the series. “I am an icon.” Her eyes are closed, her delivery sure; in the parlance of our times, she’s manifesting. She shapes her reality, and over “Angelyne”’s five episodes, that need for control over her own self-perception—and our perception of her—extends to the aesthetic fabric of the show itself. What results is a winking camp opus about the liberating power of delusion, and just how far you can take a fantasy if you can get everyone else to believe in it along with you. 

Each of the series’ five episodes, directed by Lucy Tcherniak (“The End of the F***king World”) and Matt Spicer (“Ingrid Goes West,” another arch tale of a woman reinventing herself in LA), largely center themselves around the people—mostly men—who’ve been sucked into Angelyne’s gravitational pull and slingshot out the other side, supporting players in her rags-to-riches-to-??? story. There’s Freddy (Charlie Rowe), the himbo rocker whose up-and-coming rock band Angelyne Yokos her way into, and promptly destroys to build publicity for herself. There’s Harold Wallach (Martin Freeman), the unassertive billboard printer who gets roped into being Angelyne’s manager by sheer force of will; Max Allen (Lukas Gage), who tried to film a documentary about her in her later years to no avail; Jeff Glasner (Alex Karpovsky), the fictionalized version of Baum who tries to dispassionately investigate her past; the list goes on. Frequently, we cut from the action to stylized, Errol Morris-esque talking head interviews explaining the ways Angelyne evaded or hurt them.

But then! “Ew, gross,” Angelyne pouts in response to a particularly salacious detail. “That did not happen.” She takes control of the narrative again, and suddenly we’re seeing things from her carefully curated perspective. She’s the kind of woman who has invented herself, her life, and her persona from whole cloth, and used her magnetism to evade any inconvenient bursts of reality that might encroach. “Angelyne” realizes this in darkly-funny detail, right down to characters from her enigmatic past blipping from the screen the moment she decides they don’t exist. 

The show’s clearly a passion project for Rossum, herself looking for a transformation of sorts after her nine-season run on Showtime’s “Shameless” as the practical, pragmatic daughter of a working-class Chicago family. Where Rossum’s prior roles saw her as the sensible brunette, her Angelyne is a wide-eyed, bottle-blonde, hot pink Christmas decoration; she titters like Betty Boop, dispensing one florid pearl of wisdom after another (“I strive for a painless existence”) in that breathy Marilyn Monroe voice. Much like Lily James in “Pam & Tommy” last year, Rossum dons a 30-pound breastplate and all the foot-high blonde wigs she can muster to capture the real Angelyne’s cartoonish proportions. She commands the room, demanding all eyes on herself and only letting the barest crack of a real self through; it’s a remarkable study in manufactured perception. 

By God, the layers of artifice work like gangbusters: after all, Angelyne, like Rossum, are both women looking to redraw themselves to show the world what they can do, to demand the attention they feel they deserve. “Marilyn didn’t rest until she was famous,” she says early on; it’s clear, even before the final episode where we get a peek at the real woman’s pre-Angelyne childhood, that the Hollywood star was a pivotal figure in her life—a bright, cheery sex symbol everyone who mattered wanted to look at. And in LA, where everyone is clamoring to be seen, Angelyne knew exactly how to make it happen, even if she didn’t have the pipes or the acting talent to leverage it into an actual career in entertainment. All other details that disrupt that illusion are inconveniences to be excised. 

It’s this push and pull between competing truths that make the show so deceptively funny, and sets it apart from the glut of recent miniseries about controversial real-life figures we’ve had to wade through lately. Where Elizabeth Holmes or Adam Neumann sold a lie, Angelyne sells fantasy; the stakes aren’t lives or livelihoods, but whether or not she gets to maintain her beauty, allure, and mystique. She surrounds herself with sycophants (her most loyal being Hamish Linklater’s uproariously slavish assistant Rick Krause), and carries an uncanny ability to spin any negative circumstance as a positive—or pretend it didn’t happen altogether. (Rossum’s husband, “Mr. Robot” creator Sam Esmail, also produces here, if that’s any indicator as to the mega-meta antics the show eventually bleeds into.)

Whether you’re learning about Angelyne for the first time, or a longtime fan hoping for an entertaining overview of her legend, there’s a lot to like here. Yes, you’ll get a few glimmers of insight into what made the real figure tick (though don’t hold out hope for a cameo), a few layers peeled back into one of LA’s most bombastic, bimbo-tastic mysteries. But “Angelyne”’s true strength lies in its nuanced embrace of the lie, reveling in the hot pink happiness she gives herself and her fans for merely existing while acknowledging the hurt and confusion she inflicts on those in her wake. Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder; the same goes for fame.

Montana Story 0

Montana Story

“Montana Story,” about a brother and sister coming to terms with tragic family secrets during a road trip, is a throwback to an era of independent cinema in which an intimate story about people involved in situations that could actually happen could get seen on big screens in art house cinemas, a type of institution that was gradually disappearing at the time this review was published. The film is written and directed by the filmmaking team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel, who have made eight modestly-budgeted, acting- and directing-driven films during the past three decades, including the mind-bending thrillers “Suture” and “The Deep End” and the intense dramas “The Business of Strangers” and “Bee Season.” Modern audiences will likely become impatient with the quietness and meditative pace, and the writing is probably a little too schematic in certain ways—both the familial dysfunction at the heart of the story as well as certain images and plot elements as evoke 1960s rural dramas like “Hud” and “The Last Picture Show“—but the expansive widescreen images of Montana landscapes and the impeccable lead and supporting performances carry it. 

Owen Teague (of “Bloodline” and “The Stand”) stars as Cal, a young man who returns to his family home to take charge of the estate of his dying father, who’s been in a coma following a stroke. He’s soon joined by his half-sister Erin (Haley Lu Richardson of “Ravenswood”), who’s been estranged from the family for years following her rebellion against their father. Without giving too much away, suffice to say that the father’s betrayals are in tune with a tradition that snakes through film noir and revisionist Westerns and plugs into the tradition of ancient Greek tragedy: the violence and sorry that separated Erin from the family is directly related to the father’s betrayal of legal, ethical, and moral codes, and all of this is folded into a more skeptical view of American history than is taught in most public schools. 

There’s a long, thoughtful sequence in which the siblings stare at a gaping and entirely pointless hole in the earth that their father’s legal and business advice helped a mining corporation dig, and Erin schools her brother on the circles of Hell described in Dante’s Inferno and relates them back to the history of their family and the state that’s superficially and evasively defined to schoolchildren mainly through praise for its “big skies.” But the filmmakers take care not to let the situations become too abstract, always relating them back to the siblings and their family homestead and the economics of the surrounding community, factors that also affect their housekeeper Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero), their father’s nurse, a Kenyan immigrant nicknamed Ace (Gilbert Owuour), and their father’s increasingly decrepit horse, which Cal has decided to put to sleep but that Erin instead decides to relocate to upstate New York. (Erin’s fixation on saving the horse is a redemptive, history-rewriting move that relates directly to her own trauma at the hands of the father.)

It might be asking too much of viewers who are increasingly conditioned to relate only to big-budget intellectual property-driven fantasies packed with Easter eggs and teasers to sit still for a nearly two-hour, self-contained story about the emotional and economic problems of a rural Montana family, especially since the movie is less than perfect, and tends to err on the side of being modest and unassuming (even the breathtaking natural vistas are photographed in a matter-of-fact way). But there are many rewards to be found here, not the least of which is a skill at staging scenes with beginnings, middles, and ends that are entirely dependent upon the subtle interactions of a few actors who live or die on the basis of the words they’ve been given to speak, and the silences they’ve been encouraged to inhabit. 

Now playing in theaters.

The Essex Serpent 0

The Essex Serpent

Adapted from the novel by Sarah Perry, “The Essex Serpent” concerns the emergence of a monster that may not even exist. There are gruesome clues of its existence: a young girl’s corpse is found awfully chewed up; a long fence of nets, meant to capture it, is destroyed. A bonafide underwater troll no one can comprehend, the mythological serpent causes a small town’s collective mental stability to go MIA. 

But “The Essex Serpent,” a compelling and surprising six-episode adaptation now playing on Apple TV+, uses this mystery only for surface appeal. With nuanced performances from the likes of Claire Danes, Tom Hiddleston, Clémence Poésy and Frank Dillane, the story finds deeper purpose in ruminating on other entities that easily scare people when they do not understand them: science; socialism; progress.

Heaven forbid that many of those ideas be embodied by a woman right on the cusp of the 20th century. That person is Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes), an archaeologist who ventures to the small village of Aldwinter in Essex to investigate the creature, and search for fossils. She reasons that the creature does exist, and that it could have “escaped evolution,” creating its own path. The faithful of Essex, who are like the flipside of the groupthink that makes up Pawnee in “Parks and Recreation,” and think the serpent is payback for their sins. Town pastor Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston) is skeptical about the serpent being real, and tries to temper the growing hysteria in his parishioners’ fire and brimstone thinking. Cora makes them even more fearful, all the more so given her timing with the monster’s arrival. 

Every episode of the series is directed by Clio Barnard, who has a great approach in telling a mystery pitched in the unknown of belief. She blankets the episodes with a disquieting tone, mixing ominous wide shots of Aldwinter’s spread-out small town with that of jarring handheld close-ups, a potent mix of classic and new filmmaking approaches to a period piece like this. Threatening clouds always hang overhead, while strings from Dustin O’Halloran and Herdís Stefánsdottir growl lower and lower—the series gets a lot of mileage from such rich gloominess. The moments back in Cora’s ornate realm of London prove to have less of an allure, even if the dresses, three-piece suits, and location suggest a strong eye for detail. 

There are no flat main characters in this ensemble, who help make this series far more interesting and expansive than if it were just about its sea creature mystery. Cora begins a close friendship with a workaholic heart surgery doctor named Luke Garrett, played by Frank Dillane with an impressive balance of haughtiness and vulnerability, especially as he starts to crush on Cora. He is shown creating medical history, and being ignorant of Cora’s mental health, thinking he can describe it away with something he read in a book. 

There are also extended scenes that follow the aspirations of her servant, friend, and housing advocate Martha (Hayley Squires), who is such a socialist that the show seems to mention the detail every time she’s on-screen. Hiddleston’s vicar too, though the most underdeveloped main figure of the bunch, has his own complicated feelings about Cora, in part because of his faith, and the love for his wife Stella (Clémence Poésy). And yet even she has a striking approach to their budding attraction, showing the nuance that comes in not looking at things in black-and-white. These stories are not directly related to the serpent, but the strength of the performances proves they do not have to be. 

At the center of all this is Cora. Through Danes’ performance, the series gains a rich, empathetic view of someone who seems to cause destruction everywhere they go, even if it’s not their intent. Danes illustrates the confusion and hurt in the process of her facing the multiple people who are attracted to her, the shame from Aldwinter townspeople, and her own trauma from the previously abusive relationship that she has escaped by becoming a widower, but carries with a scar on her neck. Episodes four and five practically forget about the serpent in Essex, and make clear that however heavy-handed the metaphor may be, Cora’s energy is a significant serpent in everyone else’s lives. 

A minor scandal brews throughout “The Essex Serpent” regarding new widow Cora and hot vicar Will; though the tension will surely help sell the series, it’s the most shorthanded component in the story. Their mental duels, of his religious skepticism going against her science, prove to be more interesting than the looming threat of them becoming entangled. But at least Danes and Hiddleston have strong chemistry for these moments where they act like the only people on the marsh: their wistful gazes, the way they kiss with their mouths open as if it were their first kiss; the way he puts his scarf around her neck, dark green as this gloomy tale’s stand-in for the warmth of red. 

One could accuse “The Essex Serpent” of being too slack with its central mystery, even as it uses the serpent for a few too many freakout dream sequences that are scattered about the show. But that overlooks how much it uses its powers for a far more interesting cause. With pacing that’s best described as assured—in the allure of its writing, cinematography, performances, etc.—“The Essex Serpent” takes a bolder chance in letting its characters stew. “The Essex Serpent” successfully creates a full world beyond its marsh, oftentimes treating the monster as a revealing conversation topic. 

Full series screened for review. The first two episodes of “The Essex Serpent” are now playing on Apple TV+, with a new episode each week. 

Firestarter 0

Firestarter

The Stephen King novel on which the new version of “Firestarter” is based was published in 1980 during a phase of the horror master’s career in which the writer seemed fascinated by kids with inexplicable powers. Charlie, played by Drew Barrymore in the 1984 film and Ryan Kiera Armstrong in this one, is cut from similar cloth as Danny from “The Shining” and the title character in “Carrie”—people who discover they’re not like normal kids. There’s nothing scarier than an out-of-control child. Trust me. King’s work would inspire generations—Elle in “Stranger Things” owes a great deal to Charlie, for one—which made a remake of this 40-year-old tale of pyromania inevitable. And yet, once again, inevitability doesn’t equal creativity. So often remakes feel more like contractual requirements than artistic explorations or updates of timeless themes. There is no better recent example of this than “Firestarter,” a film that goes through the motions with such apathetic predictability and pure cinematic laziness that you may want to set whatever device you’re watching it on ablaze.

This “Firestarter” opens with Charlie in school, not on the run like in the original. Of course, that’s going to lead to a brutal display of power. After a few close calls, Charlie kind of emerges like a phoenix after a dodgeball incident sends her emotions into the blazing category. The principal and teacher presume the fireball that came out of the bathroom stall was an explosive device, but mom and dad disagree on what to do next. You see, they have powers too, products of experiments from an MK Ultra type program run by something called The Shop. Dad Andy (Zac Efron, and, yes, I too feel ancient that Efron can now believably play a father) has an ability called “The Push,” which is basically mind control. His daughter’s powers seem amplified and uncontrollable. She even lashes out at her mother Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) with a telekinetic attack. Mom and dad are going to have to do something drastic to protect Charlie and themselves.

Hiding in the shadows for years, The Shop emerges when Captain Hollister (Gloria Reuben) calls in a bounty hunter who can handle the Charlie situation “with discretion,” a morbid soul named John Rainbird (Michael Greyeyes), introduced brooding to emo rock, of course. He quickly gets to Charlie’s house, but the kid is being rewarded for nearly killing her mother with ice cream, of course. When Charlie and dad get home, they discover how hot it really is for the now and go on the run. Some screaming and explosions follow, along with a few attempts from dad to teach her how to control her powers. Mostly explosions, which look about as tactile as a TikTok filter.

The Blumhouse model is to keep budgets low, but he usually hires directors and productions teams who can hide the corners being cut with clever filmmaking choices. Not this time. “Firestarter” just looks cheap—in most ways, cheaper than the 1984 version—with no memorable craft elements or decisions outside of a cool, ‘80s score from John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter, and Daniel Davies. The score deserved a movie that knew how to use it more effectively and with tighter visual language. Everything here is close-up, boring coverage in flatly written dialogue scenes, and the action is even worse. It’s often hard to decipher what the hell is happening when things are supposed to be getting intense and director Keith Thomas does a miserable job with geography (largely because of the close-up, reverse shot structure that never puts two people in a frame in a room).

In a weird coincidence, there’s another film opening in some cities and on VOD this week about telekinetic kids called “The Innocents,” which Stephen King himself has praised, probably remembering a bit of that period when he too was fascinated by unpredictable little monsters. Find a way to watch that one instead.

In theaters and on VOD today.

On the Count of Three 0

On the Count of Three

“On the Count of Three” opens on the dejected eyes of Kevin (Christopher Abbott), a thirty-something who is pointing a gun at his best friend Val (Jerrod Carmichael), who in turn also aims a lethal weapon back at him. Even though the film will get increasingly out of control, that initial shot of Kevin’s despondent gaze, voicelessly expressing his emotional exhaustion, lingers as its most essential. 

This tense prologue isn’t the climax of a confrontation between two men. They have agreed to shoot one another in the head, to commit suicide in tandem, abandoning this world at once. A last-second change of heart ruins Val’s impromptu plan one early morning outside of a strip club. Kevin’s hesitation to shoot, an act of selfless love of which he is capable even if trapped in his own self-destruction, may have given his brother in hopelessness a second chance. Val agrees to “enjoy” one more day before calling it quits on life. 

Convinced these are their final hours above ground, the two begin a road trip headed toward the end, a conclusion seemingly of their own volition but derived from haunting trauma, with multiple spontaneous stops to obtain retribution from those they deem responsible for their pain. Overflowing with a chaotic truthfulness about the human condition’s bleakest shadows, the film finds pitch-dark hilarity in the absurd realizations they have after making this pact. Carmichael directs for the first time in a double-duty showcase expanding our perception of his talent.  

There’s a morbid gleefulness to Kevin’s outlook early in the ordeal. His demeanor reflects a sense of liberation obtained from believing his suffering is nearly over. He won’t have to return to the mental institution where they couldn’t help him anyway. Sundance Award-winning writers Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch present Kevin as someone with decades of psychological torment, which puts Val’s afflictions—a rocky romantic relationship and a job he despises—into perspective. And yet, though we understand that their reasonings for wanting to die aren’t comparable, their desperation is the same. And they both gravitate to a violent “solution.” The portrayal of these subtleties is at the core of how “On the Count of Three” discusses men’s mental health in a manner that feels rich and true. 

For example, Kevin’s bright hair highlights and colorfully disheveled clothing place him as someone holding on to his rebellious adolescence. That he casually pulls out his iPod Nano, an artifact that immediately dates him, speaks of an arrested maturity. Even more so that he chooses to play Papa Roach’s “Last Resort” as an on-the-nose anthem matching the state of his psyche. Kevin is the picture of white millennial anxiety forever stuck in the early 2000s, but also a guilt-ridden liberal hyper-aware of how his actions or the things he says can be interpreted based on his privilege. 

All of those elements come alive in Abbott’s ostentatious interpretation of the conflicted individual, a mentally embattled person with a righteous chip on his shoulder given the unfairness of his childhood, but who isn’t entirely unsympathetic to those around him. Alongside his title role in “James White,” another independent feature where a young man battles inner turbulence of a different type, this stands as one of Abbott’s most remarkable performances, rendered so indelible in its erratic kookiness and outburst of guarded earnestness because it plays opposite Carmichael’s more restrained unraveling. 

“It’s like your sad looking eyes got purpose all of a sudden,” Val tells Kevin while on an elevator ascending to what the latter hopes will be a fateful reckoning for a major villain from his past. Later, Val meets with a quarrelsome figure of his own: his girlfriend, and future mother of his child, Nat (played by a marvelously stern Tiffany Haddish). 

Throughout this ghastly adventure, Katcher and Welch take time to mine levity from Kevin’s ironic self-awareness about his hypocritical stance on gun control as he holds a firearm with intention to deploy it, his insufficient determination to talk about race with Val, and the many instances in which Val must rein in their “joy ride” to hell. As bizarre as the tone should land on paper, “On the Count of Three” repeatedly features chuckle-worthy, if not sidesplitting moments. 

Interwoven with the profanity-ridden banter that centers Val’s annoyance with Kevin’s behavior, which could lead us to think their relationship stays on the surface, there are profoundly touching exchanges that demonstrate otherwise. For example, halfway through their deadly escapade, Kevin thanks Val for always trying to uplift him. His counterpart responds with the suggestion that where they find themselves means his efforts were in vain. Those droplets of sorrowful lucidness help the film transcend the realm of mere provocation. 

Captured on celluloid, there’s a richness to the hues on screen, whether the pink façade of the nightlife establishment where the duo almost perished is paired with the drab natural palette of the New Jersey winter or contrasts between the co-lead’s outward appearances. One could say that cinematographer Marshall Adams, with a career mostly on television, capitalized on the opportunity to shoot a project with great kinetic force on 35mm. A nighttime chase set to an evocative score testifies to Carmichael’s ability to make a vivid, aesthetically memorable directorial debut.

Ultimately, any movie about suicide walks on inherently treacherous terrain, and one’s appreciation for “On the Count of Three” will hinge on every viewer’s comfort zone or personal triggers to engage with a production that, while not disrespectful or blasé about mental health struggles, does take a singular approach that some may perceive as insensitive. Yet, contrary to what some could infer from the outcome of this narrative, I don’t believe the filmmakers glorify the pair’s revenge fantasy, nor do they use the fact that Val is going to become a father as a magic bullet to solve the emptiness that plagues him. There are no promises of that, but rather the knowledge that he now must consider whether he wants to be a permanent scar on another being. 

Sometimes despair tricks us into believing that ceasing to exist offers instant peace from the turmoil inside one’s mind. To admit that there’s comfort in the possibility of not waking up again because incessant gloom torture us remains taboo. Some nights feel like they could be the last one and some mornings like a penance one must continue to endure. Undoubtedly, these fatalistic sentiments, products of chemical imbalances or a myriad of reasons depending on what we’ve each faced on our trails, are challenging to share with others. Even to speak these feelings out loud can be terrifying. “On the Count of Three” refrains from moralistic judgements or absolute answers, and instead wrestles in a tumultuous manner with the awfulness of these experiences that not everyone survives. 

Perhaps if we accept that our worst inclinations don’t define us or illustrate all that we are, we might have compassion for what takes a toll on others. Maybe we would even have some clarity to stride ahead, to find other avenues of peace. Carmichael’s film understands this.

“On the Count of Three” is a rousing tragicomedy that straddles a line between incredibly calibrated gallows humor and a devastating discourse on the burden of existence. Throughout the wild ride, I was always drawn back to Kevin’s pleading stare, not feeling pity, but with the kind of empathy one can only truly have for someone who reminds you of yourself. 

Now playing in theaters.

The Innocents 0

The Innocents

Writer/director Eskil Vogt watched his profile rise recently with the success of “The Worst Person in the World,” which earned him a much-deserved Oscar nomination along with co-writer Joachim Trier. Vogt and Trier collaborate constantly, but Vogt also occasionally directs his own work free from his BFF, including the excellent “Blind” in 2014. His latest, the deeply unsettling “The Innocents,” recalls his script for his 2017 Trier collab “Thelma,” the story of a young woman who realizes she has unexpected powers. In the way that film used a sci-fi premise to unpack issues of development and repression, “The Innocents” uses the structure of what’s almost a superhero origin story to examine those days of youth when we’re figuring out our own moral code, when words like “innocent,” “guilty,” and even “good” and “evil” start to have real-world meaning for us. A deep empathy from Vogt for his child actors elevates this from what it could have been, even if it feels like there’s a tighter version that unfolds with a tad more urgency.

Almost all of “The Innocents” unfolds at a large Norwegian housing complex, the kind of place where all of the buildings and apartments look generally the same, adding a mundane backdrop to a very unusual coming-of-age story. The phenomenal Rakel Lenora Flottum plays nine-year-old Ida, someone who is at that aforementioned age when boundaries are being drawn. Ida is also old enough to find herself annoyed by her autistic, nonverbal sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad). When Anna is bugging her, Ida will pinch her leg, knowing that her sister won’t even respond. She’s provoking. She’s trying to get a response. Kids do that at this age—pushing boundaries to see what happens next.

And then Ida meets a boy who already has long destroyed traditional boundaries and continues to go there. In an incredibly disturbing scene that animal lovers should be wary of, a boy named Ben (Sam Ashraf) brutally murders a cat. Ben has been bullied by locals and ignored by his single mother, leading to the kind of dissolution of moral values that sometimes creates a serial killer. But Ben isn’t your average growing sociopath because he can do things the average troublemaker than not. It turns out that Ida and Anna have some strange powers too, as does Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), and all four of them seem more powerful when they’re around each other. It might sound like “The New Mutants” or “Chronicle,” but Vogt’s concept isn’t that mythologically deep. It’s more about asking “what if” questions about youth. What if a kid could get vengeance on a bully without even touching him? How far would they go? How would that shape his developing moral code? How does power impact innocence?

Ida is the first to realize that Ben is not only special but dangerous, and there’s an interesting gender dynamic in “The Innocents” that could be examined in a longer thinkpiece. It could even be read as a study of when young girls realize that the boys around them are dangerous, and how allyship is needed to overcome power imbalances. Vogt is the kind of writer who never spells out his themes with clear, underlined dialogue or plot twists. He trusts his audience, giving them ideas to roll around in their brains instead of spoon-feeding them simple moral messages.

He also has really developed as a visual artist. Shot by Sturla Brandth Grovlen, “The Innocents” has a mesmerizing visual language as the camera swoops and moves through the apartment complex. The imposing buildings that look even bigger when you’re young; the windows that all feel almost menacingly the same; the sound of children on the complex playground; the cramped quarters of these domiciles that hide dismissive or even abusive parents and create unusual children—“The Innocents” is a complex piece of storytelling, both visually and narratively.

It’s also a bit of a drag at times. While there’s so much to like here, “The Innocents” takes a very long time to get going and I sometimes wished that Vogt would turn up the heat through pacing. I feel like there’s a taut, gut punch of a movie in here that trims about 15 minutes from multiple places. However, it’s the only real complaint one could levy against a very ambitious movie that doesn’t just use children as tools in a sci-fi concept but tries to understand its prepubescent protagonists. Sometimes it doesn’t take a village—it takes a kid figuring out they won’t ever really be innocent again.  

In theaters and on VOD today.

Pleasure 0

Pleasure

Is it possible to make an unbiased movie about porn? Adult films themselves are ciphers, revealing not only the secret fantasies and unconscious biases of the people who make them, but their assumptions about the audience and what it wants to see. And desire was never so constructed as in Swedish filmmaker Ninja Thyberg’s debut feature “Pleasure,” a studied look at an industry where extreme is the norm. 

“Pleasure” was shot in the fall of 2018, and the film’s road to theaters has been a long one—so much so that OnlyFans, which reached a valuation of $1 billion in 2021, doesn’t factor into the story. Porn is the reason why VHS and Blu-ray triumphed over Beta Video and HD DVD, a largely unacknowledged but hugely influential force that shapes technology and culture in general. And although “Pleasure” merely circles the more monied enclaves of this multi-billion-dollar industry, its power is palpable. 

By contrast, our protagonist Linnéa (Sofia Kappel) is the opposite of a power broker. She’s a 19-year-old Swedish woman who arrives in America at the beginning of the film with a modest Instagram following, 25 tattoos, and the nom de porn Bella Cherry. Bella/Linnéa wants to be a porn star, and she delights in the transgressive nature and vulgar aesthetics of her chosen profession. She’s also hyper-aware of her personal brand, pausing to take selfies before wiping her face after her first blowjob scene. But Bella Cherry is not as streetwise as she thinks she is. 

STD tests, W-9s, photo IDs, hand sanitizer, douches, on-set safety protocols, and pre-shoot interviews—all the things that make porn a real job—are depicted in clinical detail in “Pleasure,” artistic descendants of the basket of sauce packets on top of a brothel fridge in Lizzie Borden’s “Working Girls.” Like Borden, Thyberg is interested in exploring the construction of turn-ons, not actually turning the audience on: The most explicit moments in this film don’t involve specific sex acts, but the unglamorous realities of preparation and cleanup. There’s far more male nudity than female, all of it shockingly casual. And when it comes time for the main event, Thyberg either cuts away or films from Bella’s visceral, sometimes violent first-person point of view. 

“Pleasure” is Kappel’s first movie role, adding an additional layer of realism to a narrative about reckless innocence and cynical determination. The film lives in a liminal space between fiction and documentary, following Bella as she shoots scenes for different porn sites and bonds with the other women living in her “model house.” Bella is a made-up character, but the companies and the people she works with are real. In fact, the majority of performers in the film—including Revika Reustle in her Indie Spirit-nominated role as Bella’s roommate/BFF Joy—come from the adult industry. As a result, the line between Bella’s journey and Kappel’s experience making the film can be quite thin indeed. 

One of the film’s real-life porn directors, Aiden Starr, gives Bella the transcendent, affirming, sex-positive experience she came to L.A. to find. The rest of them range from sleazy but harmless to manipulative and predatory, culminating in a disturbing scene where Bella’s consent is repeatedly violated on a “rough sex” shoot. Kappel’s performance in these moments is courageous: It takes bravery for any actor to throw themselves into an edgy and physically demanding role like this one, let alone an unseasoned one like Kappel. Her willingness to push through the fear shows not only her commitment to her craft, but also the unconditional trust between Thyberg and her star. 

“Pleasure” doesn’t try to justify Bella’s choices, and it doesn’t blame them on a traumatic past or daddy issues. She comes from a stable family, and she’s only stuck in L.A. because she lied to her parents about an “internship” in California. As a character, her motivations are simple, but inscrutable: She isn’t particularly driven by money, and while she likes attention, she could take or leave the fame. Her drive is to simply be the best, a very American mindset that ultimately eludes this very European film. 

One warts-and-all fact that comes across clearly in “Pleasure” is the structural racism built into porn. Early on, Bella’s manager Bear, played by Black porn performer Chris Cock, explains that he’s “more of a fetish” than a person. And on a checklist Bella fills out before a shoot, “interracial” is at the bottom, the most taboo act a porn actor can perform—more radical, even, than double anal penetration. The theme of “extreme” sex recurs throughout “Pleasure,” leading to one of its more opinionated feminist statements: The pursuit of extremity for extremity’s sake in this film feels legitimately dangerous, a nightmare spiral of degradation where ambitious young women are forced to choose between personal boundaries and professional success. 

“Pleasure” is full of such textured observations about misogyny. Women who side with the men in charge are rewarded, although the prize is dubious: If you prove yourself suitably pliant, you get to sit silently in VIP next to some slovenly dork with a head shaped like a thumb. Nevertheless, “not like the other girls” is an aspirational refrain repeated by men and women alike, a ploy to keep the “girls” from uniting against exploitation. And although Bella makes compromises throughout the film, the ones that affect her the most involve her rivalry with another woman, glamorous rising star Ava (Evelyn Claire).

Despite Thyberg’s efforts at remaining impassive, the most suggestive unspoken statements in “Pleasure” come from its miserablist European arthouse style. The portentous opera music and bold editing do make for an interesting contrast with the film’s trashy milieu of pink lip gloss, trucker hats, and empty takeout containers. But by presenting this story with stylistic flourishes associated with grim, depressing movies, “Pleasure” passes judgment through form on what the filmmaker is so assiduously trying not to say in content. 

Thyberg keeps her cards close throughout “Pleasure,” using the film’s verité framing to obscure the extent of her involvement as a director. The film feels even-handed, in the sense that its fly-on-the-wall style lets situations speak for themselves. But it’s not clear if Thyberg was guiding different scenarios in different directions, or if she simply told her actors to just do what they normally do on set and recorded the result. Some of the adult industry figures featured in the film have condemned “Pleasure,” with one director claiming he was “duped” into participating. Others have defended it, claiming that “Pleasure” is an honest look at an industry that has its problems like any other. Is it possible to make an unbiased movie about porn? “Pleasure” isn’t saying.

Now playing in theaters.

Foxhole 0

Foxhole

An anti-war movie like Lewis Milestone’s “All Quiet On The Western Front” or Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” is made great by the humanism at the center. These films put the soldiers, their lives and their souls, above the battle sequences or patriotic sentiment. “Foxhole,” written and directed by Jack Fessenden, aims for such heights. Working with a small cast playing characters of the same name in three wars spread over three different centuries—the American Civil War, World War I, and Iraq—Fessenden wrestles with themes of duty, honor, and most importantly empathy. 

Bookending his film with shots of a field filled with bloodied, dead soldiers, Fessenden immediately instills a sense of the futility of war. “The privilege of service seems to wither as each battle passes and what remains in the soul is not the glory of combat, but the horror of its aftermath,” a voiceover echoes in the fog. It’s through this poetic Malick-esque dialogue that his characters show how individual humanity and goodness can endure even in the middle of no man’s land. 

We first meet his core cast in the middle of the American Civil War, where Jackson (Motell Gyn Foster), a Black soldier, is wounded in hand-to-hand combat with a Confederate soldier (Asa Spurlock). After killing him, Jackson makes his way to a foxhole being dug by fellow Union soldiers Clark (Cody Kostro), Conrad (Angus O’Brien), Morton (Alex Hurt), and Wilson (James LeGros). The soldiers then debate whether their duty is to continue digging or to take the wounded Jackson by stretcher to the closest medics.

Here Fessenden imbues his film with an added layer of social consciousness. One soldier dares to ask Jackson if he were “free” before he signed up, calls him the n-word, and debates with the others as to whether it is their duty to keep digging or to help this one, Black man. To have a Union soldier be this overtly racist subverts the myth that all soldiers fighting on the Union side of the American Civil War were abolitionists. This exploration of how Jackson’s race affects his place within the military becomes a throughline into the next two segments. 

A smash cut to the WWI segment sees a young German soldier drop into the group’s trench, where they now debate whether they should kill him or if he is just a “scared boy running from his fate” like the rest of them. Here Jackson’s autonomy is questioned again. When asked what he’s fighting for he responds, “Same thing as you … democracy.” While the dialogue is a bit on the nose, Motell Gyn Foster sells it with raw authenticity. 

His dynamic in the group changes again in the final sequence. Now stranded in a Humvee somewhere in Iraq, Jackson is their leader and their group is joined by a female soldier, Gale (Andi Matichak). Here Jackson sheds the calculated timidity of his earlier characters, embracing his charisma as a born leader. While all the actors involved tackle the wordy script with aplomb, especially indie-staple James LeGros who always brings a marked gravitas to any role no matter the size, Foster is given the meatiest role and proves a steady anchor for Fessenden’s weighty aspirations. That said, the film’s exploration of race and sex within the military are mostly surface-level, without much insight beyond representation matters style insight. 

Mostly filmed in the Hudson Valley, “Foxhole” overcomes its limited budget and limited locations through Collin Brazie’s exquisite cinematography, which utilizes different lenses for each sequence to give them a distinct visual language. Heavy fog is used for the American Civil War segment, obfuscating their vision and adding a foreboding tone. The WWI trench is surrounded by a pitch black sky and shot in an ominous monochrome color grade reminiscent of G.W. Pabst’s harrowing “Westfront 1918.” During the Iraq segment blinding sun obscures everything outside their stranded Humvee. The similarities of the soldiers’ existential experience regardless of which war their fighting is made all the more clear by creating such stark differences in the visuals of each war. 

Fessenden’s tripartite chamber piece “Foxhole” has its heart in the right place and wears its influences unabashedly on its sleeve. While it doesn’t quite live up to its grand ambitions, it’s refreshing to see a movie so beautifully and sleekly filmed attempt to wrestle with humanity’s deeper questions. “Foxhole” might not be in the top tier of the great anti-war film canon, but it’s not too far away.

Now playing in theaters.

Monstrous 0

Monstrous

Christina Ricci does most, if not all, of the emotional lifting in the lightweight horror drama “Monstrous,” a period piece about a single mom and her son who, in 1955, run away from home and re-settle in an isolated lakeside house. Ricci plays Laura Butler, an independent, emotionally fragile single mom who tries to escape her past—particularly her ex-husband—but finds it anyway in her new home, which is also haunted by a Gilman-like seaweed monster.

The monster in question doesn’t always look great—this is a Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment production—and there’s not much to the tired plot twists that ultimately help viewers to better understand Laura and Cody (Santino Barnard), her withdrawn seven-year-old son. But Ricci’s compelling performance, with essential support from director Chris Sivertson (“All Cheerleaders Die,” “I Know Who Killed Me”), makes you want to follow Laura as she inevitably falls apart.

The plot of “Monstrous” develops incrementally through canned revelations that Laura has tried to suppress. We overhear, through an establishing phone conversation, that she’s avoiding Cody’s father. And we see, through a dream sequence that resembles a scene from “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” that Laura’s worried about a mysterious brunette (Rachel Edlow).

Both the phone call and the dream intrude on Laura’s world of cozy 1950s décor and dreamy pop songs, like “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” and “Mr. Sandman.” She tries to remain in that positive emotional space even when she’s applying herself at a nearby secretarial pool. But Cody’s having nightmares about a lake monster and, despite his mom’s wishes, he doesn’t want to make new friends at school. Laura tries to get some help—with her new home, at least—from the property’s reassuring owner, Mr. Langtree (Don Durrell), but he’s only so useful.

Ricci does a lot of heavy-lifting in this sketchy scenario, scripted by Caroline Chrest, and mostly fleshed out by director of photography Senda Bonnet, production designer Mars Feehery, and their respective teams. Floral wallpaper and a matching yellow refrigerator, filmed in inviting wide angles, help viewer understand the appeal of Laura’s new home. Cody’s relatively claustrophobic visions of a kelpy corpse monster aren’t as inspiring since they’re both too glossy and conceptually thin to effectively place us in the little guy’s shoes.

But that’s unsurprising since most of “Monstrous” either concerns or reflects Laura’s point-of-view. She provides the needle’s eye we see the movie’s world through, which inadvertently makes Ricci’s performance even more remarkable. She brings a vulnerability to her character that’s apparent even when Laura tries to reassure Cody. And when Laura does see something weird in her house, moving just off-camera, Ricci’s tightly-blocked over-the-shoulder stare conveys more tension than any of the movie’s dialogue or creature effects. That said, nobody else in the movie matches Ricci or her energy. Barnard’s performances gets swallowed up by his Romero zombie pale complexion, and the only semi-central character who can keep up with Ricci is Lenora (Colleen Camp), Mr. Langtree’s grouchy wife.

Ricci’s performance suggests a lot that’s left unsupported by an otherwise thin plot that seems to have been left intentionally underdeveloped. It’s easy to imagine this type of movie, like Sivertson’s unfortunate “I Know Who Killed Me” before it, as a complicated challenge to any viewers who want to identify with Laura by disappearing into nostalgia. It doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that Ricci’s character shares a first name with Laura Palmer, the archetypal lost girl from David Lynch and Mark Frost’s formative avant soap opera “Twin Peaks.” “I Know Who Killed Me” feels like more of a mash note to “Twin Peaks” than “Monstrous”—among other influences, like Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” and Brian De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill”—but “Monstrous” also rides an uneasy edge between camp and kitsch. At least “Monstrous” goes down easier since Ricci’s Laura doesn’t keep telling us and everyone around her that we don’t really know her.

There’s a clarifying moment later on in “Monstrous,” when the local police eventually have to interrogate Laura. At this point in the movie, we’re moments away from a big breakthrough since Laura’s narrative has already started to collapse. That climactic moment’s not big enough, but Ricci carries herself well enough.

It’s also fun to see Laura stand up for herself in later conversations with Mrs. Langtree, mostly because Camp matches Ricci’s intense, commanding screen presence. She goes as far as her role and director will let her. Whether that’s far enough depends on how invested you are in Laura, a vague symbol that sometimes acts like a sensible, human character.

Now playing in theaters.

The Last Victim 0

The Last Victim

“The Last Victim” plays like a bet between the filmmakers and some sadistic bully who triple-dog-dared them to fit all its disparate plotlines into a cohesive whole. Director Naveen A. Chathapuram and writer Ashley James Louis lose the bet by fashioning a confusing hodgepodge of comedy, thriller, and horror elements. Making matters worse, they wrap it all up in a “homage” to the Coen Brothers and saddle it with narration that sounds like an Android app designed to poorly imitate Raymond Chandler. Of all the directors subjected to inferior rehashes of their work, the Coens engender the worst attempts, because the rip-off artists can never recreate the precarious tonal balance of even their lesser works. The movies play the notes, but the resulting composition is always off-key and the wrong tempo.

This film opens with an intimidating man named Jake (Ralph Ineson) entering a ratty restaurant in Negacion, New Mexico (population 209, according to a helpful onscreen credit). The Hog Heaven BBQ is the site of the series of murders that kickstart the movie. Jake blows away the guy he came to kill, then shoots the grumpy cook who demands he put out his cigarette. For good measure, he also blasts holes in one of his henchmen who has inexplicably turned on him. Before the gunplay starts, Jake converses in nonsensical, faux existentialist sentences, telling his prey that nothing really matters. With his striking figure and unchanging expression, Jake is supposed to evoke Javier Bardem in “No Country for Old Men,” but he’s not even as scary as Tom Hanks in “The Ladykillers.”

Jake is also in charge of the film’s overwritten narration. Ineson’s compulsively listenable deep voice is filled with more gravel than gravitas, but not even Morgan Freeman at his best could have made this stuff work. “All I know is ignorance is bliss,” Jake tells us, “right until the moment the knife slides into your back.” Later, we hear him growl “a bullet is a helluva lot cheaper than a lawyer.” So is a good screenplay.

But I digress. When we’re not with Jake and the dumbass minions he recruits to help him hide the splattered bodies at the Hog Heaven, we’re spending time with Sheriff Hickey (Ron Perlman) and his nerdy sidekick, Deputy Mindy Gaboon (Camille Legg). They’re in charge of finding out what happened and whodunit. A severed thumb is their only lead. Perlman, whose deep voice is just as rumbly as Ineson’s, is also betrayed by the bad writing. He intentionally mispronounces his deputy’s name (he calls her “gay boon”) and tells meandering stories that do little to advance the plot. This movie is 111 minutes long, but it feels even longer when dealing with this odd couple. A sudden, brutally violent plot twist late in the film does little to make either of these characters watchable.

Oddly enough, the most absurd plotline of “The Last Victim” is the one that kind of works. If nothing else, it provides a level of gonzo excitement that makes one wish the filmmakers had jettisoned everything else. Susan (Ali Lartner) and her husband accidentally stumble on Jake and his crew disposing of the bodies in an abandoned nature preserve. It was her husband’s idea to do this shortcut en route to her new job at a university, and he pays for it by having his brains blown out. Susan witnesses the murder by Jake and runs off into the wild. She’s pursued over several days, using her wits to survive. Occasionally, she’s accompanied by tonally inappropriate songs on the soundtrack that leave the viewer wondering if they’re being pranked by the film’s music department.

Luckily, it turns out that Susan is not the docile, emotionally fragile blonde we think she is based on an earlier panic attack she suffered. No, Susan is the Liam Neeson of the New Mexico wilderness. Lartner is not only convincing in her violence, she adds a few shadings of psychological complexity; Susan is definitely battling her own personal demons while outwitting the men sent to kill her. Chathapuram makes this literal by depicting a peyote-infused sequence filled with demons and fire and hearts being pulled out of chests, but not even this bit of symbolic overkill can ruin Lartner’s performance. When she’s not onscreen “The Last Victim” grinds to a halt.

Unfortunately, the desire to spoon feed the audience the film’s themes leads to a “six months later” coda that is so jaw-droppingly ridiculous that the film falls completely apart. Lartner does her best to sell the scene, but even her character seems confused by this extraneous, feel-good fade out. The Coens would have had the guts to end with bloodshed, or at the very least, the casual nihilism a film like this should conjure. In this case, “The Last Victim” may very well describe the audience.

Now playing in theaters and available on VOD.